April 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 2
ON THE RUGGED COAST NORTH OF BOSTON, FOUR TOWNS SHARE A LONG HISTORY OF MORTAL PERIL AND ENDURING BEAUTY.
Cape Ann locals call their home, with not an ounce of regret, “the other Cape.” They live amid 300 years of hardscrabble history, much of it still in evidence. To everyone’s satisfaction, that history shows no signs of being layered over by strip malls, theme parks, or designer outlets.
Route 127 meanders absent-mindedly around Cape Ann. Turn off to the left or right and you risk a No Outlet sign—if you’re lucky. Otherwise, with no warning, the blacktop just peters out, and your car noses down with a sigh into sand, dune grass, and bayberry. In this part of the world it’s not the land but the sea that predominates. Its vapor salts your eyelashes and, sharp and briny, heady as rum, fills your lungs. On Cape Ann, anywhere on Cape Ann, you see, smell, or hear the ocean. There seems, in fact, to be no inland at all, just lots of ragged, rocky coastline.
The novelist John Updike, a Pennsylvanian self-transplanted to the Massachusetts coast, wrote, “One New England town looks much like another—white spire, green common, struggling little downtown—but they are different from one another, and their citizens know the difference.” Was he alluding to Cape Ann’s quartet of towns, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Gloucester, Rockport, and Essex? Though they lie within a Sunday stroll of one another, they remain as distinct as buttons in a child’s counting game: Yachtsman, Fisherman, Artist, Boatman.
Manchester’s slightly pretentious by-the-Sea was officially added in 1990, supposedly to distinguish it from the 30 other Manchesters scattered across the country from Maine to California. In 1630 the ship Arbella, out of Cowes, England, carried the charter for the Massachusetts Bay Colony across the sea to Manchester. This was a first. All previous charters had been kept in England on the assumption that the safety of such valuable documents could not be assured in the wilderness. The arrival of the charter conferred on Manchester a standing that endures to this day, reflected in the town’s tidy streets and unmistakable air of civility. For all the talk of summer tourism, Manchester’s 5,600 or so residents tend to stand aloof. The center of town is handsome but brief, with no slack cut for Ramadas or Marriotts. You’ll even search in vain for a bed-and-breakfast. On the other hand, the town meeting scrupulously fills the offices of Fence Viewers, Pound Keeper, Measurers of Wood and Bark, and Field Drivers every year, just as it has for more than two centuries.
In the beginning, Manchester made its living from fishing; after the American Revolution, furniture making became the main business. By the 1860s, the town had some 160 expert cabinetmakers. They developed and perfected the art of wood veneering, but unfortunately no one thought to patent the process, and in a very few years it had been copied around the world. Superb examples of this work can still be found in a handful of Cape Ann homes as well as in Trask House, the museum and nerve center for the Manchester Historical Society.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the railroad reached Manchester and gave the town a whole new identity as a stylish summer colony. Word spread to the nation’s capital, and soon half the diplomatic corps was fleeing the brutal Potomac summer for the tonic breezes of Manchester. In 1871 Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, the great-grandson of the third President, bought a dramatically beautiful piece of Manchester’s ocean-front and built the first of a succession of family summer homes. Today, the beauty of that property, with its beach, forest, and wetlands, has been assured by the establishment in 1992 of the Coolidge Reservation. It is open to the public but only on a very limited basis and with strict rules about parking, picnicking, and ocean swimming.
Captain Dusty’s Ice Cream, in a yellow shoebox of a building on Beach Street, and the lovely expanse of Singing Beach just a bit farther along are definitely more welcoming. But drive past the old slate-roofed, shingle or stone summer residences, half-hidden in the woodlands off Old Neck Road and along the leafy lanes that wander beachward, and you’ll see that privacy is a most treasured attribute. DON’T ENTER, DEAD END , and PRIVATE WAY read the neatly lettered signs tacked to tree trunks, nailed to stakes, hung on fence rails. Driveway mailboxes bear neither name nor number: The mailman knows who’s who; so do the people who live here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Long past are the moonless nights when Chris Craft motorboats glided in from the deep to offload cases of hooch from Canada onto pickup trucks. Those boats were, oddly enough, landing in a place where prohibition was nothing new. It had been established in 1856—and remains, locally, to this day. If the 1920s made Rockport infamous, what had first made it famous was the granite blasted from its quarries, which was of such fine quality that it was specified by architects all over the United States. You can see it in municipal buildings in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Washington. Indeed, it gave the town its name. From the early 1800s until just before World War I, quarrying provided steady revenue and year-round employment, but with the advent of reinforced concrete, the quarries began to close. Today, most of them are privately owned. Some are used as water sources; all are off-limits to swimmers, though that has never discouraged local kids from trying.
Of Cape Ann’s four towns, Essex is the least populous, with fewer than 4,000 year-round residents. A casual observer on Main Street could be forgiven for concluding that the town begins and ends with browsing for antiques and eating clams, but in fact more two-masted boats have been built there than anywhere else on earth. Shipbuilding began in Essex early in the seventeenth century, and by the 1850s more than 15 yards were operating full tilt in town. In a single three-year period from 1850 to 1853, 169 completed vessels were launched into the Essex River and thence put out to sea.
The tradition and art of wooden-boatbuilding remain vigorous in Essex. Two local families, the Storys and the Burnhams, have been in the trade for more than 300 years. Today, they specialize in pleasure craft, and along the tricky currents of the Essex River, kayaks, Sunfish, and outboards far outnumber fishing boats.
In 1976 the town opened the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, just in time to prevent centuries-old tools and techniques from sliding beneath the waters of oblivion. Today, the museum, in conjunction with the Essex Historical Society, operates a year-round program of lectures and hands-on projects. Directly behind it lies the town’s cemetery. A sign bearing the date 1680, hand-painted in large print, hangs from its gate. Within resides an assortment of mossy, often tilted headstones, their inscriptions gentled by the years into near-extinction. A bit of searching will reveal the grave of John Wise, who is considered by every resident of Cape Ann to be the founder of American democracy. It was he who in 1687 publicly proclaimed, in protesting a newly levied British duty, that “taxation without representation is tyranny.”
In the steeple of the town’s Congregational church hangs one of the few surviving bells cast by Paul Revere in his foundry in Boston’s North End. It weighs 827 pounds and owes its exceptional musical tone to the enthusiasm of the townspeople, who in the 1790s contributed silver dollars, silver teaspoons, and jewelry to be melted down and stirred into Revere’s cauldrons.
Cape Ann’s quartet of towns, distinctive as they are one from another, share a bond that forever trumps their disparities. Each in its own manner looks to the sea for its well-being, its economic survival, and, in ways not easily defined, its spiritual fortitude. That was true 300 years ago and will doubtless be no less true 300 years hence.