History of Gloucester Harbor

The Former Gloucester MGP Remediation Project is in offshore and upland portions of Duncan’s Point near some of the earliest permanent settlements in Gloucester and the core of the city’s historic waterfront.  The Massachusetts Historical Commission has determined that the Gloucester Harbor Area encompassing Duncan’s Point is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

An 1859 map of Gloucester showing Duncan’s Point (map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library).

An 1859 map of Gloucester showing Duncan’s Point (map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library).  Click on the map for a larger image.

By 1651, about 24 permanent residents are thought to have settled at Harbor Cove and Vincent Cove (now filled) adjacent to Duncan’s Point. The first docking facilities in Gloucester Harbor were in the deep waters of Harbor Cove, where wharves and maritime-related shops were built by the early 1700s. Harbor Village (now downtown Gloucester) became the town’s largest village. After about 1750, the development of Harbor Village intensified with the construction of a new meetinghouse, taverns, a barbershop, stores, and homes. Nearby Fort Point was the site of a canon battery in 1743 and of fortifications until the end of the War of 1812.

By the early nineteenth century, Gloucester’s fishing vessels began to go as far as Georges Bank, over 300 miles away. The working waterfront expanded northeast along Harbor Cove toward Duncan’s Point, and manufacturing concerns arose to make fish oil, soap, candles, and glue from fish by-products. From 1837 to 1865, the fishing fleet grew from 221 to 378 vessels and finally surpassed the capacity of Harbor Cove. Major fishery companies established themselves around the northeast end of the harbor, while shops and factories proliferated to provide packing barrels and boxes, rope, sails, blocks, paint, pumps, oiled clothing, and ice. Burnham’s and other marine railways were established. These were inclined tracks with rolling cradles used for hauling a boat out for cleaning or repairs.  To accommodate the new businesses, there was extensive filling and wharf expansion along Duncan’s Point and Vincent Cove. In 1864, Rogers Street was created along the wharves, piers, and slips of the Inner Harbor. A colorful neighborhood of ships’ chandleries (outfitters of ships and sailors), tenements, and small trade shops grew along what was Duncan and Wharf streets and now is Harbor Loop.

Circa 1905 panorama showing the dense maritime industrial waterfront and major historical landmarks of Duncan’s Point looking northwest toward downtown from East Gloucester, with Rocky Neck in the foreground. The Parkhurst Marine Railway Co. and adjacent fish houses of Atlantic Wharf are now the U.S. Coast Guard Station Gloucester; the Gloucester Gas Light complex has been replaced with Solomon Jacobs Park and commercial buildings that house the Gloucester Harbormaster. Burnham’s Marine Railway remains at the same location. The wharves, fish houses, and sail lofts to its north have been replaced with new fishing-related infrastructure. Vincent Cove is now filled.

Circa 1905 panorama showing the dense maritime industrial waterfront and major historical landmarks of Duncan’s Point looking northwest toward downtown from East Gloucester, with Rocky Neck in the foreground. The Parkhurst Marine Railway Co. and adjacent fish houses of Atlantic Wharf are now the U.S. Coast Guard Station Gloucester; the Gloucester Gas Light complex has been replaced with Solomon Jacobs Park and commercial buildings that house the Gloucester Harbormaster. Burnham’s Marine Railway remains at the same location. The wharves, fish houses, and sail lofts to its north have been replaced with new fishing-related infrastructure. Vincent Cove is now filled.

The photographs below, circa 1910, are of salt cod processing operations, which employed 900 men and women produced $4.25 million of fish in 1905. Fishing vessels were unloaded at the wharves and the fish cleaned and placed in barrels for salting. The salted fillets were laid outdoors on wood frames, called flakes, to cure. After curing, the fish was further processed and packed for long-distance shipment (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D418-90105, LC-D4-18008, and LC-D418-90104).

Cod_1 Cod_2Cod_3

Circa 1915 photo of an iconic Gloucester schooner, which dominated the city’s fishing fleet and were built and refurbished in Gloucester Harbor’s shipyards and marine railways (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D4-18013)

Circa 1915 photo of an iconic Gloucester schooner, which dominated the city’s fishing fleet and were built and refurbished in Gloucester Harbor’s shipyards and marine railways (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D4-18013)

1917 fire insurance maps of Duncan’s Point capturing Gloucester’s maritime industries at their peak (courtesy Southern Essex District Registry of Deeds).

1917 fire insurance maps of Duncan’s Point capturing Gloucester’s maritime industries at their peak (courtesy Southern Essex District Registry of Deeds).  Click on any image on this page for a larger view.

schooner-1915

Gloucester’s fishing industry and the development of Duncan’s Point peaked in the early 20th century. Innovations in fishing techniques, refrigeration technology, and boat design drove growth and change in the fishing industry, but the city ultimately lost its supremacy to Boston because of these factors. However, commercial fishing has continued as the city’s preeminent industry and in the 20th century several of Gloucester’s fish houses were replaced with ice houses and new refrigerated warehouses as frozen fish and fish sticks became popular consumer products. In the late 1960s and 1970s, a city urban renewal project cleared much of Duncan’s Point, but several historic maritime industrial properties, granite wharves, and wood piers remain as reminders of this area’s role in Gloucester’s fishing industry.

The Parmenter, Rice & Company (aka Empire Fish) complex of fish storehouses was established by 1884 and remains on Lantz Wharf fronting Harbor Cove

The Parmenter, Rice & Company (aka Empire Fish) complex of fish storehouses was established by 1884 and remains on Lantz Wharf fronting Harbor Cove