Established in 1793, Lowell's Boat Shop is the oldest continuously operating boat shop in America and is cited as the birthplace of the legendary fishing dory. Located on the North bank of the Merrimack River, skilled craftsmen continue to build wooden boats in the Lowell tradition on the property purchased by founder Simeon Lowell in the 1700s. The oldest buildings remaining on the site are combined Greek revival structures that were built in the early 1860s: the downriver shop by Simeon’s grandson, Hiram Lowell, and the adjacent Morrill and Flanders boat shop that was moved to the site by Hiram’s son, Fred E. Lowell. In the 1940s, Ralph Lowell, the last of the Lowell family to own the business, further expanded the building at each end with the additions of the Office and the Paint Room.
Seven generations of Lowell’s have participated in the rich history of the Boat Shop. According to Lowell family history, Simeon Lowell originated what is now known as the Surf Dory (often referred to as the Swampscott type dory) with the founding of his business. His radical innovations in boat building included the elimination of the complex, hand-carved keel of small boats and the substitution of a simple, flat, football-shaped bottom. He reduced the framing from dozens to four or five rugged “timbers” and the planking from ten or more to a few wide, lapped planks that formed rounded bilges to provide extra buoyancy amidships. Perhaps more importantly, he designed a high, narrow, steeply raked, wedge-shaped “tombstone transom” that could split a following sea and propel a boat up and through the surf.
In addition to dramatically improved performance and design, Simeon’s “dory” was far more economical to produce. According to a contemporary, Reverend Roland Sawyer, the Lowell dory “was the most seaworthy boat ever built.” (Winter Street Associates Lowell’s Boat Shop, August, 1992). It is possible that initial prototypes of the Banks Dory were devised before Simeon’s death in 1830; however, Simeon is chiefly remembered for designing and building round-sided dories (or "wherries") for river and surf use. The U.S. Life Saving Service, forerunner of the Coast Guard, used the Surf Dory that evolved from this original design for almost a hundred years.
The development of the straight and high-sided Banks Dory is credited to Simeon’s grandson, Hiram Lowell. Considered a "pioneer" in the 19th century production of American dories, Hiram continued the enterprising Lowell tradition, and, with his more efficient boat design and streamlined manufacturing methods, Lowell’s Boat Shop became the leading dory business in America during the late 19th century.
During this time, the Gloucester schooner fleet began using dories to launch from their decks and hand-line for their catch. Designed to stack in transport and maintain stability with a heavy load, the Banks Dory was developed to meet the needs of the fishermen.
From the 1850s to the 1910s, Hiram Lowell and his progeny, Frederick E. and Frederick A. Lowell, brought the dory business to its peak and, in the zenith year of 1911, produced 2,029 boats. As a consequence, Lowell’s Boat Shop was considered the preeminent dory manufacturer locally, nationally, and internationally.
As the Boat Shop prevailed through the Lowell generations and two subsequent ownerships, boat designs were added to the Lowell line of dories and skiffs and several models were adapted for sail. It is important to note that the traditional wooden boats that Lowell’s is known for today all evolved from founder Simeon’s simplification of the complex, round-sided English wherry and/or the French/Canadian bateau. Sequentially, in the 19th century, the Surf Dory inspired the Banks Dory and was followed by the Salisbury Point Skiff that was developed for recreational use on the river. The Lowell Atlantic, a lighter variation of the Salisbury Skiff, came shortly thereafter.
To keep current with changing trends, Lowell boats were both modernized and motorized in the early 20th century. The Merrimack Rowing Skiff, with a wider transom to accommodate a small outboard motor, was added to the line and became a staple for fishermen, campers and the Boy and Girl Scouts. The increased desire for power inspired the Amesbury Skiff, and yet another adaptation of the Surf Dory, with its flared, rounded, lap-strake sides, was launched and continues to be in demand.
Summarily, the first several of the seven generations of Lowells will be remembered for the origin, development and production of the “dory” and the boats that followed. Succeeding generations led the business through changing times, and Ralph Lowell ultimately sold the Shop to the Odell family in 1976. Conceiving new boat models for rowing, racing and motoring, Malcolm (Jim) Odell revived the industry and commenced boat restoration and formal boat building classes at the Shop. With the decline of the wooden boat business in the later 1980s and early 1990s, Jim had the wisdom and forethought to seek National historic recognition. As a result, the Boat Shop was preserved, protected and sold to the Newburyport Maritime Society.
In 1993, Lowell boats received the accolades of John Gardner (Classic Small Craft You Can Build, Mystic Seaport Museum, 1993): “The various successful adaptations of the classic Amesbury Skiff built by the Lowell Boat Shop is testimony to the versatility of the design…” and “In my opinion, these Amesbury Skiffs were the best small rowboats ever built…”
Lowell’s Boat Shop was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1990. It has been run as a non-profit working museum since 1994 and, in January 2007, the Boat Shop was purchased by Lowell’s Maritime Foundation. Dedicated to preserving and perpetuating the art and craft of wooden boat building, Lowell’s continues to build its full line of dories and skiffs for oar, sail or power. Innovative educational programs and exhibits are offered to the public throughout the year, and rowing is available seasonally. For additional information call 978-834-0050.