Massachusetts – Rocky Neck: Travel without Encounter

On our first New England daytrip during the COVID-19 shutdown, we faced a different kind of touring.  We would normally be visiting museums and capital buildings and popping into antique shops and anything else that looked interesting, but due to the virus these were all closed to us.  After being sequestered without stepping out of our front door for two solid weeks, we were in desperate need of fresh air and adventure.  A drive to Rocky Neck, a picturesque Cape Ann in Massachusetts, and then to meander back to Maine following coastal roads sounded like the perfect adventure.  Along the way, we routed ourselves so we could stop in Danvers, Massachusetts, to pick up a book from a friend…and typical of travel in New England, we stumbled into history. 

In Danvers (formerly Salem Village), at a corner where we were supposed to turn left, we caught sight of the sign for the Rebecca Nurse Homestead and turned right onto its gravel drive instead.  Of course the property was closed, but we were able to get a glimpse of the restored home with portions of its core dating back to the 1600s. 

A quick Google search identified Rebecca Nurse as being one of the Salem witches.  Although people came forward to speak on her behalf at the time of her trial, she was deemed guilty and was hung in 1692 at the age of 71.  Sadly, her innocence was confirmed just twenty years after her death.  The house has been restored and its surrounding acreage is now operated by a non-profit Danvers group.  

After fetching the book that we had come for, we drove on to Cape Ann, a rocky promontory northeast of Boston that stretches into the Atlantic and marks off the top of Massachusetts Bay.  Two ships had arrived in what would become Gloucester in 1632, before the Massachusetts Bay Colony was even established.  They bore fishermen and planters who were the first settlers.  These men had been charged with starting an English plantation for King James I.

In Gloucester, which is now the largest town on the cape, banners declare the city as the “Oldest Seaport.”  On shore the “Fisherman’s Memorial” stands dramatically in all weather as a tribute to the thousands who have lost their lives while working to earn a living on the ocean with its challenges and dangerous conditions.  “They that go down to the sea in ships” are the words taken from Psalm 107:23 and chiseled into the statue’s granite base.

Narrow streets and homes dating back to the 1600s and 1700s confirm that this has been a bustling community for a long time. 

The harbor is still filled with fishing and lobster boats, and it is surrounded by fish processors, warehouses and seafood restaurants. 

Along one of the wharves, a series of billboards show historic photos of the harbor and tell about the history of the Gloucester fishing industry: the types of commercial fishing boats used for different catches (lobster boats, tuna boats and long-liners); changes in fishing practices for improved sustainability like new drag nets; and the challenges faced by fishermen today. 

As we drove away, we spotted a sculpture on a rocky outcropping above the harbor, so we parked the car and climbed the granite steps up the hill to explore.  Fitz Hugh Lane (1804-65), a Gloucester artist known for his marine paintings, is forever posed with his sketchpad in hand in a bronze by Alfred Duca.  (On the rock in the foreground are cast copies of Duca’s sandals.  He died before he could see the sculpture completed.) 

Lane’s paralyzed legs limited his options, so after a brief time as an apprentice shoemaker, he followed his instincts and went to Boston for art training.  Through his paintings and his creative imagination, he more than made up for his limited geographic sphere.  Lane had this granite block house built here on Duncan’s Point and lived in it until he died in 1865.    

My favorite part of this area is Rocky Neck, a spit of land just across the way from Gloucester’s city center.  This “neck” became known as for its artists’ colony that dates back to the mid-1800s.   

Out here, the road feels threatened by the ocean on each side.  The strong tidal surges and vastness of the water beyond underscore the rugged nature of this place.  In contrast, its narrow streets are lined with colorful studios, cafes, homes and a even a thriving boatyard that make it clear that this is a thriving community.  

John Nesta (1945-2017) is a favorite artist of ours who spent forty years living and painting on Rocky Neck and the surrounding areas.  His sturdy build, well-tanned skin and wind-tousled hair gave him the look of a sailor, and he enjoyed recounting tales and talking with visitors to his gallery/home.  When asked about a favorite work, he would always say “I am in love with my next painting.”  

In the early morning throughout the year, he could be found somewhere  in the Rocky Neck/Gloucester area, sitting at his easel and working on a new plein air piece with his “Studio On Wheels” van parked nearby.  

It is fun to drive around the area trying to find the exact spot where he might have been sitting when he was painting a particular piece…the scenes are that recognizable.  Don had even found the location Nesta used for this large landscape.

Rockport is another Cape Ann community that is best visited early in the summer season because it is so popular with tourists that it becomes overrun later in the season.  The historic buildings lining the main streets are filled with shop, cafes and gallerie,s so parking is almost always at a premium.  Only because the virus was keeping so many would-be visitors at home were we able to secure prime parking and window shop at our leisure. 

In spite of the restrictions, lobster rolls still sell…and the owner of this little bookstore was standing at his open-top Dutch door, talking with customers and helping them make selections in spite of their inability to walk the aisles. 

We weren’t wearing masks, so the driver of a city vehicle stopped and kindly handed us a brown bags, each with a mask and a printout of the town’s face covering guidelines.  Thankfully, there was plenty of space for social distancing so we were free to continue enjoying the sunshine and sea breeze.

There was also plenty of space on the beach for social distancing and some people were taking advantage of the beautiful weather to be out enjoying a day on the shore. 

As he was driving, Don caught sight of an old masted vessel and wanted to get a closer view, so we found ourselves wandering in a boatyard in Essex on our way home.   The masts he saw were attached to the “Sylvina W. Beal.”  On the Wooden Boat Magazine website, she is described as an 80-foot converted sardine carrier that was built in 1911 and registered with Bar Harbor as her home port.  Here she looked abandoned and forlorn.  We are hoping someone will get her righted and into a cradle soon so she can be out of the mud, repaired and repainted, and back sailing the waves again.

I wandered around a bit, drinking in the setting.  The buildings were wonderfully weathered, and I couldn’t help enjoying the sense of standing in a place so steeped in history and purpose.  

Another old boat caught my eye and a sign announced that the “Evelina M. Goulart” is 83-foot long and was launched June 29, 1927.  She is described as a transitional fishing vessel.  In summers, up until around 1950, she carried a crew of 11-14 fishermen who harpooned swordfish.  She continued working up until 1985 dragging for cod and haddock with a crew of 9-10 men aboard. 

After leaving the boatyard, we continued our drive along the coast, taking in the historic towns, the changing shore line and the sea air.  We arrived at home well satisfied with our plein air adventure.  In spite of the restrictions, we had enjoyed a stimulating day exploring a very special piece of New England.

2 thoughts on “Massachusetts – Rocky Neck: Travel without Encounter

    1. Amazing what you find when one takes time to travel and investigate. Looking forward to more East Coast..Mom

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