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The Waterfront

We lived on Kent Circle next door to Captain Charlie Harty, and I
spent many hours watching the big schooners go out under tow with
the tug
Eveleth. I can still hear the blocks creak as the mains'l was
hoisted. When we had an easterly storm I was sure the schooners
would run ashore in front of us as they tacked in past Ten Pound
Island with the mains'l booming like thunder when they came about
on the other tack.

- Letter from a Gloucester native in Michigan

This oldest fishing port in the western hemisphere still plies its trade with courage and resourcefulness, but two immense challenges put the city's fiber sorely to the test as it launched into its fourth century. The first was the shift from sail to power that displaced almost without a trace not only a fishing technology but a way of life, indeed a unique society. By that fateful day in 1927 when the fabled schooner Columbia embarked on Gloucester's final saltfishing trip under sail, everyone knew that the days, the hours, of canvas were numbered.

By the 1930s the fleet had peaked at more than four hundred schooners, and the major part of the old shore establishment that built and served those nobel vessels, were all but gone. The skills of generations were of little use to anyone any more. Sail was through. So were dory trawling, handlining, and jigging as pursuits of any major consequence, and the bait and salt industries, the acres of flake yards, the smokehouses, the blacksmith shops, the spar yards and sail lofts. The diesel engine and the otter trawl, the draggers, had taken over.

Still the waterfront, for all this upheaval, clung to the threadbare look of yesteryear. Proud schooners had their spars and spiking bowsprits cropped, their bulkheads cut for engines, and their bilges mucked with fuel oil so they could go dragging. The acrimonious International Fisherman's Races with Canada were a glorious, growling last gasp, a funeral feast for a Viking about to be buried at sea in the bosom of his craft.

And then came the quick-freeze, the second half of the punch, the revolution in refrigeration that took away most of Gloucester's advantage in marketing fresh fish. It enabled any nation in the world with the technology to fish anywhere in the world, and to sell anywhere, by means of mechanical refrigeration. Gloucester's traditional fishing grounds thus were invaded by foreign factory fleets, and the very fish taken from its backyard were delivered to its front door by the refrigerated freighters, the "reefers," of the competition.

The adoption of the two hundred-mile limit in 1977 following the Law of the Seas Conference cleared our offshore banks of the foreign fleet and gave a short-lived spur to American fishermen. Younger men were attracted to fishing, although they had to borrow at the high interest rates then current to build new vessels.

The euphoria didn't last. High-technology fish-finding techniques, overfishing, the division of Georges Bank by treaty, giving the richer portion to Canada in the mid-1980s, diminishing stock, the inability of the fishermen to work collectively, environmental pollution, competition from Canadian imports, escalating waterfront land values, even insurance-scuttling, all took their toll. By 1989 Gloucester's dwindling fleet was a poor relation in its own front yard.

Today, few traces of the old waterfront remain.

The Gloucester Guide | The Waterfront | The Fish Pier |
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