2014 aerial view of Gloucester Harbor (USDA FSA National Agricultural Imagery Program 2014).
Europeans first settled the Gloucester and Cape Ann region in 1623 when the Plymouth Company established a seasonal fishing post to take advantage of the plentiful stocks of cod, haddock, mackerel, and other fish in coastal waters. By the time Gloucester was incorporated as a town in 1642, other fishing settlements had established themselves around Cape Ann, and Gloucester’s economy included shipbuilding and agriculture.
In the early 18th century, Gloucester’s shipbuilders were making sloops, ships, and brigantines and revolutionized the trade when they launched the world’s first schooner in 1713. Fishing, shipbuilding, and coastal shipping between colonial American ports soon transformed colonial Gloucester from a hinterland to a prospering seaport, with Harbor Village at Gloucester Harbor as its largest settlement.
The American Revolution and the economic depression that followed affected the maritilme trades but, by the early nineteenth century, the economy exceeded pre-war levels. Gloucester’s ships brought fish and New England farm products such as beef to the West Indies and returned with sugar, molasses, rum, coffee, and cocoa. In Europe, Gloucester’s fish were exchanged for salt, fruit, wine, and hard currency. Trading profits were reinvested in Gloucester’s fishing and shipbuilding industries, and fine residences and commercial buildings were built in Harbor Village.
In the mid-19th century, fishing surpassed the value of merchant trading and, according to a later historian, Gloucester was “the greatest fishing town in America”. Income from fishing grew from $500,000 to $3,000,000 from 1837 to 1865. This growth was supported by the improved access to markets provided by railroads and the expansion of American cities that raised consumer demand. Gloucester incorporated as a city in 1873, and its fishing industry peaked about 1895, with more than 5,500 fishermen. By this time, a total of 22 shipbuilding companies produced vessels worth more than $175,000 annually. Other industries such as granite quarrying and summer tourism emerged and grew in importance in the late nineteenth century and created new settlement clusters around the city.