1850-1947The Irish in the FortPeople and Communities, Neighborhoods, 400 Stories Project

By Anne Power Parsons

Anne Power Parsons grew up in Gloucester and became intrigued with her Irish family history, thanks in part to a collection of letters written by her father, Donald Maurice Power. In addition to describing their own family history, the letters revealed glimpses of the vibrant community of Irish fishermen and their families living in the Fort during the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. Much of the story focuses on Mary Ellen Power, the author’s great aunt.


As a child of ten in the early 1950s, I recall driving with my father along Commercial Street in Gloucester’s “Fort” neighborhood when my father, Donald Maurice Power, pointed to a small vacant lot and said, “That is where the Power family owned a house. I went there with my father to collect rents.”

The Fort was a busy, crowded neighborhood where families co-existed with wharves, warehouses, and fish processing plants. Box trucks and tractor-trailers jammed narrow roads as they loaded and unloaded fish. My father continued talking about the stories of our family, but I had no curiosity then about our family’s history or the lives they forged in the Fort.

Years later, when I was married and had my own children, I began asking questions about the Power family and their early years in Gloucester. The Fort, as a place of family history, now intrigued me. I wanted to know more about the three generations of Gloucester men who fished the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and Georges Bank, first on sailing ships and then on diesel-powered trawlers. Most of all, I wanted to know what it was like for the women and children left behind for weeks and months at a time, waiting for their husband’s safe return from sea.

Conversations with my father also sparked memories of my early years in the Fort. In the winter of 1945, my father returned from the Navy, and we became a family once again. I was four years old and loved riding my tricycle on the wraparound porch of “Sea Spray,” a small two-bedroom house owned by the Tavern Hotel on Beach Court. Our house fronted Pavilion Beach with a view of Ten Pound Island, its brown brick tower and blinking light, and the small keeper’s house. In warm weather, my family and I walked along Pavilion Beach searching for mussel and clam shells, and occasionally we found precious green sea glass.

My father once again told me his stories. He answered my questions by typing on his manual typewriter with- out the benefit of correction tape or spell check with a preference for “all caps.” The first letters were written in the 1970s, and he continued to write until his death in 1988. He shared this story as told to him by his aunt, Mary Ellen Power, who was godmother to us both. I seek to bring both of their voices to these pages.

Mary Ellen grew up in the Fort, living in a house on 77 Commercial Street, now the vacant lot my father once showed me. Dad describes the house in one of his letters to me:

“77 Commercial Street was right handy to the waterfront and Mary Ellen stayed there. There were transient guests as well, children whose families were broken up by frequent deaths at sea and many who were injured in dock accidents.”


Gloucester harbor was defended from its point, a rocky granite outcrop fortified by a stone wall, with an earthen work battery manned by cannons. Through the years, this point had several names: Watch House Point, the Old Battery, Fort Defiance, Fort Head, and today “The Fort.” In the 1860s, the closing years of the Civil War, the United States government decommissioned the area. Due to vandalism and fire, few buildings remained.

The Fort’s development is traced to George H. Rogers, a merchant who had amassed his wealth during the years of the Surinam, China, and India trade. He had recently expanded his wharves at Fort Point to accommodate a large fleet of vessels for the burgeoning cod and halibut fishing industry.

With his wharves newly expanded, Rogers built twenty houses on what was formerly Fort Defiance. An earthen road named Marginal Way, now Fort Square, was built along the perimeter. Two simple building styles dominated the area: small, wooden gabled houses with two bedrooms and larger, multi-family homes with four bedrooms. Due to the ledge outcropping, houses incorporated a raised brick basement with a full-sized door for easy access. Houses had twenty-foot frontages and extended to the road with no setbacks. The main entrance doors were centered with equal windows on each side—a walkway, or right-of-way, of approximately ten feet separated houses.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the Irish were desperate to escape the potato famine and poverty that swept throughout Ireland from 1845 through 1852. This devastation fell upon the Irish, who had barely recovered from the cholera epidemic that claimed 50,000 lives.

Rogers soon prospered by recruiting a workforce of able and experienced Irish fishermen who would work on his vessels and live in his newly constructed houses. Within a few years, the workforce transitioned from a transient population of single men to a new stream of immigrants: young families seeking work, homes, and education for their children.


Our Power family’s story is traced to this history. The first Power family members arrived in America following the potato famine. Brothers Matthew and Patrick Power were fishermen from the small fishing village of Helvick, a headland on the southern end of Dungarvan, Ireland, of County Waterford. Dungarvan was once a notable exporter of fish throughout the British Isles and the Continent, but the withdrawal of government loans for boat repairs and equipment quickly eroded the industry for most of the fishermen. For several years, the Power brothers sustained their fishing business by securing financial loans from the Quakers, which allowed them to repair boats and purchase provisions and gear. When the Quakers stopped their loans, the Power brothers encountered financial hardships and a growing regulatory environment that eroded their livelihood.

Ireland’s devastation is captioned in this excerpt from Desperate Haven: The Poor Law, Famine, & Aftermath in Dungarvan Union:

“Ring District and the wretched conditions of its inhabitants, a hardy race of fishermen, whose boats were out of repair, their oars had been burned as fuel, their clothing, furniture and fishing gear had been pledged for food and in one village alone one hundred families were daily receiving public relief.”

Matthew and Patrick finalized plans to immigrate to America, a journey that included Mary and Ellen Welch, two sisters from the thriving fishing port of Youghal, Cork. We don’t know where or how these future couples met, but the sisters took passage on the Meridien and arrived in Boston in November 1853. They had arranged a date to meet in Boston’s North End.

“It has been told by Mary Ellen Power, (Matthew’s daughter) that the men went looking in the North end of Boston for the girls, and there in the Marketplace were the two colleens shopping. Since the church is off the Square, it took no great imagination to figure out that they said a few prayers in the church and very shortly each man married his girl, in this church.” Donald Maurice Power

The newly married couples established homes on the second floor of warehouses at People’s Ferry Wharf in Boston’s North End. Today the location is known for its luxury harborside hotels and waterfront condominiums. Both couples were eager to relocate to Gloucester, where the men had found employment in the fishing industry, like many of their Irish countrymen. Like so many immigrants, they hoped to prosper, own their own homes, and provide education for their children.

In April of 1864, Mary Power purchased a house at 59 Fort Square from Mr. Rogers. In 1866, she bought a second house at 77 Commercial Street, signing the deeds with an “x.” Her sister Ellen purchased a home on 46 Fort Square, joining a growing neighborhood of Irish immigrant families living in single and multiple-family dwellings.

A passage from one of the property deeds reads: “…to Mary Power, wife of Matthew, do hereby give grant, bargain, sell and convey unto the said Mary Power, the same to be held by her in her own right free from interference of her said husband in the same manner as if she were the sole and unmarried and to her heir and assigns forever…”


Matthew and Mary’s daughter, Mary Ellen Power, began school at the Forbes School, located at the intersection of Washington and Middle Streets, in what is now known as the American Legion—an impressive two-storied building with massive columns at its entrances. Before accommodating a school, the building had served as Gloucester’s first City Hall until 1867.

From their house, Mary Ellen joined other neighborhood children walking to school along Commercial Street, passing flake yards for drying cod, sail lofts, fish houses, docks, and warehouses bordering the harbor side. The walk took them past a saloon, livery stable, and the Town Landing on Harbor Cove—a gathering place for older fishermen. Families placed a high value on education; however, financial hardships required some young children to work.

“The Power children attended the Forbes School. The boys left after grade 6 to join their fathers fishing. Girls completed grade 8 and went into domestic service or nursing. Girls completing grade 12 became teachers. Ellen F. Power completed high school and Normal school and began her lifelong career first as teacher at Bray, Sawyer, and finally principal at the Eastern Avenue school.” Donald Maurice Power

On Sunday mornings, the family paused from work and attended mass at Saint Ann’s Church on Pleasant Street. Built in the 1850s, this gray stone church, known as the Church of the Fishermen, replaced the temporary wooden church on its site. Saint Ann’s is one of the three churches serving Holy Family Parish today.

Life in this era was demanding for those fishing at sea and women and children left on Gloucester’s shores. Mary Ellen, with blue eyes and brown hair, slim and barely 5’ 4,” proved to be a powerhouse. An energetic worker, she readily helped her mother in domestic tasks. The kitchen had a large cast iron stove that could use both coal and wood to heat the entire house. They laundered clothes using strong homemade soap, a washboard, and a tub and hung clothes to dry on lines between the houses. The women ironed with flat irons heated on the stove, with multiple handles, allowing one iron to warm while the other pressed clothes. They patched clothing and blankets and used newspapers as inner soles to extend the life of shoes. Woolen work socks were darned using her wooden darning egg with a handle. Mary Ellen cut usable fabric from discarded garments to stitch her quilts.

Caring for others became second nature to Mary Ellen. She loved caring for the children in her family and working as a nanny, where she developed a particular fondness for the children of a Gloucester sea captain. The family had invited her to join them on a multi-year voyage to China and India, but her parents would not allow her to make this dangerous journey. During this era, the losses at sea were staggering. Georges Bank, a treacherous shoal, was a primary fishing ground for Gloucester fishermen. High seas and gale-force winds drove many schooners aground. Between 1871 and 1878, seventy-one schooners and 660 men were lost at sea. Matthew and Patrick ventured on schooners to the Grand Banks, Georges Bank, and more distant fishing grounds in Iceland.

“In Gloucester, my father, Maurice, went commercial fishing with his father and had many close calls. The one mentioned most was during a bad storm, all hands were below and in desperation, the Grandfather (Matthew Power) and his son, Maurice, tied each other to the mast as it projects through the fo’c’s’le, so that if the ship sank, they would go down together.” Donald Maurice Power

Fishing was a dangerous business in port as well as at sea. Gloucester did not have a hospital. Volunteers brought injured workers from shipyards, processing plants, and vessels to the nearest house and called Dr. Joseph Garland from his home on Pleasant Street. The doctor traveled in a horse and wagon; the kitchen table was his operating table. If the injured man did not have family nearby, he would stay with the good “Samaritans” until he was fit again to work.

The Power houses at 59 Fort Square and 77 Commercial Street were directly across the street from the piers of Cunningham, Rogers, and Stanwood, presenting a young Mary Ellen with the important charge of caring for the injured workers.

“Mary Ellen Power assisted Dr. Garland, the first and grandfather of the present writer of Gloucester History, Joseph E. Garland. Since there were no hospital facilities in those days, many repair jobs on these people were performed on the kitchen table. In comes the fishing vessel with a man injured. The smart place to take him is to Mary Ellen, and the house at the head of the dock. A messenger is sent up town for the doctor and a horse and buggy comes to Fort Square. After the operation, the patient remained under Mary E’s care until he was able to move about or to go home. Since many did not have connections in Gloucester, they stayed until they were well…If I was sick or injured, she handled the problem out of the kitchen closet. Many products that normally were used for cooking, also, were medical aids.” Donald Maurice Power

Mary Ellen also helped the local midwife when her sister and cousins gave birth at home and provided nursing care for elders in the community. Following her mother’s pattern of purchasing houses in her own name, she bought two houses on Pearl Street and rented them for extra income.

According to land deeds, Mary Ellen and her siblings owned the house at 59 Fort Square for another fourteen years. In 1917, they sold the house to Annie Favalora. In 1918, the family sold 77 Commercial Street to Gracia Scola. In 1917, the descendants of the Patrick Power family, who owned 44 and 46 Fort Square, sold these homes to Mario and Rosalia Linquata. These property transfers signaled a transition in the Fort where a new wave of immigrants, Sicilian fishermen, and their families from the coastal villages of Trapani, Terrasini, and Trappeto arrived in Gloucester to forge a new life. Within the next few decades, Sicilians would replace the Irish community of the Fort.

When Mary Power, Mary Ellen’s mother, died in 1903, she was one of the last Irish immigrants who had settled in the Fort. The obituary described her as honest, upright, genial, pleasant with a large, warm heart, and a valuable and esteemed neighbor whose services were ever at the disposal of those she might help. These words also describe Mary Ellen, who modeled her mother’s strength, independence, and compassion.

I trace my memories of Mary Ellen to 1941, when, at the age of 81, she became my godmother as she had been to my father. As a young child, I visited her home, a third-floor apartment on 22 Mansfield Street with a view of Gloucester Harbor. Her finished attic room’s batten board walls and ceiling were ocean blue; the wrought iron bed was covered with homemade quilts and feather beds. She tucked me in a feather bed with multiple quilts for cover when I stayed overnight. I felt like a princess in a fairy tale.

The Mansfield Street house, my father’s first home, offered extra income to the family as they rented rooms first to fishermen and then to young scientists working for Clarence Birdseye in the Fort. Mary Ellen and her widowed sister-in-law continued ownership of their homes in the Fort, renting rooms to families for extra income. In their home, they kept the traditions of using a washboard with brown homemade soap, ironing with flat irons, and cooking meals on the coal stove. They heated with coal, tending the fires and ashes from the basement’s bin. Once a week, an iceman delivered a block of ice for the wooden ice box.

I remember Mary Ellen with long white hair pulled back into a bun under a thin hair net. I later learned from her neighbors how they would watch her wash and color her hair on the back porch; tea was used for dye. I can envision her by the window as she sewed quilts and aprons with her prized treadle sewing machine. She continued to sew well into her eighties. When I was a child, she gifted me one of her aprons for Christmas. The apron was not the ruffly pinafore type but a serviceable white one with a bib pinned to the bodice. She had made mine just like hers.

In December 1947, my beloved great-aunt Mary Ellen died at 87, living long enough to see her grandnephew carry on the Power name. I eventually inherited her sewing supplies, a button tin, and stacks of squares cut for future quilts. I learned to sew on her Singer Treadle and finished her log cabin quilt to use in my dorm during my first year at Emmanuel College. When my parents died, they gifted me her beautiful red and white Sawtooth quilt— the official quilt block design for Massachusetts. My love of sewing and quilt-making has been passed on to my daughters and granddaughters.

Today, few of the original houses remain in the Fort, but if one looks closely, as I did, one might envision the original fishermen’s homes. Remove the dormers, bump-outs, additional floors, picture windows, and siding, and you might see the shadows of women sewing by windows, men mending nets in front yards, and small children searching for sea glass. For over one hundred and fifty years, immigrants from across the Atlantic have shaped the foundation of this proud and robust working community—the place we call the Fort.


My gratitude is extended to my father, Donald Maurice Power, for instilling in me a love for Gloucester and our family roots. Thanks to cousins Janet Nolan and Isabel Wilkenson who share enthusiasm for our common Power ancestry. To my brother, Donald Maurice Power, Jr. for his unfailing support; it is through his family that our Power family line continues for at least two more generations. To my husband of 60 years, Aylmer Parsons, who supports my family history research from our Descendant Sail on Adventure, visits to long lost ancestors at Oak Hill and Calvary and the tour of houses. To my five adult children and their spouses: Steven and Jacqueline Parsons Owens, Thomas and Kim Parsons, Kevin and Karen Parsons Penird, Craig and Akiko Parsons and Stewart and Rebecca Parsons. They have shared our Gloucester reunions at the WWII memorial, Lost at Sea Cenotaph, sunsets over Ipswich Bay and who proudly don Cape Pond Ice and Adventure shirts from Mom’s hometown. They have also traced family roots in Ireland both with me and on their own.

Thank you to Esther Bray Young, my childhood and family friend, who invited me to spend the week at her home in Lanesville, while I did my daily research in the microfilm and microfiche newspapers of the Sawyer Free Library (SFL). I appreciate the combined effort of the Cape Ann Museum and the SFL to digitize the Gloucester Daily Times. To the National Archives in both New York City and Philadelphia (prior to digitization of US census and online access). Boston Public Library reference librarian Henry F. Scannell, who located Peoples Ferry Road in Boston End between Lincoln’s Wharf and Battery Wharf in the 1860s. Gloucester City Hall Archives volunteers who researched homes/deeds owned by the Power family from 1864-1964; PC and LH are their signatures on this research. Gloucester City Clerk’s office for birth and death certificates of family members. I thank the Waterford Museum in Dungarvan and in particular Willie Fraher, Eddie Cantwell and most of all Nioclas Graves who know my Power ancestry in Helvick and County Waterford and the sharing of the Gloucester/Helvick fishermen connections.

Thank you to the Director of the Gloucester400+ Stories Project, Terry Weber Mangos, who never gave up on my story. To workshop instructor Ellie O’Leary, who helped me focus on one family remember and to envision the neighborhood of the 1860s. And finally, my gratitude goes to writer and Gloucester400+ volunteer, Maria (Mia) Millefoglie who shares my interest in the generations of fishing families in “The Fort ‘’ and has added her own research, writing and editing skills to make it happen.


Anne “Nancy” Power Parsons grew up in Gloucester and attended St. Ann School grades 1-12, graduating as Valedictorian with the class of 1958. She graduated from Emmanuel College and also College of New Jersey/ Trenton State and taught school in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and the last 32 years at the Midland School in NJ. Anne is married to engineer Aylmer Parsons. They have 5 grown children, 15 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren and have lived in Readington Township, NJ, since 1975.

REFERENCES The Letters of Donald Maurice Power Gloucester City Clerk’s office Gloucester City Hall Archives* Gloucester Daily Times National Archives Office: NY & Philadelphia Sawyer Free Library Waterford Museum, Dungarvan, Ireland Desperate Haven: The Poor Law, Famine, & Aftermath in Dungarvan Union by William Fraher, William Whelan Bernadette Sheridan, Seosaimh O Loinsigh The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America’s Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original by Mark Kurlansky. *Includes land and property deeds of 77 Commercial Street (1918, Bk 2396, p.265); 59 Fort Square (8-4- 1917, Bk 237, p.456); and 44 Fort Square (6-26-1917, Bk 2367, p.563). Note that spelling of one person’s last name varied across different documents.
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