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Hingham library helps revive a forgotten chapter in history

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  September 2, 2011 02:31 PM

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Melville Gardens.JPGDownerLandingMap.JPG

(Above) Melville Garden’s Clambake House which could feed up to 600 people at a time. With the exception of Mondays, three clambakes were held daily during the summer. (Left) A map of the 40-acre grounds.

Although Hingham’s history is pervasive throughout the town – seen in the path of paved roads and in the glorified architecture along Main Street – there are some histories most Hinghamites don’t know about.

The Melville Garden, a Victorian era, 20-acre amusement park located at Crow Point from 1871-1896, is one such underappreciated place, said Hingham Public Library Director Dennis Corcoran. But with an exhibit of photographs and memorabilia of the garden going on display in the library this month, Corcoran is hoping to change all that.

“It’s an interesting thing. We have a collection abut Sam Downer we got in the past few years we got from a descendent of his … It would have been a whole different Hingham,” Corcoran said. “His original intent was to do an oil business for Crow Point – a refinery. And he decided to do this, and it became a destination for a lot of people in the Boston area. When you see the other photos, you’ll see the magnitude of things like this.”

It all started with Samuel Downer, a Dorchester native and leading industrialist of the day.

According to Corcoran, he made his fortune first by manufacturing kerosene, then investing in oil fields.

He bought the 40 acres of Crow Point in 1854 with the intention of constructing a refinery, but a strong pursuit of social justice led him instead to create a gathering place, otherwise known as a “garden”. The land would later be named for his wife Nancy’s grandfather – Thomas Melville.

“After disembarking at Downer Landing, the current site of the Hingham Yacht Club, [visitors] could choose from bowling, dancing, fine dining, fireworks and more. They could marvel at the newfangled arc lights, the first place in Hingham to be electrified. Seventy thousand people visited Melville Garden during the summer of 1877, with 12 steamers landing daily,” Corcoran wrote in a release.

In 1877, the Free Soiler party held a reunion to celebrate the 1848 creation of the party, whose main purpose was to oppose the expansion of slavery into the western states.

Downer would go on to name numerous streets in Crow Point after fellow abolitionists and after family members. The names are truly all that still exists of the amusement park.

Despite the strong connection to numerous political happenings in the day, and the amazing history associated with the Point, it’s a past forgotten by many in town.

“It’s a nice piece of Hingham history that doesn’t get the presence the colonial history gets. There’s not a lot left to see other than the street names – Downer, his daughters, even famous people of that time. I like it, it's different from the well-known colonial story,” Corcoran said.

Irene Kane, a Hingham resident, was the first to bring the subject and the history to the library’s attention.

Her research began as a part of the town’s 375th Anniversary Committee, and after collecting wide-ranging data and research about the topic, proposed the idea of an exhibit to Corcoran.

At the conclusion of the exhibit, Kane will donate a number of the prints to the library for keeping in the archives.

The library itself played an important role in the research for the exhibit, Corcoran said, an ironic thing, given the well-discussed topic of historic preservation Corcoran recently had with selectmen.

“It’s coincidental. We’ve been talking about this preservation project. But this has been in the cue for the better part of a year,” he said.

Despite the timing, the fact that the exhibit highlights that such important history, data, and memorabilia are kept by the library does well to show the town how critical historical preservation is, Corcoran said.

In addition to highlighting the ever-important role the library plays in current society, the exhibit will help bring an interesting and little-known culture back to the surface.

“[In the pictures] you can see this was a vibrant destination in the Victorian period for Boston residents. It’s hard to believe how many people came there in the course of the summer,” Corcoran said.

Melville Garden closed in 1897 after the sudden death of his son-in-law James Scudder, who had been operating the garden after Downer passed in 1881. The magnificent buildings were torn down, and the past buried with it – until now.

“It’s a very interesting piece of the town,” Corcoran said. “It deserves a little more understanding.”

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