The Two Souls Of Gloucester, Massachusetts
By Peggy Drew
In the Crow’s Nest bar the furniture is dingy; the bartender wears flip flops; classic rock music plays too loudly, and stale beer sticks my shoes to the floor when I venture to the bathroom. The locals sitting around the rectangular bar look tired and weathered between trips outside to the sidewalk for cigarettes. Cheap frames holding pictures of deceased fishermen and movie stars cover the walls. Yet visitors to Gloucester, Massachusetts flock to the Crow’s Nest. We all want to see the bar that was the center of activity for the fishermen and their families in The Perfect Storm, the 1997 book by Sebastian Junger and 2000 movie about a Gloucester fishing ship lost at sea during a 1991 massive Atlantic Nor’easter.
Not much about Gloucester matched my expectations. From the “seedy” Crow’s Nest to the art colony where I slept at night, I found surprises during this simple weekend getaway not far from home. I came for a visit to a New England historic fishing town. I found something more complex.
On the Atlantic coast about 30 miles north of Boston, Gloucester is one of four towns that make up the peninsula called Cape Ann. The southeast area of this city of 28,000 curves around Gloucester Harbor, home port for the local fishing industry. As the first settlement of what would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Gloucester earned the title “America’s Oldest Seaport”. The first settlers made their living inland, farming and logging from the oak forests on Cape Ann. Eventually ship building and fishing emerged.
The town grew in importance and became a wealthy fishing port because of its closeness to the great fishing banks off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. In the early 1700’s, innovation in Gloucester produced the first schooner. With so many cod waiting to be scooped out of the Atlantic, fishermen wanted to get to the fishing grounds and back with the catch more quickly. “Scoon”, a New England word from the eighteenth century, meant to “skim lightly over the water”. A much faster boat than anything before it, the schooner became synonymous with fishing out of Gloucester Harbor.
Today the area around the north side of the harbor embodies New England blue collar. Behind the Crow’s Nest, the streets rise steeply uphill to a working class neighborhood. Across the street screeching gulls and the smell of fish surround the working waterfront of Jodrey State Fish Pier, the fish processing plants, and parking lots of stainless steel tankers for hauling herring to Maine.
As soon as I sit down at the Crow’s Nest, I hear how the ceilings here were too low for the movie cameras and lights, and the producers of The Perfect Storm had to build a set somewhere else in town. Most visitors don’t know this when they head into the real Crow’s Nest, and the bartenders need to repeat the story every time they hear once again, “This isn’t what I thought the bar would be like.” If it weren’t for curiosity to see the bar from the movie, I would never have come in, considering how rough it looks from the outside.
A middle aged man with dark skin and hair sits next to me at the bar. Kevin tells me he’d been born and lived all his life in Gloucester. His grandparents came to Gloucester from Portugal and Italy. This specific mixed heritage combines the histories of two peoples who immigrated to Gloucester and changed the face of its fishing culture.
By mid-nineteenth century Yankee fishermen of Gloucester dominated the New England fishing industry. But in the late nineteenth century Portuguese came to New England on whaling ships, settled here, and turned to fishing for a prosperous livelihood. The Italians, mainly from Sicily, arrived a couple decades later to practice their native fishing skills in a new land. Many fishermen in Gloucester today descended from of one these groups of immigrants. Before my stop at the Crow’s Nest, I walked the Gloucester Maritime Trail to see history. My walk took me up “Portygee Hill”, an area once largely populated by Portuguese fishermen. Kevin, who lives on “The Hill”, tells me about his Portuguese and Italian fishing grandparents.
“My grandfather didn’t want any of his sons to go into the fishing business because it’s so dangerous.”
Schooners made fishing production faster, but so dangerous that Gloucester’s losses in the 1800’s were terrible. Even in contemporary diesel-powered boats the danger exists. A huge mural hangs in Gloucester City Hall where visitors can read the names of the lost. In its 350 years of fishing, over 10,000 Gloucester fishermen have lost their lives while out on the Atlantic Ocean fishing for their livelihood. In 1925 as part of the celebration of its 300th anniversary, Gloucester installed a sculpture near the harbor to honor its lost fishermen. The iconic Fisherman’s Memorial, an eight foot bronze Gloucester fisherman green with age, stands at his wheel looking out over the actual harbor. And since 2001 the Fishermen’s Wives memorial stands nearby in honor of the sacrifices of those left home waiting.
“So did your father go into fishing?
“No, and I didn’t either. And nowadays the government is destroying the fishing industry and Gloucester.”
Kevin has a harsh view of the state of affairs in the fishing industry. “The government keeps restricting fishermen. The government is killing this town. And now the Japanese are taking over.”
From 1980 to 1990 the predictions of marine scientists came to pass. The catch of cod and other groundfish fell 50%. In 1994, in an effort to allow the fish population to come back, the National Marine Fisheries Service restricted groundfishing days to 139 and then to 88 days in 1996. The world famous Gorton’s of Gloucester, a fish food company prosperous in the first half of the twentieth century, began to feel the financial impact of the declining fishing industry. In 1995 the Unilever Corporation bought Gorton’s and then sold it to a gigantic Japanese seafood corporation in 2001. Gorton’s still has offices and a big sign in Gloucester, but instead of buying from Gloucester fisherman they buy Alaskan Pollack for their famous fish sticks. The only use they have for the Gloucester fisherman now is his image in their branding.
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