The Master Boat Builder of Essex
When Harold Burnham, 38, lays the keel for a handcrafted wooden boat in his Essex, Mass. boatyard, he’s carrying on a family tradition that dates back to 1819.
The boatyard, which he opened in 1995, is on land where ancestor Oliver Burnham operated a boatyard five generations ago. Harold is the 28th Burnham to carve out a career in the shipwright trade, operating the only full-time boatyard in Essex today. Those boats built by earlier Burnham’s have been lost to the sea and time, but the Burnham boat building spirit lives on.
Harold was born into a culture of sailing and boat building, where the craft is absorbed rather than learned. At one point in the 19th century one out of every seven sailing boats in America was built in Essex. The Burnhams were very much a part of that Essex legacy, being among the seven original families who settled the town in 1635.
He got his first taste of boat building watching his father, Charles, 70, a physicist and part time boat-builder. Neighbor and mentor Brad Story, a retired full-time boat builder, showed him that he could make a living at it.
When Harold was 10, he began building dories, or rowboats, with his brother Theodore and Sister Deborah under their father’s watchful eye, selling each to build the next. While in high school, Harold restored and built small sailboats to support his sailing habit.
After five years at sea as a merchant marine, he returned home in 1994 to marry his wife, Kim and open his boatyard. He says that he hasn’t worked a day since. “A man who does what he loves never works a day in his life,” he says.
Burnham’s dream has always been to build replications of traditional New England fishing vessels like those his ancestors built. In their original form, those schooners and sloops were workboats, built because they were necessities, not luxuries. During a boat’s construction, he uses everything from the traditional hand-held adze to shape and dress lumber to modern power tools, maintaining traditional methods handed down through the ages.
His first commission came when Tom Ellis, a contractor and antique store owner, commissioned him to build a twin-masted Gloucester Schooner
Work began in October 1996, and with a crew of up to eight men, Harold worked seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day, weathering the brutal winter to christen and launch the 90-foot long, 51 ton Thomas E. Lannon. in June 1997, under 1,700 square-feet of sail.
It was built completely by hand; using lumber cut from local trees, shaping and fitting every piece from the keel to the masts and spars. It had mahogany above the water line, white oak below, with a nine foot draft. Attention to tradition and detail is evident in the over 2,000 black locust trunnels, or dowels, holding it all together.
The tradition of Essex boat building created over the past 200 years by Harold’s ancestors is in good hands.