THE CUT

Photo by Marty Luster 2011

By Jude Seminara

Gloucester Harbor’s importance as a safe harbor was established early in the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The passage around Cape Ann was perilous in heavy weather, as the loss of several vessels on our rocky shores in the 1630s can attest.  As early as 1638, the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony considered opening a canal through the marsh at the head of the Annisquam River.  The General Court designated three men to determine whether the marsh could be cut through efficiently, yet no work was initiated for five years. 

Richard Blynman, the minister then at Gloucester, was given permission in 1643 to dig a canal through the beach and to maintain the passage through to the harbor.  Passage was free.  Blynman’s canal was wide enough only for small shallops with bulkheads of field stones and spanned by a bridge which swung on a pivot.  The canal was a great convenience to the masters of small vessels spared from making the sometimes treacherous passage around the cape.

After Blynman’s removal to New London, responsibility for maintaining the Cut passed to William Stevens. Apparently, vessel operators were remiss in their obligation to close the bridge, much to the disdain of land-bound travelers.  As a result, in 1704 a fine of six shillings was imposed upon those who failed to close the bridge.  This issue was moot a few years later, however, after a storm and the attendant high tide filled the canal and rendered it unnavigable.  Nathaniel Coit owned the Cut at this time, and he neglected the clearing of it until compelled to do so until compelled by the General Court.  He charged a six shilling toll for its use.

Again, in 1723, a storm and attendant high tide (recall that the harbor did not have the protective bulwark of the Dog Bar Breakwater to prevent southerly swells until 1905) again filled the canal with sand.  Again, the owner, now Samuel Steven, Jr., neglected to have it cleared out; and again, a resolution to the controversy fell upon the government.  The townspeople threatened a lawsuit in 1727, and the selectmen discussed whether the town should pay for the upkeep of the canal but this was voted against.  In 1728, the town gave liberty to any person who cared to clear and maintain the cut.  This must have been a daunting undertaking, since no person came forth, and the canal remained unnavigable for the next 95 years.

The early nineteenth century saw a marked increase in coastal commerce as well as the advent of steam power. Coupled with the depredations of the Royal Navy which ravaged New England’s maritime trade during the War of 1812, these factors inspired the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to enter into a contract with the stockholders of the Gloucester Canal Corporation.  In 1822, the stakeholders in opening the canal raised $13,500: the Canal Corporation’s stockholders provided $600 each, which was matched by the United States Government. The Commonwealth provided $1500.  Work on clearing the canal and installing the drawbridge was completed in August 1823.  The canal was two hundred feet in length and twenty-five feet wide. William Pearce, one of the wealthiest men in town, was first to pass over the bridge; to commemorate the occasion, he held a celebration with cheese, bread, and liquor for the spectators.

Six years later, in 1829, on its passage around Cape Ann, the “Tom Thumb” became the first (and only) steam vessel to pass through the canal. The vessel barely fit between the bulkheads.  Despite the large investment of money and effort, the canal was too narrow and too shallow to be of any use to the vessels of the day, and it once again fell into disuse.

The following year, a fixed bridge replaced the drawbridge, and in 1848, after the construction of the fixed railroad bridge near Dunfudgin rendered the canal useless, it was filled in altogether to make a solid roadway.  Four citizens of the town received land abutting the Cut as compensation for their efforts.  The Cut remained that way for the next two decades until the Aberdeen Granite Company, then working the quarry at Wolf Hill, had it reopened.

In the 1880s, following troubles with the City water supply which inspired the use of the West Gloucester ponds, a water main from the Bond Hill reservoir was installed under the canal.  A hand-cranked drawbridge (which opened upriver) was built in 1900.  Increased pleasure boat traffic on the Annisquam resulted in the dredging of the river, and the canal was deepened and widened from Hangman’s Island (the mainland embankment of the railroad bridge) at Dunfudgin to the harbor.

From 1643 until 1953, the Blynman Canal bridge was the only road into Gloucester until the A. Piatt Andrew bridge brought Route 128 into Gloucester.  The Joan of Arc statue in front of the Legion Building attests to this — modern travelers using Rte 128 approach the horse rump-first; travelers before the opening of the highway would have come into town up Middle Street from Western Avenue (once Canal Street).  Interestingly, the Cut, used by hundreds of boaters each day in the summer, spanned by one of the busiest drawbridges in the country, was closed for almost two hundred years of its existence.

Sources

Babson, John. History of Gloucester

Copeland & Rogers. Saga of Cape Ann

Garland, Joseph. The Gloucester Guide

Pringle, History of Gloucester

4 thoughts on “THE CUT

  1. This history is just what I have wanted. I walk the Boulevard most days. Moved here recently (2016) and have much to learn.

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  2. I grew up in Gloucester and lived on the Stage Fort Park end of town. It still gives me a chuckle when people who live on the east side of town say they live “on island” hey guys you live on Cape Ann only an island by virtue of the CUT man made.Thanks Marty for the history, I always thought the cut was newer.

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  3. Blair,
    An Island defined is a:” Body of land surrounded by water”.
    Man Made or natural it’s still an ‘Island’.

    Like

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