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Gloucester Harbor – Use

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Fishing and commerce came late to Gloucester Harbor, other harbors on Cape Ann having been developed sooner for these purposes. The rich and varied stocks of fish in Ipswich Bay and off Sandy Bay made the coves and harbors of Cape Ann's northern and eastern shores more convenient for shore fishermen in colonial times. The early successful permanent settlements on Cape Ann were in Annisquam Harbor and along the Annisquam River, leading to the establishment of Cape Ann's First Parish in that area. (1)

Shipbuilding in Gloucester Harbor began in the mid-seventeenth century, and by its end had produced a sizeable fleet of vessels which were active in the Grand Banks fishery. By the early 18th century, Gloucester Harbor was a busy fishing port becoming the economic center of Cape Ann—a reality finally recognized in 1740, when the First Parish built a new meeting house at the harbor, officially confirming its leading role. (2)

Gloucester's fishing enterprise was fueled by a demand for fish in Europe and their colonies in the West Indies. Vessels shipping fish to Europe returned with domestic wares and materials unavailable locally. Shipments of dried fish of lower grades went to plantations in the West Indies to feed their slaves; return cargos were usually sugar, molasses, and fine hardwoods to be used for cabinetry. By the 19th century, this trade had extended to Surinam, where fine Dutch domestic wares were added to the imports list. The Surinam Trade became Gloucester's dominant maritime activity in the first half of the nineteenth century. (3)

Success in the Surinam Trade led to using ever larger vessels to carry the goods - a problem for a shallow harbor with no dredging facilities. This forced Gloucester shipowners to move their port facilities and offices to Boston; after 1850, very few Surinam goods were landed at Gloucester. This opened Harbor Cove (Gloucester's prime port facility) to the fishing industry, just as momentous changes were to take place in fishing technology. (4)

Improvements to fishing methods and gear, namely dory trawling and mackerel seining, dramatically improved catches of cod and mackerel—at a cost. The gear was expensive. Gloucester was in a unique position to take advantage of this gear, thanks to banks and insurance firms with strong interests in the industry, local manufacturers of the new fishing gear, and a steady influx of young men eager for the work. The post-Civil War years saw a rapid rebuilding of Gloucester's fishing industry which could not be matched by rival New England fishing ports. (5)

– Erik Ronnberg


1.  Mary Ray, and Sarah V. Dunlap, Gloucester, Massachusetts Historical Time-line, 1000–1999 (Gloucester, MA: Archives, 2002), 10–16.

2. Ibid., 12, 17, 20, 24–25, 27–28, 30.

3. Alfred Mansfield Brooks, Gloucester recollected: A Familiar History (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1974), 50–69.

4. Ibid.

5. Wayne M. O'Leary, Maine Sea Fisheries (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996), 160–79.

Related tables: Gloucester Harbor, Inner / Harbor Cove »  //  Gloucester Harbor, Outer »

1846 Gloucester Telegraph 8.19.1846
Ad in Gloucester Telegraph


"Persons desirous of enjoying a SAILING or FISHING EXCURSION, are informed that the subscriber will be in readiness with the Boat EUREKA, to attend to all who may favor him with their patronage. JOHN J. FERSON"

Citation: "Historical Materials." Fitz Henry Lane Online. Cape Ann Museum. (accessed July 23, 2024).
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