GLOUCESTER — Among the weathered docks and fishermen’s shacks of this renowned port lives another Gloucester: a world of sea serpents and seafaring stories, world-renowned artists and beloved cultural icons.
The problem has always been how to find it. The working waterfront that supplies the city’s lifeblood also presents a maze of piers and industrial lots that are as difficult for visitors to navigate as they are crucial to Gloucester’s economy.
Next month, the city hopes to solve that problem with the opening of Gloucester Harborwalk, a 1.2-mile loop that brings to light previously hard-to-find historical and cultural lore and reunites the city’s main streets and its seaport. It does so with a network of 42 markers that is accompanied by a virtual tour that can be downloaded onto a smartphone.
City officials see the Harborwalk as a way to lure visitors who stop by for lobster, whale watching, or a trip to the beach into longer stays that will help drive the local economy.
“We want people to linger,” said Mayor Carolyn Kirk, as she led a reporter on a preview of the walk on Friday. “We want people to immerse themselves in the history of Gloucester.”
The trick was to get visitors to engage in the waterfront without getting in the way of it. Over three years of planning and community meetings, it became clear that people did not want to “Disney-fy” Gloucester, Kirk said. Rather than sanitize the gritty waterfront, the project was designed to zig-zag in and out of docks that had been inaccessible, giving visitors a glimpse of the maritime port and the cultural treasures within.
“It was designed to avoid that fear of reducing Gloucester to a gimmick,” Kirk said.
The walk stretches from St. Peter’s Square, where viewers learn about St. Peter’s Fiesta and can watch a video of the famed Greasy Pole contest, and leads past City Hall, Main Street, local museums, and waterfront sites.
Outside City Hall, Kirk stopped at a short rectangular pillar of gray, Cape Ann granite. It contained a small panel dedicated to Virginia Lee Burton, the author of the classic children’s book “Katy and the Big Snow,” which is set in a fictional town that she modeled after Gloucester. The panel has a QR code, a black-and-white speckled square that, when scanned by a smartphone, brings up websites connected to the author, including a symphony composed by a Gloucester musician in her honor, and a cover of the book.
Another marker displays Winslow Homer’s renowned painting, “Breezing Up (A Fair Wind),” and describes how the artist’s best-known work was influenced by his visits to Gloucester in the late 1800s.
Closer to the waterfront, a marker tells the story of the Gloucester Sea Serpent, first reported in 1638 and hundreds of times since. According to these accounts, the chocolate-colored creature, whose length ranges from 40 feet to 100 feet, circled boats and sunned itself on the beach of Ten Pound Island.
An interactive segment of the tour describes the story of Howard Blackburn, a Gloucester fisherman who survived five days lost at sea in the winter of 1883 by freezing his hands to the oars of his dory and rowing back to shore.
Visitors are led to a dory similar to the one Blackburn rowed, and a fisherman’s shack full of the gear a Gloucester schooner might have had aboard. This all takes place on the dock adjacent to Maritime Gloucester, a museum and educational center that tells the story of the harbor from the point of view of fishing as well as marine science.
There, the schooner Ardelle operates charter voyages along the coast, and a shuttle that conducts tours of Gloucester Harbor makes a stop. On a hilltop nearby, markers point out the twin bell towers of Our Lady of Good Voyage Church, between which stands a sculpture of the Virgin Mary, who cradles in her left arm a Gloucester schooner.
The city broke ground for the harborwalk in February, and had hoped to open it at the beginning of summer. Instead, workers are still patching up a section of boardwalk leading to a public wharf, and working out the bugs in the technology, such as links that do not work. Kirk said that the city has spent $950,000 of the budgeted $1.2 million; she says there will be a second phase that might create pedestrian walkways from the water to Main Street, or add lighting, but that the project will not go over budget.
The city is now targeting the first week in August for the opening.
Prospective walkers are well warned to remember that Gloucester is about fish — the “unloading, filleting, salting, drying, boning, cutting, grinding, smoking, boxing, packaging, and canning,” as one panel puts it. The tour is no way to beat the heat for anyone who finds the smell of fish in various stages of production less than refreshing.
“That smell means money,” Kirk likes to say, “and jobs.”