Thursday, October 22, 2015

Precarious Progress, 1898

When classes resumed at the Lane School in September 1898 the Gloucester Daily Times reported that ten of the eleven new pupils had been born overseas. The children's nationalities reflected immigration currents bringing workers to Lanesville: 6 Finn, 3 Swede, 1 Italian.

At this time half the population of harbor-blessed Gloucester was foreign-born. Most of them were attracted to fishing-related opportunities. The cove-sprinkled north side of Cape Ann surrounding Halibut Point snoozed through the boom until entrepreneurs combined mining techniques with ocean transport and Boston capital  to make granite quarrying profitable for distant markets. To be competitive they needed abundant low-cost labor willing to accept back-breaking dangerous work. That meant recruiting abroad.

Clearing grout from the quarry floor
Photo courtesy of the Sandy Bay Historical Society
Most of the unskilled quarry workers came from Scandinavia. Among the push factors for emigration were insecurity and limited prospects at home. The young men of Finland, then a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, faced military conscription for the continental aspirations of Czar Nicholas. Nineteenth-century Sweden experienced periodic famine and rebellion. 

In 1898 the villages around Halibut Point supported about 1,300 Finns and Swedes on its Rockport side and about 1,900 on its Gloucester side. Downtown they were hardly known. 
On March 1st the Times made mention on page 6 of a blast at the Pigeon Hill Granite Co. that killed quarry worker John Corscus, recently married. There were no subsequent references in the newspaper to his family or circumstances.
Granite paving blocks awaiting shipment from Lane's Cove,
piled behind the fish shacks
Pictures from the Past: Lanesville & Vicinity vol. 1, 2009
After ten-hour days in the quarries, as well as during winter or production layoffs, stone cutters developed supplemental operations to make paving blocks for the granite exporters.

On August 8 the Times reported the auction of 80,000 paving blocks on the wharf of the Lanes Cove Pier Company. The blocks belonged to the Lanesville Granite Company which had lost its shipping schooner Charlie Steadman, washed ashore at Pigeon Cove Harbor in the tremendous gale of February 1st. The company probably buckled under that loss.

Postcard from the Richard Lewis Collection
Courtesy of the Annisquam Historical Society
The industry had to respond to new concerns. On September 17 officers of the two largest firms, the  Cape Ann Granite Co. and Rockport Granite Co., escorted through their quarries  a Mr. Stanford, engineer in charge of building the Charlestown dry dock. The Times noted that "a determined effort is being made by the granite companies to have granite used instead of concrete, the whole matter depending on the expense. It is said an effort is being made to get a larger appropriation from Congress, as granite will be the most expensive and the best material for the work."

Louis Rogers inspecting operations for the Rockport Granite Company
Babson Farms Quarry, Halibut Point
Photo courtesy of the Sandy Bay Historical Society
Letter to the Editor
Gloucester Daily Times Sep 30, 1898  
Stone Workers Union of Cape Ann
Messrs Editors: Labor has no protection, all wealth and all power centre to the few, and, the many are their victims and their bondsmen. It would be hard to find any place in this country where the truth of this statement is brought home with such cruel rigour to the hearts and minds of any class who earn their bread by the sweat of their brow, than the stone workers of Cape Ann.

Year after year their wages have been reduced until an existence has almost become an impossibility, instead of earning a wage by their hard and dangerous occupation that ought to maintain them in a decent and respectable manner, they can only with the greatest difficulty keep the wolf form the door, and their existence is that of a drudge of the most degraded kind making life a burden and almost a curse.
These were the views expressed at a meeting of the stone workers held in Channey's Hall Bay View Wednesday evening, who, recognizing that in union there is strength, have united themselves in a bond of fellowship with a view of self protection which promises to become one of the most powerful and beneficial organizations for stone workers in this district which has ever been.

The object of this Union is to cultivate feelings of brotherly interest in each other, to earn adequate pay for their work and to endeavor to cultivate the moral, intellectual and social conditions of the members, but in a special manner does it consider it one of its foremost duties to care for its sick members. The regular meeting takes place every Wednesday evening at 7:30, and all who work on stone are earnestly requested to become members.

Labor gang in a quarry
Pictures from the Past: Lanesville & Vicinity vol. 1, 2009
The forces of nature and man jostled against each other to shape the patterns of survival and prosperity. Immigrants then as now struggled mightily for a toehold in the new land. They were grist for its mills. They were its raw energy. In 1898 they depended on mutual aid and charity. There was no safety net.

People move in planetary energy adjustments similar to weather fronts moving from high toward low-pressure zones. The populating of America proceeded, clinically speaking, to equalize global energy imbalances. Indigenous cultures - and all entities at a lower dynamic state - become transmuted, invigorated or lost. Migrants are transformed as well, their native traditions scarcely recognizable within a few generations.

Movements driven by necessity and imagination encounter invitation and/or resistance, according to political dispositions at the time. Similar factors influence economic and class mobility within the society. 
Since before Exodus people have sought to overcome barriers to the Promised Land. Desire is human, happiness divine.


  1. Dear Mr. Ray,
    I'm sitting with your brother who is very proud of you and introduced me to your writing. Thank you for your efforts to make the past relevant for today and keeping the lessons about the American experience, which our ancestors paid so dearly to learn, from being forgotten.