Top: Fisherman’s Memorial Cenotaph (Man at the Wheel Statue), Gloucester, Cape Ann, Wessex County, Massachusetts.Before Boston and Salem, there was Gloucester. Gloucester, Massachusetts was founded in 1623 by the Dorchester Company, the first settlement in what would in time become the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The land wasn’t good for farming, and at the time, fishing wasn’t the industry it was to become, so the settlement floundered. At least in theory, the earliest settlers were fisherman however, so Gloucester can lay claim to being America’s oldest seaport.
Eventually people came back, and by 1642 the town of Gloucester, named for Gloucester Cathedral in England was officially incorporated. At the time, Cape Ann was covered in forest, and the focus of the community was inland, as the forests were cleared and the timber sold off. For a while, the main part of the village was known as The Commons, which later became Dogtown Commons, a high ground overlooking the harbor, safe from pirates and Indian attacks. But as the 18th century progressed, the harbor became the focus of the town, where fortunes could be made.
Gloucester is near the Georges Bank and other prime fishing sites off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. In the 18th century, shipmaking and fishing began to grow in importance, eventually becoming the focus of the town’s industry. The most recognizable symbol of Gloucester was born in 1849, when John Pew & Sons opened for business, specializing in seafood. Eventually it changed its name to Gorton-Pew Fisheries in 1906, and in 1957 to Gorton’s of Gloucester. The symbol of the fisherman at the wheel, wearing his rain slicker is one of the most recognized icons in advertising.
With the sea comes tragedy, as evidenced by the names of those lost in sea inscribed on the Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial Cenotaph, otherwise known as the Fisherman at the Wheel statue. The statue is the work of sculptor Leonard Craske (1877-1951) and is based on a 1901 painting by Gloucester artist A.W. Buhler. Over ten thousand Gloucester residents have been lost at sea, a staggering number for a community so small. This aspect of the town was documented in the film, A Perfect Storm, based upon the true story of the six men lost in the swordfishing boat, the Andrea Gail on October 28, 1991, in seas with waves approaching or exceeding 100 feet.
The statue, along with its mate, the Gloucester Fisherman’s Wives Memorial, which stands further down the harbor, looking out to sea, are stirring testimonies to this hard way of life. A quote from Psalms on the Fisherman at the Wheel memorial expresses it best: “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.” Also inscribed on the plaque are several testaments to the dangers of this way of life. Between 1860 and 1906, a staggering 660 ships sank, with 3,880 men lost. During a single storm in 1862, 15 schooners and 120 men went down, and in 1879 another storm took the lives of 159 fishermen. The quote on the Fisherman’s Wives Memorial reads. “The wives, mothers, daughters and sisters of Gloucester fishermen honor the wives and families of fishermen and mariners everywhere for their faith, diligence, and fortitude.”
As I came into Gloucester, the harbor opened up to my right, and I found easy parking along Highway 127 (Western Avenue). It was a short walk to the Fisherman at the Wheel Statue, which I had intended to get a shot of and then drive to a few other local sites. But as is often the case, the town was so charming, and the afternoon so nice that I had to explore a bit more. I followed Western Avenue to Main Street, a quaint, narrow thoroughfare with shops, galleries and restaurants, many with a nautical bent. At the top of the hill stands the City Hall, which of course drew me up, past the Sargent House Museum (circa 1782). The City Hall itself is a grand Victorian building dating from 1873, which was also intended to be an entertainment center for the town. Among those who performed there were Buffalo Bill and P.T. Barnum.
I came back down into the city center along the aptly named Pleasant Street, past the Cape Ann Museum and adjacent Captain Elias Davis House (circa 1804). When I reached the harbor, I took a left and passed by Fitz Hugh Lane Park and House, once the residence of a prominent Gloucester artist. Many artists have found inspiration in Gloucester and Cape Ann, including Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. There I took the harbor loop, skipped a chance to go whale watching, and watched the boats come in with their haul. Finally realizing I had spent most of the afternoon wandering the streets, I made my way back along the harbor, slipping down to Pavillion Beach, trying to fend off the tantalizing smell of the restaurants along the harbor, and back to my car. Not altogether successfully I have to add, as I found myself hiking back to main street, where I picked up a not only huge, but quite yummy stromboli from Virgilio’s Italian Bakery and Grocery.
Today, Cape Ann is once again covered with trees, the forest having returned with the decline of the logging industry in the twentieth century. Dogtown Commons now exists mainly as a memory, overlooking Gloucester. There you find a maze of trails, wending through the boulders, with occasional markers showing where the houses once stood. By the early 19th century, Dogtown contained mainly the dregs of Gloucester society, and today it’s one of the most haunting ghost towns on the east coast. The dwellings there were never large, and most contained a small cellar for storing food, and these cellar holes, along with a few stone walls are all that remains. In recent years however, Dogtown has stirred imaginations and undergone a bit of a literary revival, with the publishing of Parcy MacKaye’s narrative poem Dogtown Commons, as well as novels: Francis Bessington’s The Last Witch of Dogtown, Anita Diamant’s The Last Days of Dogtown, and Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town by Elyssa East.