November 16, 1909
The Italian Fishermen of Boston
Coming to Be an Important Factor in the Trade of That
Have Developed Flounder Trade From Little to $50,000 a Year
When Italian fishermen first began to ply their trade in
Boston harbor, they formed merely a picturesque addition to an old-established business.
Nobody considered them as a possible important element in the development of the New
England fisheries. Now, when the fish business of Boston has grown to such proportions
that new quarters for its dealers are desirable, the Italians are seen clearly, for the
first time, as an important part of the citys fishing fleets.
From humble beginnings of nearly 20 years ago, they have
grown numerically and economically important. Coming here chiefly from Sicily, poor and
unversed in the language of the country, these fishermen have built up a business which,
were it transferred to a smaller port, would make a greater showing than some of the
old-time fishing communities that aged men today are wont to lament as part of the
"good old days when New England had flourishing fisheries."
There were, in fact, by the last count, not less than 310
boats in the Italian fishing fleet of Boston, having a value of not less than $125,000.
These boats, chiefly of the dory type, or variants of it, are each equipped with gasoline
power. The average per boat is not far from $400, although there are boats in the fleet
worth far more. One recently launched, cost $3,000. The tendency in the fleet is toward
larger and more expensive boats each year, and therefore there is a steady increase in the
capital invested in them.
When the census department sent a special agent to Boston
not long ago, to gather statistics on the fisheries, the official lad some difficulty in
getting the desired facts about the Italian dory fleet, until he came in contact with a
man who knows all about it, who is, in fact, the Father of the Fleet.
This is Frank Ragusa, one of the pioneer
Italian fishermen in Boston, and financial backer of many of the fishermen when they are
getting a start in the business.
Mr. Ragusa could tell the census man
everything he wanted to know, and did so with exactness and in perfect English. He stated
that in the 310 boats of the gasoline dory fleet there were employed 450 men. Their
average earnings are not far from $800 a year each. This brings their total earnings up to
about $350,000 a year.
These figures bear eloquent testimony to the importance of
the Italian fleet from an economic standpoint. Mr. Ragusa contributed
further facts on interest, by stating that not less than 2500 people depend on the
earnings of the men in the fleet for their living, for the fishermen are invariably men of
The fishermen work hard for what they get, and members of
their families help them, for in busy times the wives, boys and girls take a hand by
baiting trawls at home, while the father and husband is away with another set of gear on
the harbor fishing grounds. The fishermans earnings, therefore, represent the labor
of more than one pair of hands.
One windy afternoon, when the frosty autumn air was nipping
ears and fingers, a reporter found Mr. Ragusa at the Eastern packet pier,
superintending the transfer of a load of gasoline barrels from one dory to another, one
part of his business being to supply gasoline to his countrymen.
Quick, genial and intelligent, and speaking English
fluently, Mr. Ragusa talked interestingly of the Italian fishermen.
"People in Boston are just beginning to understand
Italian fishermen." He said. "The Italians are very hardworking, industrious
men. I dont know of any class who work harder. They are up early and late, and they
go out in all kinds of weather, winter and summer. Some of them start for the fishing
grounds at midnight, others at 1 oclock, others at 2, and so on.
"With an early start they are back here by 10 or 11,
ready for the market and otherwise preparing for the next days fishing. They go to
bed early, and the next day they are ready to start on time for down the harbor.
"So you see, they work hard for everything they get.
There are no loafers among them The women and the boys and girls work too, and in that way
a good living is made.
"Most fishermen have two sets of trawls and in the
busy season they take one set home to be baited while they are out fishing. The women bait
them, and when the next set is brought home the baited set is ready to go out."
Anyone who sees the Italian fisherman walking along
Atlantic avenue in the afternoon with tow or three tubs in a nest on his head, may know
that he is bound home with them, and that the hands of his helpmate will soon by busy
baiting them for tomorrows fishing.
Nearly all the Italian fishermen of Boston come from
Sicily, according to Mr. Ragusa. Some few come from Naples; scarcely any
from the northern ports of Italy.
The Sicilians were the first to find a footing in the
fisheries of Boston, and Mr. Ragusa was one of the pioneers. He came here
as a lad from Palermo, attended the public schools, acquired in his plastic days of youth
the American spirit of independence, and a knowledge of English, and when he arrived at
proper years, started to make a place for himself where none seemed to promise.
This was in fishing in and near Boston harbor. He bought a
worn out yacht at the Savin Hill Yacht Club, and, fixing it up, began his patient quest.
That was 18 years ago. It was hard at first. Nobody wanted to buy fish of an Italian
fisherman. The Italians, with their old boats, were laughed at by the regular fishermen,
sailing in trim schooners. But the men of Italy, bided their time, toiled long and hard,
and at last were rewarded.
Nine years ago Mr. Ragusa installed in his
boa the first gasoline engine used by an Italian fisherman in Boston. It was the pioneer
boat therefore of the fine fleet of today. Owing to a lack of knowledge on the part of the
Italian boat builder who installed the engine, the arrangement was not successful; but the
next year Mr. Ragusa had a dory built by Emmons of Swampscott, and in
this was placed an engine that worked.
From that moment, the old yacht, the lumbering fish boat,
built by the Italian workman, and in fact, the oar and the sail, were discarded by the
Italian fishermen of Boston.
The fleet of 1909 shows what rapid progress toward
prosperity the adoption of gasoline has effected among the Italian fishermen, for now not
a single boat not using gasoline power is employed in their fleet.
Many Americans suppose the Italians are a kind of
excrescence on the fish business of Boston; that they do not pay their way in dockage, as
other fishing interests do, and that they represent no vested interest. This is a serious
error, and one that does injustice to the Italians.
Not only do they pay dockage at a rate satisfactory to the
owners of the dock property they use, but they are formed into an organized body, which
looks after the interests of their trade.
This is called, most appropriately, the St.
Peters Fishermens Society of Boston. This society has no
permanent headquarters, but when occasion arises for a meeting, its officers hire a hall
for the purpose. Matters relating to the trade and advancement of the common interests of
the members are discussed.
This organization is sometimes spoken of on the water front
as a "union". It is scarcely that, but an organized expression of the strong
feeling of fraternity that exists among the fishermen. This brotherly feeling extends to
mutual helpfulness in many things, and especially in the fitting out of new boats for men
recently come from the old country.
"I am always ready to help a new man get a boat or an
engine," said Mr. Ragusa. "I advance the money without
interest. I know I wont lose it, for the fishermen are all honest. This year I had
one who owed me $225. He came and paid me $100, and said I will give you the rest
next year at this time. I said All right; youre all right; Im not
worrying. That man will come around next year and pay me. That is the kind of a
thing that has built up our dory fleet."
One feature of the growth of the Italian fishing fleet of
Boston that should not escape the economist, it that the fishermen have made a market for
a catch that was not considered worth marketing before they became a feature in the fish
business in Boston.
This is the flounder catch. When the Italians began
bringing in flounders, 18 years ago, they were a drag on the market. Nobody wanted them,
therefore the dealers could not buy them. The Italians were persistent, and at last a
progressive dealer took 300 pounds of flounders from Frank Ragusa at
three cents a pound. He disposed of them, and bought more. The flounder trade in Boston
thus began. The Italians have cultivated it assiduously, and now, a considerable part of
their fleet, or about 60 boats are devoted to it exclusively. They have dockage space
between the heads of Long and T wharves and it is their boats the visitor to the wharves
The importance of their catch in 1909 may be judged from
the fact that in a single week in September they marketed $5000 worth of flounders. This
was an exceptional week, yet in the flounder season, which is form March to November,
these boats bring in nearly $50,000 worth o flounders, which are readily sold.
"People have become educated to eating flounders,
since I began in the business," said Mr. Ragusa. "It was slow
business showing them how good flounders are. Now we have no trouble selling them. They
all go to parts of Massachusetts, and the other New England states are taking them up. The
fish you see offered for sale in baskets at the head of T wharf are what are left after
dealers have been supplied. I dont mean they have been culled out, but they are the
The flounder season begins about March 15, and is at its
best in September. About November 15, the flounders disappear, going into the mud for the
Deep water flounders are caught the year round, but these
form only a small portion of the supply at Boston. One feature of the Italian
fishermans progress, of which little note has been taken, is the use of the trawl
for catching flounders. No one hereabouts thought of trawling for flounders until the
Italian came. He had ideas of fishing brought from the old world - ideas as old as the
Romans - and these he thriftily merged into what he saw of American fishing practice. The
result was the flounder trawl.
This apparatus is a lighter trawl than is used in the
offshore fisheries for cod and haddock, and the hooks are smaller. There are between 500
and 700 hooks on a trawl, set about 18 inches apart.
This trawl, set at daybreak, catches a fish to a hook when
drawn an hour or two later. By this method the Italian fisherman has garnered from the
harbor bottom a catch that the Yankee fisherman despised, and despising it, did not know
how to secure in a quantity that would pay for the labor.
The bulk of the Italian fleet are not in the flounder
business, however, but are engaged in catching the same sort of fish as other shore
fishermen, namely cod, haddock, herring or other food or bait-fish in season. The present
herring fishing season has not been profitable to the Italians, owing to a prohibition
placed by law on catching the fish by the aid of torches.
The future is promising to the Italian fishermen in Boston.
It is probable that a marked increase in their dory fleet will be noted from year to year.
The fisherman, unlike the Italian laborer, is a permanent
resident of this country. His property interest in his boat ties him to these shores, and
he does not aim to go back to Italy when he has made his "pile". His family is
being reared here in the American style. His children are attending the public schools,
and are living in better circumstances that they would experience in Italy.
The Italian fisherman of Boston, therefore, is a factor in
the citys permanent growth, and his success compensates in a very considerable
measure for the falling off in the New England fisheries in other ports.