Maybe you've heard about Gloucester from the best-seller, The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger's book about the crew of the Andrea Gail that was lost at sea in 1991. But Joe Garland was writing about Gloucester's traumas at sea before Junger was born. For us in Gloucester, Joe Garland is our story-teller. Journalist, historian, Joe's written a dozen books on the maritime history here. He seems to know every cut of land, nearly every building in the city laid out before us, and who sailed where, and when, and how for more than three centuries, they've traveled hundreds of miles to the fabled fishing grounds at George's Bank and the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland.
I pull out a book of photographs -- Gloucester on the Wind, old photos Joe has compiled and written captions for, showing Gloucester in the days of sail. There's one of old Howard Blackburn. In Lone Voyager, Joe told the story of Gloucester's most legendary fisherman: in 1893, after being separated from his mother ship in a terrible winter storm, he rowed 65 miles in a little dory, without gloves, in bitter cold, to the coast of Newfoundland. His dory mate died, and Blackburn lost all his fingers. And there he is in the picture, fingerless, out for a sail in this same Gloucester harbor.
Picture after picture shows the acre after acre on shore given to the cod, salted to preserve it, placed in wooden frames called flakes, sun cured, and then shipped across the world.
That hasn't been the case in a long time. Joe's going to take us into the inner harbor, to see the change.
We move down the shoreline, near where Clarence Birdseye perfected his freezing process and put the salted cod out of business; under the line of fire of British cannonballs, fired by Captain Robert Linzee in 1775, before Gloucester patriots chased him off; and now past the paint factory, scene of more recent battles. For more than a century, this great red wooden icon to the fishing industry applied the copper paint that protected the bottom of the wooden schooners. Last year developers proposed to convert the abandoned building into condos; they were unsuccessful.
We're at ground zero of Gloucester's change. From here you can see past, present and future: the Gloucester adventure, the last of the Gloucester fishing schooners up on the rails for historical renovation; a handful of steel hulled fishing trawlers headed out toward the fishing grounds that remain; and yachts, and little sailboats, and a replica of an old fishing schooner, with tourists on board, out for a sail, and jet skis, and kayakers, and whale watch boats, and the newest entry into Gloucester harbor, the casino ship: first came the Vegas Express, then the Eldorado, now, waiting to come on line, the Southern Elegance, built to look like an old riverboat.
In a year of operation more than 75,000 people have boarded the casino ships; the Vegas Express employs 120 people, most local, on a weekly payroll of about 80 thousand dollars. And, Joe acknowledges, with the fishing down, the wharf owners need some kind of business. And so the change. If you want to know what's changed around here, says Joe Garland, you need only sniff the air.
At stake here, says Joe Garland, is the sense of place that people here have always had. The hope that we will stay connected to who we've been -- a safe harbor for the people who live here.
We've drifted in front of the quintessential Gloucester figure: the bronze man at the wheel, standing at the boulevard, at the edge of the harbor -- turned green with salt and time, in his oilskins, at the helm, eyes on the sea. Joe reads the final passage from his book, the Gloucester Guide:
A great chronicler of this place, old Joe Garland looks up from his boat, fixing his eyes on the silent man of bronze, the man at the wheel, gazing out toward the fishing grounds.
From Gloucester, Massachusetts, this is Sandy Tolan for The Savvy Traveler.
Books by Joe Garland, avaialble from Amazon.com:
Gloucester on the Wind: America's Greatest Fishing Port in the Days of Sail
Lone Voyager: The Extraordinary Adventures of Howard Blackburn, Hero Fisherman of Gloucester
Eastern Point: A Nautical, Rustical, and Social Chronicle of Gloucester's Outer Shield and Inner Sanctum, 1606-1990
The North Shore: A Social History of Summers Among the Noteworthy, Fashionable, Rich, Eccentric, and Ordinary on Boston's Gold Coast
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