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December 13, 2013

Book Notes: Author chronicles powder houses across New England

Powder houses, where Colonial towns stored their supplies of gunpowder, were usually built far from the center of town.

“The reason a lot of towns built powder houses on hilltops or out-of-the-way locations was so, in case they did blow up, they would cause minimal damage,” said Matthew Thomas of Fremont, N.H., who recently published “Historic Powder Houses of New England: Arsenals of American Independence.”

“For many years a lot of these powder houses suffered from severe neglect,” Thomas said. “But in the last 15 or 20 years there has been an appreciation by local communities to restore and repair their old powder houses.”

Powder houses were built to supply militias, which were organized to fight Native Americans and then to combat enemies in the French and Indian War, Thomas said. They were also constructed during the build-up to the Revolution, and were still being built during the War of 1812.

British forces attempted to seize gunpowder in Somerville on Sept. 1, 1774, which set off “a powder alarm” among colonists, as did a similar British action that same year in New Castle, N.H.

When the redcoats went to Concord in April of 1775, it was to seize the contents of a powder house.

Thomas has found that 201 of these structures were built in New England, with the earliest erected in Salem in 1637, the first of three constructed in the Witch City. None of Salem's remain, which is also true of powder houses that once stood in Peabody, Ipswich, Middleton and Topsfield.

But Beverly’s eight-sided house, built in 1808 by Nathan Dane, still stands on Prospect Hill.

“The 205-year-old building has deteriorated and is in serious need of repair,” Thomas writes.

Marblehead’s cone-roofed house, built in 1755 and now standing at the corner of Green and Lincoln streets, is the oldest structure still standing that was built as a powder house. Somerville’s dates to 1703 or 1704, and is a converted grist mill.

Thomas will speak at the Beverly Historical Society on March 15 at 2 p.m.

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