Samuel Downer was not originally a Hinghamite but became one of its most prominent residents. He was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts on March 8, 1807. As a child and young adult he was considered to be a genius, was somewhat eccentric, and was also very generous. These are traits he would continue to be known for throughout his life.
Downer's first job was in a shipping house located in Boston, where he worked for six years. He was then offered a partnership with his father, who was a West India merchant.
However, it was in the oil and kerosene industry that he made his fortune. In the 1830s Downer founded Downer Oil Company, which manufactured sperm whale oil, candles, and lard. He also invested in several oil fields.
Throughout the nineteenth century, scientists had been searching for a safe, potent, and economical source of light. In 1854 Samuel Downer oversaw several experiments concerning the production of hydrocarbon oils, which resulted in the discovery of kerosene.
Samuel Downer is best known for his ownership of Melville Garden, a summer resort in Hingham. In the 1850s he purchased land on Crow Point with the intention of building a kerosene factory. The factory was never constructed, and after the Civil War Downer decided to use the land for a completely different purpose. He set about to build an amusement park that would be accessible to everyone - rich and poor, young and old, black and white. Construction began in 1870 with a new wharf, called Downer Landing, and the Rose Standish House, a resort hotel. The park itself was built on a small peninsula and had many attractions and activities, including bowling, dancing, dining, clambakes, fireworks, parties, picnics, target practice, and music. In addition, the surrounding area was developed with streets, cottages, wells, and drains.
Downer named the amusement park Melville Garden in honor of his mother-in-law's family. It opened in July of 1871 with an admission fee of ten cents. It was open to the public on all days except for Mondays and Thursdays, when the wealthy could reserve it for large parties. Downer expanded the Garden with the purchase of nearby Ragged Island and improved the Rose Standish House with a playroom and a gym for the children. The park quickly became the most popular resort in the state, and thousands visited it every year.
Downer was a true family man. In 1836 he married Nancy de Wolfe Melville, cousin to author Herman Melville, and the couple had eight children together. Within Melville Garden, he named one hill "Mount de Wolfe" for his father-in-law, and another hill became Mount Gertrude for his daughter. Several streets on Downer's Landing were also named after family members and friends, including Malcolm, Marion, and Scudder.
In addition to his many businesses, Downer was known for his interest in horticulture. He actually created a hybrid tree now known as the Downer Late Cherry.
A religious man with philanthropic tendencies, Samuel Downer firmly believed that everyone should have access to wholesome entertainment. This, he felt, would bring people together spiritually and develop a sense of brotherhood.
Downer was actively involved in the Free Soil Party and fought hard against the spread of slavery. The party's sole agenda was opposition to the expansion of slavery into the western territories, and its candidates participated in two national presidential elections. In 1878 he sponsored a reunion of prominent members of the Free Soil Party in Hingham at Downer Landing. (see the images below).
Samuel Downer died in 1881 at the age of seventy-four. Management of Melville Garden became the responsibility of Gertrude's husband, James Scudder, who ran it successfully for fifteen years until his untimely death in 1896.