historic docs
whaling and fishing
Oct 2010

Feb 18, 1875, The New York Times pg.6

    With the decline of the whale fisheries, once the principal support of many thousands of men on the coast, decay and ruin have approached some of the old towns, and are kept at bay only by the presence of small manufactures, which are gradually giving the ports a modern character. Formerly one could not visit Gloucester without finding sail-lofts in every street; the conversation was of anchors, ice-cushions, bait-mills, ships' blocks, masts, spars, boats, and leads, rather than of financial stocks, boots and shoes, and printed cloths. The men whom one encountered had but little interest landward; they rarely penetrated to the interior of tneir native State. Their whole attention was concentrated upon the preparations for the biennial sailing of the fleet into the fogs and gloom of the Newfoundland Banks; and when they went away it was solemnly, without any attempt at unseemly mirth; for they fully appreciated the peril to which they exposed themselves. Never yet did a fleet come back to the Massachusetts coast, or to any of the towns along the ragged Atlantic front of New-England, that the voices of mourners were not mingled with those of the happy wives and mothers who rejoiced over the safe return of their loved ones. Nowadays, of the thirty-five hundred men who sail from Gloucester every year, large numbers are Canadians, who come down from the provinces at the beginning of the fishing season, and work steadily through it, returning home with their pockets well lined. Yet, when the dangers and the outlay incidental to fishing on the Banks are considered, the rewards are really trivial. No fishermen accumulate even moderate fortunes; and it is not too much to say that none follow the trade all their lives without often falling into extremest peril. Among the fishermen now in the ice-floes off Cape Cod there may, doubtless, be found a score or two who have passed unscathed through a hundred quite as hazardous adventures, and who would succumb to the tedium of a monotonous security from harm.
    Provincetown, the quaint little fishing port, at some distance from whose sand-hills the ice-bound fishermen are now expecting aid, usually has more than one hundred vessels and eleven hundred men engaged in the mackerel and cod fisheries. Gloucester in 1873 employed 375 vessels in fishing; the tonnage of the port was 28,565 tons; and the total value of the "catch" for the year was nearly four million dollars. Gloucester is the principal cod-fishing port of the country ; next in order come the Cape Cod ports, and the towns of Portland, Wiscasset, Waldoborough, Belfast, and Castine, along the Maine coast. The vessels now blockaded in the ice-field probably belong to a variety of fleets, for the Cape Cod vessels do not ordinarily engage in Winter fishing;. From whatever part of New-England they come, they are sure to receive succor from the citizens of Massachusetts if it is possible to give it to them, for the Old Bay State has a larger interest than any other in American fisheries and fishermen. Of the 559,982 quintals of cod entered as the product of our fisheries in 1870, Massachusetts ports contributed 451,125.
    The United States Government has always rightly regarded the cod-fishery as a nursery of seamen for the Navy, and it was perhaps a little unwise to enact the legislation which, in 1866, took away the bounties formerly given to vessels engaged in the business. The fifteen thousand fishermen who yearly risk their lives in wresting its treasures from the sea, who face death on the "Grand Bank," in the ice-field, and along the rocky coast, are certainly entitled to hearty recognition as among the sturdiest and bravest of our citizens; and considering their many mishaps, and their value to the Government in war-time, a little substantial encouragement would do them no harm.
    The hardships annually endured by the tough fishermen who dwell on the rocky New-England coast, and gain their livelihood by twice a year going down to the sea in fishing smacks have recently had a striking illustration. The usually boisterous water of the Atlantic, within ten or twelve miles of Cape Cod, has been transformed by the intense cold into an ice-field, where a fleet of fishing vessels lies blockaded bo far from shore that it is feared many crews may perish from hunger, if not by freezing, before aid can reach them. Some of the crews have managed to get to shore in safely after a perilous journey across an icefield everywhere dotted with dangerous airholes, but the majority were, at last accounts, facing death under very trying circumstances—which seems to be almost the normal condition of the New-England fisherman. No man who earns his bread by the sweat of his brow more certainly carries his life in his hand than this industrious and adventurous follower of the sea. A coast fisherman, who had been through twenty battles during the late war, once said that he would rather face the enemy in the thick of a fight than sail to the "George's Bank." Twelve hundred men have been lost at sea from the little town of Gloucester since 1830; and in 1873 the same port registered a loss of thirty-one vessels and 174 men. Provincetown, Marblehead, and the other places from which large fleets go out to catch cod and mackerel, lose many of their strongest and bravest men yearly. An ocean steamer, rushing through the thick fog on the Banks, cuts down some small smack, and the crew often is drowned. Or a sadden storm lashes the waves to fury, and upsets the skiffs in which hundreds of fishermen, two or three miles from their vessels, are peacefully at work. Or sometimes the frail vessels are wrecked when the weary men are just in sight of home, and the rocks on which the fishers played when children become their executioners.
    These fishermen are always daring, but never reckless. They are, in the main, God-fearing folk, whose roughness of exterior consorts but poorly with their simplicity and native nobility of soul. They, took a prominent part in the struggle for independence during the revolution. The port of Marblehead sent out the famous frigate Constitution and innumerable privateers.