Master shipwright, designer, and mariner Harold Burnham is part of a shipbuilding tradition that dates back to the 1630s in the small town of Essex, Massachusetts, where the Burnhams have lived for 11 generations.
Over the last 400 years the town of Essex has produced more than 4,000 ships, largely for the Gloucester fishing fleet. After World War II with the falling fish stocks and steel and fiberglass dominating the shipbuilding industry, heavily constructed wooden vessels (employing sawn frames and trunnel or tree-nail fastenings) became a thing of the past. This changed, however, in 1996 when Burnham, a Mass Maritime Academy graduate/merchant marine, skillfully revived the long-dormant Essex techniques and traditions to build the authentic 65-foot Gloucester schooner Thomas E Lannon.
"Harold is part artist, part carpenter, part project manager, and part interpreter of historic photographs," said Molly Bolster, executive director of the Gundalow Company in her nomination letter. "The common wisdom is that he is the most intuitive of all living shipwrights today."
Launched in 1997, the Lannon quickly became an iconic vessel -- built for cultural tourism -- and led to several other commissions for historic watercraft. Burnham Boat Building is currently the only shipyard in the country that regularly designs and builds sawn frame and trunnel fasten vessels.
Burnham mills most of the wood he uses on-site from trees recycled from local arborists. With deep roots in his community, Burnham is passionate about sharing his extensive knowledge, including working with the United States Coast Guard to increase wooden passenger vessel safety. In 2001, he received a Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) grant in the traditional arts, and in 2003 received a MCC Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant. Harriet Webster, executive director of the Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center, praised Burnham’s community involvement, "When Harold undertakes a project, it inevitably becomes a community project. He involves both skilled craftsmen and enthusiastic community members in the work, demonstrating and teaching as he goes. In the process, not only does he build fine boats, but he nourishes a community of individuals that develops an appreciation for and understanding of this traditional art form -- and determination to help keep that tradition alive."
In a 2011 interview with the Cape Ann Beacon, Burnham said, "Up into the last few years I considered building boats something that I wanted to do, and now I feel like it is something I want to preserve. Like an endangered species, once it’s gone it can’t be recreated. And so, I am happy to share what I have learned with anyone who takes an interest in the hopes that these skills will be carried on long after I am gone."
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Photo by Lewis G. Joslyn
National Endowment for the Arts · an independent federal agency