- 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
Junger’s story was fact, not fiction. The storm he described in such frightening detail was actually three separate disturbances that converged in the North Atlantic in October 1991. Winds in excess of 100 miles per hour and waves as high as 65 feet tossed boats around like bathtub toys. The town of Gloucester was battered beyond anything even the old-timers could recall. Inland ponds overflowed with seawater. The sea ripped out huge chunks of roadway along Ocean Drive. Houses that for decades had sat high, dry, and safe atop their pilings toppled and were swept away. The storm sent Gloucester’s Andrea Gail , a 70-foot fishing vessel with a welded steel-plate hull, to the bottom, along with her crew of six. No one survived.
On clear summer days all the beaches—Good Harbor, Niles, Half Moon, and Cressy—overflow with a mix of old and young that has long attracted the attention of artists. Winslow Homer, John Sloan, Edward Hopper, Fitz Hugh Lane, and Childe Hassam all did some of their finest work in Gloucester, and, thanks to the Cape Ann Historical Museum, some of their paintings have been kept in Gloucester, where, as the museum’s director, Judith McCulloch, says, “they really belong.” The museum itself is a small masterpiece that lovingly preserves and skillfully displays the town’s storm-wracked history.
Just two streets west of the historical museum, the Sargent House Museum, built right after the American Revolution, exhibits Early American furnishings, portraits, textiles, and domestic memorabilia that would be the envy of many urban collections. The house was built for Judith Sargent Murray, a very early feminist. Her husband, the Reverend John Murray, founded the nation’s first Universalist church, in 1779. Now known as the Independent Christian Church, Unitarian Universalist, it continues as a hive of community activity exactly as it has for the past 200 years.
As in most seafaring towns, Gloucester’s finest houses, those of ship captains and merchants, faced the water. The poor and the luckless lived in Dogtown, a few hundred acres of upland woods that once were dotted with shanties built from fallen trees, driftwood, and odds and ends salvaged from winter beaches. The shanties have long since returned to the earth; all that remain are their caved-in cellars, where bracken thrives. In the spring, the woods are filled with the busyness of warblers, wood thrushes, ovenbirds, and woodpeckers. Dogtown, overgrown, bypassed by time, annually produces two prodigious crops: blueberries and rocks. The former are smaller than the supermarket variety and infinitely tastier. The latter come in all sizes and colors, heaved up by winter frosts from some inexhaustible subterranean inventory.
Gloucester residents in search of a last-minute quart of ice cream or carton of milk can manage quite nicely at any of several mom-and-pop stores in the center of town, but serious shoppers with lists head out on Railroad Avenue to the Gloucester Star Market, a favorite stocking-up stop for fishermen about to put to sea. The fishermen are easy enough to spot. They wear jeans or bib overalls year-round, T-shirts and tattoos in summer, and pea jackets or heavy black-and-red flannel shirts in winter. They speed in an efficient way up and down the narrow aisles, weaving deftly in and out among the housewives and the elderly. Because fishermen at sea have no appetite for fish, they load up on steaks, hot dogs, sausage, pizza, lasagna, bacon, eggs, ice cream, cigarettes, and chocolate-coated anything. Often they shove several thousand dollars’ worth of provisions through the checkout aisle before dumping it all in the back of a pickup and heading for the docks. Nobody plays the harp for them.
OVER THE CENTURIES, THE LITTLE TOWN OF GLOUCESTER HAS LOST MORE THAN 10,000 OF ITS FISHERMEN TO THE SEA.
Follow Route 127 or 127A northeast out of Gloucester and you’ll quickly find yourself in Rockport, a tiny community only a quarter of Gloucester’s size. Nowadays, Rockport finds its civic identity in its many ties with the world of the arts. It is home to the Rockport Art Association, founded some 70 years ago, the Windhover Performing Arts Center, and the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, bespeaking wide local support and enthusiasm for a spectrum of creative effort; summer is one long round of music festivals, plays, and art-gallery galas.
Rockport’s shoreline is as jagged as any on the Atlantic seaboard; snapped taut, it might well stretch south to the mouth of the Hudson. High tides pour inland along the thousands of estuaries, rivulets, and fissures that edge the coast, and what was open ocean this morning is a briny haven for mussels, clams, and skittering crabs this afternoon. Wading birds stalk the shallows on twiggy legs, their beaks darting at secret morsels.