Ipswich River

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Ipswich River, Massachusetts
The Ipswich River from a footbridge in Bradley Palmer State Park
Country United States, Massachusetts
Main source 42°33′14″N 71°08′39″W / 42.5539°N 71.1441°W / 42.5539; -71.1441
River mouth Ipswich Bay
42°41′35″N 70°47′24″W / 42.693°N 70.790°W / 42.693; -70.790Coordinates: 42°41′35″N 70°47′24″W / 42.693°N 70.790°W / 42.693; -70.790
Basin size 155 sq mi (400 km2)
Physical characteristics
Length 35 mi (56 km)
  • Right:
    Miles River, Massachusetts, Salem Beverly Waterway Canal

Ipswich River is a small river in northeastern Massachusetts, USA. It is 35 miles (56 km) long,[1] and its watershed is approximately 155 sq mi (401 km2), with an estimated population in the area of 160,000 people. [2]


The river begins in the northeastern part of Burlington. It passes through the towns of Wilmington, Reading, North Reading, Peabody, Middleton, Topsfield, Hamilton, and joins with Plum Island Sound in connecting with the Atlantic Ocean at Ipswich Bay. [3] There is always some flow from the river into the bay. However, the lower Ipswich and Plum Island Sound, as well as the lower four other rivers flowing into it, and the Merrimack River to the north, are tidal estuaries. High tides cover all of Great Marsh and the flood plains of the lower rivers. Low tides uncover the mud flats, reducing the channels to small streams.

The river is navigable upstream to nearly Ipswich center by small craft. There a sharper drop in elevation over some rocks prevents further navigation upstream. The river and riverlands currently suffer from diminished flow due to extensive withdrawals from the ground water in urban areas upstream. The upper third of the river may become a dry bed in the summer. Wetland reservations, however, for wildlife have been created along much of the lower river. The level there has been prevented from falling precipitously by Willowdale Mill Dam, a remnant of a 19th-century mill system. It is currently privately owned by a canoe-rental concession.

The combined Ipswich River/Plum Island Sound exits through a relatively narrow, shallow channel that passes under Castle Hill and along Crane's Beach to the south. On the north, Sandy Point at the tip of Plum Island juts into the flow. In the days of sail, Bar Head, Bar Head Rocks, and Emerson Rocks posed some threat to sailing vessels trying to tack into or out of the estuary. The shallow waters often stranded vessels in storms, which would then be dismantled by severe breakers. The combination was inevitably tragic to vessels caught there in a northeaster, or violent winter storm of near-hurricane force winds. Despite these difficulties, the sound and the mouth of the Ipswich were mooring places of ocean-going cargo vessels and fishing and whaling boats, before the opening of Newburyport Harbor, then blocked by a sandbar. The now abandoned shores of the region give little hint of its former importance to commerce and prosperity.

The settlement of Essex County typically began at the oldest community there, Agawam, later Ipswich, and proceeded westward and northward along the Ipswich. Only Salem and Charlestown are older. The river therefore forms part of the borders between the Town of North Reading and the Town of Lynnfield, the Town of Middleton and the City of Peabody, the Town of Middleton and the Town of Danvers, and the Town of Boxford and the Town of Topsfield.

The wide swamps along the river made it impossible to ford the stream anywhere east of Wilmington in colonial times. The only route north out of Boston was via the Andover Road, which forded the stream just below the confluence of Lubbers and Maple Meadow brooks.


The topography of eastern Massachusetts was determined most by the fact that, at the maximum glaciation of the Pleistocene Era, it was the site of the edge of the last glaciation, at approximately 18,000 BC. This glacier had planed the land under it nearly flat. Gravel- and boulder-lined streams ran along its surface. From 18,000 to about 10,000 BC, the glacier receded, dropping its stony contents as eskers and moraines, the dominant features of the region. The glacier's recession created ridges, deposited sand and gravel, the dominant material of the riverbed, over which mud has been deposited.[4] Low-gradient drainage created the meandering streams, which typically drop no more than 30–40 feet.


The first written record about the Ipswich River is from 1638 when John Winthrop bought from Chief Masconomet the lands along the river and exclusive fishing rights for 20 pounds sterling.

Most of the land along the river is privately owned but in certain recreational areas non-motorized boats, fishing, and swimming is allowed. It is attractive to canoeists. In the swampy and wetland areas a wide variety of birds can be seen.

Drinking water for many communities is provided from Ipswich River. It is estimated that source of public drinking water for approximately 350,000 people comes from the river's watershed although most of these people live outside the area. There are some concerns about the quality of the water as the river dries up and some places become a dumping ground for tires. [5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ U.S. Geological Survey. National Hydrography Dataset high-resolution flowline data. The National Map, accessed April 1, 2011
  2. ^ mass.gov - Ipswich River Watershed
  3. ^ Nature Compass - About the Ipswich River
  4. ^ http://www.ipswichriver.org/watershed/riverhistory.htm
  5. ^ http://users.net1plus.com/tdriskell/ipswich.htm Wa