“Italian fishing fleet in for Easter,” reads the caption on this Leslie Jones photo taken on April 20, 1930 in Boston. The boats are moored at T-Wharf, now gone except as part of Long Wharf.
The fishermen no doubt lived in Boston’s North End. In 1930, the Italian population peaked in the tiny neighborhood, with 44,000 people crammed into a square mile. The neighborhood was 99.9 percent Italian. One historian said the parking lot at Disneyworld was three times as big as the North End.
People had lived in the North End since 1630. Paul Revere lived there in a house built on the site of Increase Mather’s house. The Old North Church still stands; Paul Revere hung lanterns from its steeple. Thomas Hutchinson, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, lived in a North End mansion before patriots ransacked it in 1765.
By the late 1840s, the North End would develop a red light district and prosperous residents moved away. Irish immigrants moved into the neighborhood, then moved up in the world and out of the neighborhood. Boston Mayor John ‘Honey Fitz’ Fitzgerald and his daughter Rose lived there.
By the time Rose married Joe Kennedy and moved to Brookline, Eastern European Jews started moving in. Then came many, many Italians. At one time 44,000 Italians lived in the North End, more than three times the number of Irish at their peak — 14,000, and more than the 17,000 Jews.
Italian Fishing Fleet
The first Italian fishermen arrived around 1890, mostly from Sicily, nearly all poor and unable to speak English. They eventually played an important role in New England’s fisheries. By 1909, the fleet included more than 300 gasoline powered dories. The fishermen then brought in about $350,000 a year, enough to support 2,500 people. They mostly caught haddock, but also went after cod, herring and flounder using trawl nets.
In 1909, a newspaper reporter interviewed Frank Ragusa, an Italian fisherman who had financially backed much of the fleet. The Out of Gloucester blog quoted the interview.
“The Italians are very hardworking, industrious men. I don’t know of any class who work harder,” Ragusa said. “They are up early and late, and they go out in all kinds of weather, winter and summer. Some of them start for the fishing grounds at midnight, others at 1 o’clock, others at 2, and so on.”
“With an early start they are back here by 10 or 11, ready for the market and otherwise preparing for the next day’s fishing. They go to bed early, and the next day they are ready to start on time for down the harbor.
Though the Italian fishing fleet is gone now, the North End still celebrates the Fishermen’s Feast every August.
With thanks to The Italian Fleet of Boston by R. Sheedy. This story updated in 2022.