Transportation IconFrom Specimen of Printing Types from the New England Type Foundry (Boston, 1834). Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

As the oldest continually operating seaport in the United States, Gloucester has a long, rich history of life on the water. Efforts to make the town more accessible by land and by ship appear in its earliest records. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the iron horse lapped the miles to Cape Ann, to borrow a metaphor from Emily Dickinson’s poem “Railway Train.” The railroad line was completed just in time to accommodate the growing number of tourists who visited, thanks in no small part to H. W. Longfellow’s “Wreck of the Hesperus” (1840), which brought the reef named Norman’s Woe to the nation’s attention.

The story of transportation on Cape Ann has a darker side as well. In the early days, Gloucester, along with other New England seaports, played a vital role in the global system of slavery, with its ships taking dried codfish to the West Indies and South America to feed enslaved people there. In New England Bound (2016), Wendy Warren describes how dried cod was “perfect for the world market,” as it fueled slave labor.[1] Records, both formal and informal, of such involvement abound in local collections. This exhibition includes two examples from Captain Thomas Saville’s (1764– 1865) journeys: his own Letter Book, with handwritten copies of letters he sent while at sea, and a more formal logbook kept by his shipmate John Butler.

Born and raised in Annisquam, Saville was a captain by the age of twenty-five. He made frequent short voyages up and down the coast, from Cape Ann to the Caribbean and the South American ports of Demerara (now part of Guyana), Cayenne (now part of French Guiana) and Paramaribo, in Surinam.[2] The logbook details an encounter with a series of slave ships while just north of the equator. Captain William Cockrell from Liverpool, the center of the British slave trade, boarded the Lark to exchange news with Captain Saville of the ports they had visited. In the course of the visit, Saville learned that Cockrell had just picked up, from the coast of Africa, 521 enslaved people whom he was transporting to Jamaica. Two other slave ships belonging to Cockrell’s company, the Gascoygne and the Beavis, were, like the Lark, bound for Demerara. Though Saville had no enslaved people on board, he was involved in the trade, bringing dried cod to the slave plantations in exchange for rum or molasses. On its return from Demerara, the Lark became one of the victims of the undeclared Quasi-War between the United States and France (1798–1800), a war waged entirely at sea between privateers from both countries. The Lark was captured by a French privateer and carried into Guadeloupe in the French Caribbean. A treaty was signed by America and France on September 30, 1800, so its release must have occurred around that time.

Letters of marque (also called privateer’s commissions) were granted by a monarch or government to the captains and lieutenants of privately owned vessels to engage in battle with ships of the enemy nation. Unlike pirate ships, privateers had government sanction to overtake other ships on the high seas, though the line between the two was at times murky. As Charles Johnson wrote in General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), “Privateers in time of War are a Nursery for Pyrates against a Peace.”[3] Nearly 800 American privateers were commissioned during the Revolutionary War, and more than 500 privateers sailed against the British during the War of 1812. Locally, only seven vessels appear to have sailed as privateers out of Gloucester during the War of 1812, compared to thirty-nine during the Revolution.[4] One of these, the Robin Hood, under Captain Sargent Smith (b. 1757), was en route to Denmark to pick up tea and other goods. With its letters of marque, it had permission to engage any British vessels it encountered. Were it to take aboard prisoners from such a capture, it had to be prepared to subdue them, so as to forestall mutiny. Before the Robin Hood set sail, we can see from a receipt that it purchased 96 pairs of handcuffs and twelve keys. The Cape Ann Museum also has an official letter of marque from the War of 1812. President James Madison granted permission “to subdue, seize, and take any armed or unarmed British vessel” to John Davis (1784–1852), Samuel Davis (1783–1753) and William Thurston, Jr. (1782–1854), owners of the ship Clementine, a 21-ton schooner with a crew of twenty-five. When he returned from this journey, Captain John Davis settled down briefly as a schoolmaster before returning to the sea once more.[5] Letters of marque were abolished by the Congress of Paris in 1856, and the practice of privateering was considered obsolete by the end of the nineteenth century.[6]

StagecoachAnnisquam Stagecoach, 1882. Photograph; Corliss & Ryan. Cape Ann Museum.

Residents of Cape Ann had to navigate both on sea and on land. Native American transportation routes “emphasized water travel” along the Annisquam River, Mill River, Jones River, Little River and the coastline.[7] The English colonists followed those same routes from their earliest days on Cape Ann, as evidenced by the demand that a cut be made between Gloucester Harbor and the Annisquam River. In the second year of Gloucester’s town records, Pastor Richard Blynman (ca. 1620–1687) was granted the right “to cut the beach through and to maintain it and [the town] hath given him three acres of upland and hee is to have the benefit of it to himselfe and his forever giveinge the Inhabitantes of the Towne free passage.” A wooden toll bridge was erected to allow people and wagons to cross the cut. In 1788, the first formal transportation was established: a stagecoach from Boston.[8] It was not without troubles, though, as William Bentley (1759–1819) recorded in his diary in 1802; due to “snow and blow,” he wrote, the Cape Ann stage would not have made it to Salem that day without the help of the people of Beverly.[9]

TrainTrade Card ca. 1880. Cape Ann Museum.

The stagecoach remained the only inter-urban transportation service until 1847, when the first train from Boston arrived in Gloucester. The railroad to Manchester was opened on August 3 of that year and continued to Gloucester on December 1. Though this was a huge boon for the residents of Cape Ann, properties where the tracks were to be laid were subject to taking by eminent domain, as seen in a notice to Manchester resident Rachel Kinsman (1790–1859). It was not until 1852 that the town of Manchester voted to build a new depot at the junction of the town road and the railroad. This letter was written in the exploratory stages of building, but construction began less than three weeks later.[10]

Industry as well as convenience spurred developments in transportation. The rise of granite quarrying led to new modes of transportation to move large blocks of stone to building sites in town or, more often, to a ship for transport to Boston, New York or even Paris. By the 1830s, little steam railroads were built for this purpose, and by the end of the nineteenth century, quarry owners such as Edwin Canney (ca. 1844) of Pigeon Cove were building railways to move the massive stones from quarry to harbor.[11] For the fishing industry, shipping by rail greatly enlarged the inland market for Gloucester’s catch; in an insulated boxcar, fresh fish could be transported as far as Chicago.[12]

Railroads and steamboats facilitated tourist travel to the area, while developments in photographic technology lured visitors from far away with scenes of Cape Ann on stereopticon cards. The captions on these cards sound much like the voice-over in a National Geographic television wildlife special. The man sitting on a rock is described as “a very typical New England gentleman, a real ‘down east Yankee.’ He exhibits all the qualities that made his ancestors so staunch in their determination to defend their adopted land.” If the man did not draw visitors, then surely the description of this area as the inspiration for Longfellow’s “Wreck of the Hesperus” would. The poem, the verso of the card claims, “has immortalized the traditions that centre about these shores. The pounding of the waves upon this rock-bound promontory, and the dismal howling of the wind at this point, furnished him with the inspiration needed for his most favored masterpiece.” The card fails to mention that Longfellow had not visited Gloucester when he wrote the poem or that the ship Hesperus actually met its ruin in Boston. Such details did not deter other publishers of similar cards either: S. E. Rogers of Gloucester identified a similar image as “the place where Longfellow, the poet, located the wreck of the Hesperus,” and Frank Rowell, a publisher in Boston, simply quoted lines from the poem: “Like a sheeted ghost, the vessel swept / Towards the reef of Norman’s Woe.” On another card, Procter Brothers identified the place as “Hesperus Gulch,” equating a ship that had no connection to Gloucester beyond Longfellow’s poetic imagination with the local landscape in an effort to draw people here. An advertisement for a steamship, most likely the Cape Ann, which was in service from 1895 to 1917, used a similar tactic. During “thirty-one miles of unsurpassed scenery,” the steamer trip offered views of “norman’s woe rock ... made famous by Longfellow’s ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus.’ ” Longfellow was, inadvertently, Gloucester’s greatest ambassador for tourism.

Gloucester’s natural beauty remains for all to enjoy today, whether visitors arrive at the northeastern tip of Massachusetts by Uber, railroad, or on foot. The Cape Ann Museum’s permanent exhibitions tell the histories of the fishing and granite industries, and the archives in neighboring collections complement the Museum’s impressive collections.


[1]. Wendy Warren, New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America (New York: Liveright, 2016), 58.

[2]. Stephanie Buck, “As the Wind Turns, or There Is No Such Thing as Plain Sailing: Mishap and Mayhem on the High Seas,” lecture, Cape Ann Museum, January 7, 2012.

[3]. Charles Johnson, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, and Also Their Policies, Discipline and Government (London: printed for Ch. Rivington, J. Lacy, and J. Stone, 1724), preface.

[4]. Stephanie Buck and John Huss, “The Hunters and The Hunted: Early Mariners of Cape Ann,” lecture, Cape Ann Museum, August 5, 2017.

[5]. Ibid.

[6]. Douglas L. Stein, American Maritime Documents, 1776–1860 (Mystic, Conn.: Mystic Seaport Museum, 1992), 80.

[7]. “Reconnaissance Survey Town Report” (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Commission, 1985),

[8]. Cape Ann Scientific and Literary Association,  Along the Old Roads of Cape Ann (Gloucester, Mass.: F. S. and A. H. McKenzie, 1923), 15.

[9]. William Bentley, Diary of William Bentley, 1793–1802, vol. 2 (Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1907; reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1962), 417.

[10]. Frank L. Floyd, Manchester-by-the-Sea (Manchester, Mass.: Floyd’s News Store, 1945), 111.

[11]. Barbara H. Erkkila, Hammers on Stone: The History of Cape Ann Granite (Woolwich, Maine: TBW Books, 1980), 74, 83, 95.

[12]. See The Fishermen’s Own Book (Gloucester, Mass.: Procter Brothers, 1882), 133–134; Samuel Eliot Morison, Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783–1860 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1921), 312; and Harold A. Innis, The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940), 330. Cape Ann Museum Adjunct Maritime Curator Erik Ronnberg was immensely helpful in piecing this information together.

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