- Historic Sites
The Other Cape
ON THE RUGGED COAST NORTH OF BOSTON, FOUR TOWNS SHARE A LONG HISTORY OF MORTAL PERIL AND ENDURING BEAUTY.
April 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 2
Perhaps the best summation of Manchester-by-the-Sea is Crosby’s Market, the town’s deluxe food store, conveniently located by the train station. There, every Friday afternoon, Nina Vickers drives over from Salem, 15 miles away, to play her harp for the pleasure of customers as they stroll the aisles, laying in their weekend supplies of smoked salmon, fresh asparagus, and cut flowers. Her repertoire includes Handel, Vivaldi, and Bach, seasonal favorites, and plenty of Broadway show tunes.
A scant 10 miles down the road from Manchester, the Fishermen’s Memorial, on Gloucester’s Western Avenue, presents a bronze mariner in foul-weather gear at the wheel of his vessel, personifying virtues Americans like to think of as part of their national heritage: courage, strength, and endurance in the face of the elements. The inscription on the statue’s base is taken from the 107th Psalm: “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep.” This famous American statue was the work of an Englishman, Leonard Crask. Commissioned for Gloucester’s tricentennial in 1923, it has been an irresistible perch for gulls and a magnet for tourists, who pose in front of it, their faces toward the eastern horizon. Crask’s opus will soon have a partner. A committee is planning a 12-foot-high Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Memorial, also cast in bronze, a barefoot figure with an infant in arms, a second child clutching at her wind-whipped skirts, gazing forever out to the sea from which her man may or may not return.
ESSEX HAS BUILT SHIPS FOR 4OO YEARS; MORE TWO-MASTED BOATS WERE LAUNCHED HERE THAN IN ANY OTHER TOWN ON EARTH.
Gloucester was settled by fishermen in 1623 and has depended on fishing ever since. The industry has been sometimes ruinous, often lucrative, but always and always fraught with danger. Over the centuries, this small town has lost more than 10,000 men at sea. In 1862 a single storm sent 120 Gloucester fishermen to the bottom with their vessels. In 1879, 249 sons, husbands, and fathers, fishermen all, perished at sea. The Fishermen’s Memorial is an eloquent reminder of so many tragic deaths. But in this day of high-tech everything, how relevant is that stalwart mariner? Is he not something of an anachronism? An eloquent answer can be found up the road at the Cape Ann Marina Resort, where four flags fly over a granite monument whose inscription reads:
Gloucester’s fishing industry is winding down. More than 50 years ago, nine and a half million pounds of fish were caught in a single week; today cod, haddock, flounder, mackerel, bass, blues, swordfish, and tuna, once plentiful, have been fished to perilously low levels. Experts confer ceaselessly about how to rectify the situation, but any answer apart from a total ban on fishing has yet to surface.
All along the harbor, where gulls squawk from every roof ridge, each doorway seems to open into a business, large or small, affiliated with fishing. There’s Gloucester Marine Railways, where boats are hauled up out of the water for repairs. There’s Cape Pond Ice, whose workers wear T-shirts proclaiming them “The Coolest Guys Around.” Before heading out, fishing boats without icemaking machines take on tons of ice in which to pack the catch. Gorton’s of Gloucester is still processing the fish that made its codfish cakes a New England staple. Chandlers, sailmakers, charter agents, and marine-equipment outlets also endure, reminders that Gloucester is a one-note town, and that note, for better or worse, is fishing.
Of course there’s lobstering, though the take is but a fraction of what it was even 20 years ago. And there’s whale watching, a Johnny-come-lately moneymaker that capitalizes on the presence, only 10 miles offshore, of a reliable summer population of finback, right, and humpback whales. Throughout the summer a small flotilla of boats prowls the shallow waters that cover the Stellwagen Bank, a favorite feeding spot for whales, and the behemoths can be relied on to show themselves.
In 1896 Rudyard Kipling summered in Gloucester. He walked its wharves, drank its grog, and listened endlessly to fishermen’s tales. He wove what he saw, heard, and imagined into Captains Courageous, fiction and wholly improbable, published in 24 languages and never out of print. A century later, Sebastian Junger walked the same wharves, drank in the same taverns, and wrote The Perfect Storm.