Geographically, Nahant is two islands connected to each other and the mainland at Lynn by a picturesque sandy barrier beach. This 2-mile causeway separates Lynn Harbor from Nahant Bay. The name "Nahant" was the Native-American term for the area and meant "twins". From the earliest settlement by Europeans, it was considered to be part of Lynn and was used by farmers as a place to graze their livestock. The ever-present danger wolves posed to early settlers made the use of Nahant ideal. Its isolation in the ocean made it a simple matter first to eliminate all the wolves from the islands and then, with a short fence across the causeway, to keep other wolves out and all the cattle in.
This agrarian character with some settlement – mostly farmers and fishers – lasted until the late 18th century. In the first decades of the 19th century, noted Salem diarist Reverend Doctor William Bentley documented his trip to Nahant, noting things of scientific and aesthetic interest and also that a trip to the shore could be both healthy and enjoyable.
The second decade of the 19th century saw the discovery of Nahant by the elite of Boston. The change in attitude regarding being near and in the sea, as well as the crowded and unpleasant conditions of the summer in the city, brought people out to stay at simple boardinghouses. They enjoyed the rugged environment and basic fish dinners the area had to offer.
Hotels sprang up in the 1`820’s, notably the Nahant Hotel at East Point, which could accommodate a number of people in a luxurious manner. Visitors now came from much farther afield as Nahant became known as one of the premier resorts in America. Those who wanted more privacy built "cottages", which were seasonal mansions to rival Beacon Hill or Back Bay townhouses. Many famous people of the day, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louis Agassiz, and henry Cabot Lodge, soon had residences there. In 1853 Nahant separated from Lynn and formed its own town, partly over the right to serve liquor, since Lynn was a "dry" town.
The natural beauty of the are was celebrated in the travel literature of the day and in the works of such well-known artists as Fitz Hugh Lane, Thomas Chambers, William Bradford, and Robert Salmon. Maurice Prendergast and the artists now referred to as the Lynn Beach painters continued the tradition.
There were also recreation and amusement parks. First came the Maolis Gardens, a genteel park for relaxing by the seaside where patrons could take a picnic or eat in a restaurant, play on the swings, or observe nature from the vantage point of the "Witch House". Later, for those seeking more entertainment, there was the carnival-like atmosphere of the Bass Point area and its midway. A number of hotels, theaters, bowling alleys, restaurants, and amusements catered to those looking for an exciting day away or a more extended lively vacation.
All this was possible because transportation had become very extensive. There were at least three piers where steamers brought passengers from Boston, Lynn and Revere seasonally. Horse-drawn "barges" carried people over from Lynn on the hard sand at low tide and after 1849, when the road over the causeway was finished, could run on a regular schedule independent of the tides. The Lynn and Nahant Street Railway connected Nahant with the rail station in Central Square, Lynn, in 1905. This was a summer commuter’s dream. Families could live full-time in Nahant while the breadwinner could easily get into Boston by sea or rail.
Although the hotels and amusement parks are long gone, Nahant retains its close ties to Boston. Its proximity to the Hub is ideal for traveling into the city, but because it is isolated in the sea, it still retains a character all its own. Spectacular views of Boston as well as the rest of the North Shore abound and many sea- and shore-based recreational opportunities are easily at hand.
Images of America, Nahant
by Christopher R. Mathias and Kenneth C. Turino