Plum Island (Massachusetts)

Plum Island (Massachusetts)

Plum Island, Massachusetts is an island located off the northeast coast of Massachusetts, north of Cape Ann. It is a barrier island approximately 11 miles (18 km) in length.

Plum Island appears as an unnamed island as early as Captain John Smith's map of New England. It is named in an act of the General Court of Massachusetts dated 1649, apportioning 2/5 of the island to Newbury (before its division), 2/5 to Ipswich and 1/5 to Rowley. [Toppan, page 285. Before then it was owned by the General Court.] The name is apparently of local origin: the journal of Margaret Smith (1678-9) relates::"Leaving on our right hand Plum Island, (so-called on account of the rare Plums which doe grow upon it,) we struck into the open Sea...." [Whittier, page 53.]

A notable historian of the region, Joshua Coffin, said of it in 1845::"Plum Island, a wild and fantastical sand beach, is thrown up by the joint power of winds and waves into the thousand wanton figures of a snow drift." [Page 7.]


The northern portion of the island is bordered by the mouth of the Merrimack River (in which stands Badgers Rock), the western portion by the Plum Island River in the north (which joins the mouth of the Merrimack to Plum Island Sound), Plum Island Sound in the south (into which empty the Parker, Rowley and Eagle Hill Rivers) and the southern portion by the mouth of the Ipswich River (into which the sound empties). The Atlantic Ocean lies to the east. The sound is a tidal estuary.Yahoo Map.]

Situated in Essex County, Plum Island is divided between four cities and towns: Newburyport, Newbury, Rowley and Ipswich. Developed areas of the island, with public beaches, businesses and private residences, lie wholly within the boundaries of Newburyport and Newbury, the latter containing the village of Plum Island. The island's pristine largest section is managed by the "United States Fish and Wildlife Service" as the "Parker River National Wildlife Refuge", while the "Massachusetts Audubon Society" operates the "Joppa Flats Education Center & Wildlife Sanctuary".

Plum Island is accessed by one road running from Newburyport to the north of the island on a causeway and drawbridge over the Plum Island River. A charter to build the road between Rolfe's Lane (Ocean Avenue) and the island was granted in 1806 to the Plum Island Turnpike and Bridge Corporation. The road remained a private one until in 1905 the General Court required Essex County to lay it out as a county road, compensating its then owners with a cash settlement. [Wood, pages 160-161.]

Plum Island Drive runs along the inland side of the island. In the north it is lined with homes. In the refuge it is paved for about half its distance and is a "washboard" dusty dirt road for the remainder. Along it are numbered parking lots with boardwalks leading to the beach, overlooks and trails, and facilities for the maintenance of the refuge.

Toward the south is Camp Sea Haven, formerly a therapeutic camp for those stricken with Polio, closed, now that the Salk vaccine has all but eradicated the disease. At the southern end of the road, the tip of the island, is Sandy Point State Reservation, a state park. It's for day-use only. At the northern end of the road, the northern tip of the island, is the historic Plum Island Lighthouse, marking the narrow entrance to the mouth of the Merrimack River. It is the only lighthouse remaining on the island.

Touring facilities

Like most coastal communities, Plum Island has historically been a popular vacation destination. Several large hotels operated during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, there are numerous lodging options for tourists, including B&B's, inns, and rental cottages. In addition, there is a population of year-round residents.


The beach

Plum Island Beach is a gently sloping shelf extending some distance out to sea. As result of the slope tidal flow does not reach very far horizontally, while breakers are small and close to shore. Boats can easily be launched from or landed on the beach. The shelf causes strong undertow currents that can pluck the thoughtless bather out of the shallows and draw the unsuspecting swimmer out to sea. During severe storms the beach is inundated and the breakers strike the dune line. Over the centuries a number of ships have been wrecked in the shallow waters off Plum Island.

The Labrador current flows from north to south along the shore, migrating sand in that direction and chilling the coastal waters. Several breakwaters have been constructed along the north coast of the island to protect the beach and impede the process. Over the centuries the migrating sand moves the outlet of the Merrimack River, which has been artificially fixed at its current location. The collision of the Labrador current with the northward-flowing Gulf Stream further south has erected Cape Cod.

Vascular plants

On the dunes a fragile cover of beach grass, beach pea and beach heather [Hudsonia tomentosa.] stabilize the sand. Visitors to the refuge are restricted from the dunes except on boardwalks to protect this cover. Destabilization has been a problem. In 1953 the U.S. Soil Conservation Service planted several thousand black pines, a hardy alpine tree, to help hold the sand.Hellcat Trail pamphlet.]

Stands of black pine, pitch pine and occasional eastern red cedar trees can be found in the depressions between the dunes. There also are thickets of beach plum, from which the island takes its name, bayberry and honeysuckle (the latter being intrusive). [Bailey, pages 425-426, also describes some vascular plants on the island. The scientific names of some plants have changed since then.]

Maximum dune elevation is about 50 feet. In the deeper depressions and more sheltered regions between or next to the higher dunes are vernal pools in whch black oak, red maple and black cherry can be found. In the underbrush are cranberry. The ferns, moss and leaf cover there shelter salamanders and spadefoot toads.

The native salt-water marshes between Plum Island and the mainland (Great Marsh) are visible from the western edge of the island. Before the observer lie prospects of "the high marsh", where extents of salt marsh hay meet the eye. The colonists who could purchase acres of high marsh counted themselves lucky: the grass needs no cultivation and can be harvested as hay for feeding farm animals.

Less visible in "the low marsh" at the margin of the water is smooth cordgrass. Also in the marsh are the sedges, Cyperus and Carex.

In the 1940s and '50's the wildlife service created two fresh-water marshes, North and South Pools, from island run-off by diking a section of the marsh contiguous to the island. It serves as a nesting area and stop-over for migrating birds. Originally the common cattail dominated the fresh-water marshes, but two intrusive plants, the common reed and purple loosestrife, have replaced much of it.


The mammals are typical of Massachusetts woodland: the striped skunk, the raccoon, the red fox, the woodland jumping mouse, the white-tailed deer and others.


Plum Island and its surrounding estuaries are a popular destination for birders. The Parker River basin is on a migratory route for many varieties of birds, as well as a nesting area for piping plovers. Much of the beach in the "National Wildlife Refuge" is closed to visitors during the nesting season, which can last most of the warm months.

Several pepared observation posts of birds are usually populated by birders with equipment ranging from simple binoculars to expensive telephoto cameras. Some posts are blinds; others are simply a paved shoulder with a sign. Birds are usually observed in the native salt-water marshes, the artificial fresh-water marshes and the thickets and isolated trees of the refuge.

The birds most commonly observed are listed in the Visitor Center in the refuge. They are the Greater Yellowlegs, Mallard Duck, Least Sandpiper, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Osprey, Canada Goose, Tree Swallow, Grey Catbird, Killdeer, Glossy Ibis, Red-winged Blackbird, Mockingbird, Least Tern, Piping Plover and Peregrine Falcon.

Even the uninitiated are likely to linger over a strange bird wading in the marsh. Those less intensely interested in birds can enjoy their calls first-hand sitting on the benches in some of the thickets of the park away from distracting vehicle noise.

Beach and dune pests

Greenhead flies

The greatest visible pest to humans is the greenhead fly. Before insect control they swarmed the beach and dunes so thickly as to make human presence there difficult if not impossible from June through September. In recent years the near elimination of the population with traps has reduced their impact to an occasional bite.

The cruising flies land surreptitiously on the skin, catching their victim unaware. Their sudden sharp bite elicits an unpleasant reflex reaction and raises a welt. Another attack point is the hair, into which they work their way to bite the scalp. They are however slow and easily swatted.


Less obtrusive are the dog tick and the deer tick, which enter the clothing of their victim from the vegetation and later crawl into the soft tissue, where they attach themselves. The area usually becomes infected even after they are removed.

Dog ticks are the least harmful, except to dogs, from whom they can in sufficient numbers remove a dangerous amount of blood. Dog ticks are large and easily visible. Deer ticks are almost invisibly small. They often carry Lyme disease, which is endemic to the region. The first and only manifestation of a deer tick bite is a red ring on the skin. The victim is advised to seek medical care immediately. The disease is best cured if detected early.


The mosquito is a pest anywhere in Massachusetts. Mosquito control has reduced the presence of the pest in the Newbury region. Usually they are only annoying; that is, it is not possible to be in the refuge without the hands being constantly in motion to kill or ward off insects. More rarely a few cases of Eastern equine encephalitis virus, carried by mosquitoes, occur each year, usually to the south of Boston, but potentially anywhere.

Poison ivy

Poison ivy is indigenous to all the woodlands of Massachusetts. It especially loves the margins of paths. On Plum Island it grows in every thicket and in mats along the sand. The visitor is cautioned to learn to identify its three shiny leaves immediately, which he can do at the visitor center or by reading the brochures.

Reactions to the toxic oil secreted by the leaves of poison ivy depend on the individual. Highly sensitive persons are advised that brushing against vegetation at the side of a trail can smear the oil on clothing, from which it gets transmitted to the skin without warning. A victim who has touched it or touched the blisters on the skin is advised against rubbing the eyes or face.



* Downloadable from Google Books.
* Pamphlet available at the refuge.
* Downloadable from Google Books.
* Downloadable Google Books.
* Downloadable, Google Books.

External links

For maps and satellite photos of Plum Island, click on the coordinates at the top.
* [ Plum Island, Massachusetts "Webpage"]
* [ Birding America -- Plum Island & Parker River]
* [ Friends of Plum Island Light]
* [ Joppa Flats Education Center & Wildlife Sanctuary]
* [ Massachusetts Audubon Society]
* [ Parker River National Wildlife Refuge]
* [ U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service]
* [ Great Marsh] , ACEC site at
* [ Taming he Wild Beach Plum] , monograph by Richard H. Uva

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