April 3, 1913
Capt. Smith Tells of the
Last summer, when lying at anchor in my motor boat at
"Long Cove," Rockport, my mind went back to the long ago, almost to the very
beginning of the fisheries in Sandy Bay, and the scenes about this place in these old days
came back to me as though unchanged after all these years.
"The piers and breakwater were unbuilt in my early
memory, but in the fish houses about "The Cove", in summer evenings, would
gather the old men, (many of whom had fought in the war of Independence) as well as
privateersmen of the war of 1812. As a boy I would listen to their tales of adventure on
sea and land during the wars; the stories of sea captains all the almost blood curdling
tales of hand to hand combat up the deck of an enemy, which not only filled me with awe,
but a great respect for the men who had fought their countrys battles on both land
There is not a place in New England where nature provided
so little and where the people have done so much as in Old Sandy Bay, and the stone
wharves that were built by the bone and sinew of these thrifty people have withstood the
storms and the elements these many years and will be handed down to future generations as
monuments to their thrift almost until the end of time.
There have been many changes since my early memories and it
may be interesting to recall those early days when "Sandy Bay" was a prosperous
fishing center, in fact, one of the most important centers for this industry in New
Our records of the early fisheries of old Sandy Bay are
History tells us that in the year 1695 John Babson
received a grant of land at Straitsmouth Point to set up a fish house and an old cellar
still marks the site this house was located.
Without doubt the fisheries were conducted or carried on
from Long Cove and small boats were used which were easily pulled up on the shore out of
danger from the sea.
The point of land called Bear Skin Neck, tradition tells
us, received its name from the fact that Babson killed a bear there,
drying the skin upon the rocks; his weapon, it is related, was an old fish knife and it
was a common expression when I was a boy, if one had an old knife, to remark, "this
is the knife with which Babson killed the bear." (It is quite
probable that this tradition is founded upon some actual happening, for there were
families living upon the Neck at that time and without doubt bears often came down from
the woods attracted by the smell of fish.)
I hope that the Sandy Bay Antiquarian Society has
preserved that old knife (or some one of the numerous knives claimed to have been this
Whether all the Babsons on the Cape claim lineage to this
renowned bear slayer I do not know, but if so they might in all justice take as their coat
of arms, the engraving of a mighty arm suspended over the form of a slain bear, and in the
hand a long fish knife.
While in the early fisheries very small boats were
employed, with the increase in the industry larger craft were built and as these later
craft were too cumbersome to be easily hauled up on the beach or upon the shore, moorings
were put down in Long Cove and the boats were thus anchored.
These moorings were made from large stones with a hole
drilled through, attached to which would be a long chain or cable. While in the main this
was safe anchorage during very heavy easterly storms, sometimes either from the moorings
parting or dragging, many craft would be thrown high upon the shore.
The craft which followed the very early small boats were
from six to fifteen tons burden, standing from affairs, or partly decked over carrying
from two to four hands.
I very well remember some of those old time boats and their
crews, some of them old men whose memory went back to the very beginning of the early
fisheries of Sandy bay. As a small boy, I took great interest in their stories of earlier
days, and I recall the quaint dress of many of them, their long hair done up in queues
hanging down their back. Even then this style of dressing the hair and the wearing of knee
buckles was fast disappearing and was uncommon except with the very old men.
These newer and larger boats were called Chebacco boats for
the place where they were built (now Essex).
When a severe easterly threatened, most of the boats were
taken around to the harbor, or perhaps 'Squam, where they might safely weather the storm.
It may be seen that these early fishermen pursued their calling under some considerable
In the late fall when the fishing season was over the
smaller crafts would be hauled out upon the shores about the Cove, long spars being laid
down, well greased and with block and tackle the boats would be drawn up above the high
water mark while the larger crafts were taken around to the Harbor or laid up for the
winter at Squam.
In those early days there was no such things as "race
suicide" and large families were common, there was a great supply of boys and these
were put into the fisheries very early in life often at the age of nine or ten.
The schooling was very simple and consisted of but few
weeks in the winter time. There was little time for idling for when the fishing season was
done, in the late fall, there was the winters wood to get in, there being no coal in
those days, and if it happened so there was snow, sleds were used in hauling in the wood,
but often it was burdened in and those old-fashioned fireplaces consumed much wood as we
boys could testify.
It is said that parents would suspend a cod-line from an
attic window and attached to this would be a dried codfish and here the small boys had
their first lessons in hauling in fish. Many of the families had in the yards an old dory
and the children would play in this, throwing out the anchor or playing at rowing, but
this pastime was soon left for the greater sport of fishing fur cunners and pollock from
the rocks about the shore. At the age of nine or ten these boys would be in the boats with
the men, preparing their simple meals and while very young would often be numbered among
In the spring when the season for fishing opened, the first
thing to be done was to prepare the mooring which had been taken up in the fall and some
sailor man would be engaged to make a splice nor would he touch a marlinspike until the
main brace (a drink of New England rum) was first furnished.
The boat would have been previously tarred and made ready
for launching, which was not a difficult matter and after being put off to the moorings,
the fireplace would be rebuilt. An old man, whom we called "Uncle" Mike, did all
this work and he would not touch a brick until he had first been furnished with a pint of
New England rum, after which the job would be speedily completed.
Most of the boats, practically all, carried at least one
boy ad he was supposed to be provided with a tinder box, with tinder (dry rags), with pine
chips dipped into hot brimstone. With flint and steel it was possible to get a light, but
when fishing a brand was always kept burning in the cabin fireplace as the noise of the
flint striking against steel often awoke the sleepers. The friction matches of our present
day were unknown to these early fishermen.
There were no Ingersoll "dollar watches" nor were
clocks in use on fishing boats in those days and time was reckoned by the hour glass and
the height of the sun by the Robert B. Thomas Almanac. At night the movement of
the stars in the heavens would tell them the hour.
A boys duty aboard these craft was to cook the plain
repasts, make stew and fry fish, fill and light pipes, mixing grog and such minor things
as he might be called upon to do. A boy of nine or ten was considered quite old enough to
act as cook on these boats and acting in this capacity a few short years he soon graduated
into a full-fledged fisherman, even while very young.
In the early days there were no wharves where boats might
lay and take on cargoes and fish was loaded on vessels to be taken to Boston and other
places under severe difficulties and much inconvenience.
In 1819 some parties obtained permission and built piers at
what was called Whirlpool Cove. This made a safe harbor for the craft that could not use
With a better harbor larger craft were built to pursue the
Grand Bank fisheries and in the spring, when these craft were fitting and being made
ready, Sandy Bay was indeed a busy place.
There were no railways in those days, where vessels could
be hauled out and painted and in the spring it was a familiar sight to see many craft
hauled up high and dry on the beach, as many as the shores would accommodate, all leaning
one way, with their crews, like human ants, working on the under body, cleaning scraping
and painting, or at work in the rigging, bending sails, etc.
As this fleet was a large one, almost every family had one
or more members, sometimes all of the make members, sailing away at one time and on the
occasion of the getting away of the Grand Bank fleet the women and children, mothers,
wives and sweethearts would come down to the shore to watch them fade away in the
distance, sometimes never to return to the watchers at home.
Those old wharves and piers, now deserted, still stand as a
monument to those early fishermen, to the perseverance of the people of Sandy Bay of that
In 1836, the needs of greater protection for the large
increase being apparent, the national government was induced to build a breakwater.
At this time there were some 12 vessels engaged in carrying
fish to New York, Boston, and other places, some going as far even as to southern ports
and the West Indies.
With the building of the breakwater the fleet largely
increased both in size and numbers and there were some 80 craft kept at the moorings of
There was no lack of numbers of boys and as they grew
competent they were pushed ahead, first on perhaps a quarter shore and later one-half,
until they become a full sharesman which was indeed a happy day.
I remember shipping on one of these craft on a
three-quarter share and went several trips; when the first trip was sold the skipper told
the share agent to give me a full share and you may be sure that I was greatly pleased to
be thus advanced. It was always a happy day when the boy arrived at the distinction of a
full sharesman and he was the envy of the other boys who had not yet arrived at this
When the Breakwater was finished, long wharves were built
and a new and better class of vessels, craft of 30 to 40 tons burden, took the place of
the smaller craft.
In the spring the vessels, many of them, fished along the
shore, Boone Island was a favorite fishing ground and the vessels would harbor during bad
weather at York, Maine, Old York we used to call it.
Often there would be as many as 15 or 20 boats anchored
there at a time for it was a most benevolent harbor. York was not much of a place then, a
few log wharves, several farm houses nearby and a grocery store where they kept "West
Indies goods", terms for this was before the days of the Maine prohibition laws.
After visiting the grocery store, the skippers, often as
well as the crew, sometimes would feel quite lively.
For a few years, during the spring fishing seasons, I often
visited York and then, engaging in other branches of the industry it was some 65 years
after when, a few summers ago, I next viewed the place.
I would scarcely have recognized the old town of the years
ago in the changes which had taken place since I had last harbored there; the same beach,
harbor and headlands as in years ago, but all above the waterline was changed, the old
farm houses of years ago had disappeared, the grocery store was gone, the ox carts had
served their day and were also numbered with the relics of the past. Great hotels and fine
summer residences had taken the place of the old farmhouses, a model market had sprung
into existence in the place of the old grocery store, (driven out of business by the Maine
laws) and the ox-cart had given way to the automobiles which were dashing through the
streets with ease and comfort to their passengers. Trolley carry carried people to and
from the beaches and into the surrounding country ad I almost wondered, (like Rip
VanWinkle) if indeed I could be in the right place.
Theatres and moving picture shows, stores on every hand
made the popular summer resort seem almost as a great city; even in the harbor were
splendid looking yachts, gasoline craft and memory took me back to the old days, 65 or
more years ago when I had last visited this place.
Last year while at York in my boat I talked with an old
man, verging onto 90, an old native of the town who still tends his lobster post near the
harbor mouth. His memory of old times set me thinking of by-gone days and one incident of
that time comes back to me after all these years as though it Happened yesterday.
There were quite a fleet of boats fishing off York, many of
them I well recall after these 70 years. (The boats Hake, Roscoe, Democrat,
President, Silk Worm, Camel and Osprey are a few
that were numbered among them.)
The boat Roscoe, Haskell
skipper, had been more successful than most of the boats one day (he had never been in
charge of a boat before) and some of the skippers of other crafts came aboard and told him
how lucky he had been and after having the jug passed around they took off the hatch to
look at the fish. They told Sol that he had not salted them enough, that
there were more fish than he reckoned so the catch was repacked and again salted.
Then there were visits to the shore, the jug refilled and
then another look at the fish and the same performance of resalting was gone through with.
By this time old Sol was feeling pretty nice and he boasted that he did
not care for any man out of Sandy Bay in catching fish, claiming his catch at 30 quintals
(he really had but 12). It was fun for us boys to sit around and see the fun, as we were
in on the joke.
Among the crews of many of these old boats was a great
rivalry, almost laughable seem their boasts, as well as the pride they took in their
favorite craft when compared with the smart trim boats of our day.
Gathered about in some fish house or perhaps the grocery
store, the sailing qualities of the various craft would be argued heatedly until if it
were possible, after a challenge had been issued, boats crews would be chosen with
great care, particular attention being given to a clever helmsman as well as a good man
for the scoot horn, a horn on a long pole with which the sails were drenched with water.
The old fashioned duck, make of hemp, when dry was very open and the many drenchings
served to shrink the fiber until it would hold considerable wind.
After much arguing, the boats would start out, the crowd
gathering at the "Watch House Point" on Bear Skin Neck to see the contest.
Excitement would run high, each man on the shore having his
favorite boat and when the supremacy was finally settled, never finally, perhaps
temporarily, the race would be gone all over again in the arguments of those ashore and
the interest was as great as though it were a contest for the International Cup, among the
people of the town.
In 1840, after completion of the breakwater, the winter
fishery was engaged in many of the craft taking their fish to Boston while fish landed as
Sandy Bay was often hauled over the road to Gloucester in teams, and from there to Boston.
This winter fishery became quite prosperous and many men
were employed during the winter months who had previously to the beginning of this branch
of the industry had found nothing to do this season, between fall and spring.
The mackerel fishery assumed great proportions, these later
day craft being well adapted to the fishery as then pursued. A great many fish were landed
on the wharves and piers at Long Cove (I have seen them literally covered with barrels of
In keeping with the changes in other branches of industry
the mode of catching fish has changed and much of the picturesque and poetry of those old
days has passed into things more modern, the old fish houses are crumbling in decay, the
flakes years have wholly disappeared and the men of former days are gone, almost forgotten
but in the old stone wharves and piers they leave a monument to perpetuate their memory
which will survive, reminding future generations of their energy, almost to the end of
Captain Sylvanus Smith