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Life on the Corner: The Old Waterfront

This is a picture of the North Side of Lewis Wharf. The metal clad sheds were used as warehouses. One had a crab company where North End women “picked” crabs to get the meat. The schooner was a private yacht, probably tied up there for a few days. I love the rake of its masts. (Photo: Nick Dello Russo)

By 1965 my family had left Salem Street and was living over my father’s tavern at 3 Lewis Street. Tarquino Gilardi, one of the guys who hung out in the tavern, renovated the first floor for us and for the first time we had an apartment with heat and hot water.

East of Hanover Street was where all the Sicilians lived and I was now faced with the prospect of making new friends. I started hanging out in Mazza’s Pool Hall on Short Prince Street and met up with a great group of guys, Joe Cat, Bozo, John Sergi, Vito Aluia, Sal Caccia, Joe Bono and many others who were the children of the Sicilian fishermen. The abandoned wharves along Atlantic Avenue were our playground. We speared eels and snagged herring in the summer, caught smelts in the winter and fished for crabs with gurry from the fish companies on Atlantic Avenue.

Union Wharf, 1965. There is a ferry going across to East Boston. Note the World War II vintage aircraft carrier in the top left side. Our club was under the burned timbers. (Photo: Nick Dello Russo)

We had a club under the charred timbers of Union Wharf which we called the “Burnt Wharf” because of the fire in the early 1950’s. We swam naked from the granite wharf foundation but never in August when moon jelly fish filled the harbor. It really was a terrific place to grow up, not always safe but an awful lot of fun. There was one fellow we called Lenny the Clam who occasionally came around but we avoided him because of the bizarre things he did with stray dogs and cats under the wharf.

By this time the working waterfront was gone and rumbles of re-development were in the air. The fishing fleet had moved on, the smaller boats to Gloucester and the big draggers to Northern Avenue. The produce warehouses were relocated to Widett Circle in South Boston and the packing companies on Fulton Street were dispersed to other parts of the area. The BRA had plans to tear down many of the old warehouses along Fulton and Commercial Streets and build modern mid-rise housing but neighborhood opposition caused them to change their minds.

I had just bought a Japanese camera (Minolta) and I experimented with it by taking pictures of the waterfront I knew. I thought I had lost those pictures but my daughter recently found them and Matt has allowed me to share them. These pictures show the waterfront fifty years ago, before it was re-developed. I hope you enjoy them.

This is the South side of Lewis Wharf. The metal clad shutters are falling off their hinges and the wharf timbers are in terrible disrepair. Carl Koch, an MIT trained architect, was one of the developers of Lewis Wharf. His firm also built the North End library. I live in a house he designed. (Photo: Nick Dello Russo)
Two fishing boats at Eastern Packet Pier. The Ethlena was owned by Joe Cat’s father, Cowboy Catanzaro. These boats were Eastern rigged meaning they dropped their fishing gear over the side rather than the stern like the larger Western rigged boats. This made them rock a lot in heavy seas. As a group the North End fishermen were the greatest bunch of guys I ever knew. Brave to a fault, they loved being out at sea in all kinds of weather. They fished without all the fancy electronics available today and found their way to the fishing banks using only a compass and dead reckoning. They watched the birds, sampled the bottom and knew the winds and currents. All those skills have been lost to the allure of satellites. (Photo: Nick Dello Russo)
Eastern Packet Pier. This is my favorite picture. Packets were small, fast boats that sailed between ports. Most came from other American ports but there was a Liverpool packet during the days of sail. When the packet boats left the Italian fishing fleet docked at Packet Pier and T Wharf which was attached to Long Wharf. (Photo: Nick Dello Russo)

Quick quiz: At the end of T Wharf was a restaurant. Does anyone remember it’s name?

Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.

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24 Replies to “Life on the Corner: The Old Waterfront

  1. Just a small correction to list here, about one of the photo captions (viewed when mousing over a picture). I noticed when mousing over the picture of the fishing boats, that Joe Cat’s father (Cowboy) is listed as being the owner of the Ethelena. I just wanted to point out that it was Joe Cat’s uncle Dominic’s boat (Cowboy’s brother). I’m Joe Cat’s nephew (his sister Marie’s son, Cowboy’s grandson). Other than that, I wanted to say I enjoyed the article and pictures, and seeing Uncle Joe (Cat) mentioned! 🙂

    1. Thanks George, I really appreciate your input. I thought Cowboy and Dominick, I think my father called him Dong Dong, were on the same boat. I have a picture somewhere of a 26 pound lobster they dragged up on the banks. My father cooked it in the tavern in four separate pots and made fra diavolo sauce.

  2. Hi Nick, yeah, Cowboy spent some time on the Ethelena. I talked to Dominic’s daughter on Facebook today, and she had some pictures of them on the boat. She informed me that when Dominic passed, the boat was sold to a fisherman in Gloucester who renamed her to the Captain Cosmo, which was later lost at sea with all hands (from the research I did, it happened in George’s Bank in 1978, and no sign of the boat or crew was ever found.) She also told me that the boat docked next to the Ethelena in this picture was the Olympia LaRosa. Thanks for these articles, they’re great to read, especially for someone who missed some of these events (as I wasn’t born until 1970.)

    1. Those were the days of wooden ships and iron men, a hard life.
      I remember back in the fifties when Suzie Black’s brother Charlie (Cha Cha) Piazza was drowned. The boat he was on was steaming back from the banks in rough weather with a hold full of fish. The helmsman missed Race Point and the boat ran hard aground on one of the Truro sand bars. They were taking a terrible beating from the waves and the guys were huddled in the pilot house trying to get the radio working. Cha Cha decided to go for help because they were only about a hundred feet off the beach. He jumped overboard but, like most fishermen, he couldn’t swim so he never made it to shore. The rest of them were rescued when the seas calmed down. It was a sad day on North Street. They had a big funeral for him at Sacred Heart Church and the cortege stopped along Atlantic Ave. to throw some wreaths into the ocean. Cha Cha was only in his early twenties.

    1. Wow, very impressive, Sal. I thought I was the only one left who would remember that. The restaurant was at the very end of the wharf on the second floor. The logo was a clipper ship outlined in blue. I was too young to have eaten there so I don’t know what they served.

  3. Nick, I dined at the Blue Ship Tea Room many times in the early 1950s, Their famous dish was broiled whale steak. I loved it. If I remember correctly, the whale came from Norway. This was some years before I went to Japan, where I often enjoyed whale. I expect this is not politically correct to admit today. At the Tea Room, there was a man who played the piano. I would have loved to have rented a place on the wharf. As you recall, there were apartments on T-wharf. Very Bohemian. I always think of T-wharf when we walk past Christopher Columbus Park. Many thanks for the memories, Nick.

    1. I do remember those apartments. They were on the top floors with fish markets underneath them. If you saw someone walking to work on State Street wearing boots on a sunny day you knew they lived on T Wharf. At every spring tide the wharf was under a foot of water. I ate whale steak in Provincetown many years ago and liked it. It had the consistency of beef but tasted like fish.

    2. Thanks for the reference to the Blue Ship Tea Room. My mother used to take me there on the weekly historical excursions (from Dorchester) she organized for me–and sometimes, my friends when I was 7 or 8 in the late forties. What I remember most were the candles in old brass candlesticks that stood on the rustic old tables. They were all filled with foreign coins, which my mother told me, were left by sailors and travelers. We used to play a game of quizzing each other about their countries of origin. In the days before the Freedom Trail we walked the route, went into the buildings, lingered in the bookstores on Cornhill. Those trips to the city instilled in me a love of our city and its history which has lasted now into my seventh decade! The Blue Ship holds a special place in my memories of those days. Thanks for showing the old brochure.

  4. I just want to comment on how little we had back then and much we enjoyed living here. I still live here.
    Thanks Nick keep it coming.

  5. Thanks for the memories. Also used the broken down wharf as a playground. Bozo gave us our first lesson on dissecting(sp) a fish. With just a line with a hook on the end he caught a fish. He told us we could not fish there because the fish were spawning. He then cut open the fish and showed us the eggs and the organs (naming each one). If I can find the pictures we took that day I will send to you. Great Memories

  6. Thanks, Nick, for reminding me about hanging in Mazza’s Pool Hall on Little Prince St. I remember leaving the pool room . When I got home, my clothes reeked of tobacco smoke. I never smoked, but I could not convince my mother of that. I remember hanging on the “Burnt Wharf”. And, also hanging on Lewis Wharf in the buildings of the old Ferry.

    I do have some photos of the Blue Ship Tea Room on T Wharf. This restaurant was involved in a famous civil case back in the
    40s or 50s. A woman had sued the Restaurant for damages because she had found fish bones in her Fish Chowder. however, the court ruled in favor of the Restaurant. The court stated the had this restaurant be located in a non coastal location, then a “reasonable” person would not expect to find bones in the chowder. However, since the restaurant was located along the coast, then a “reasonable” person would expect to find fish bones.

    If you would like copies of the photos, please e mail me.

    1. I’d love seeing them, Vito. Old man Mazza used to crush up stogies and smoke them in his pipe, no wonder your mother was upset. He knew six words in English, “get the air you f*****g bum”.

  7. Hi Nick, Your pictures and comments are always a pleasure. Thanks for always sharing. See you
    next month.

  8. When my dad Tony wasn’t working in the grocery store (Boston I Store) at 410 Hanover Street with his brothers Buster and Gino, he was managing the Boston Italian Grocery wholesale warehouse (aka BIG Foods) at 20 Atlantic Avenue in one of those old waterfront wharfs. His warehouse shared the wharf with the North End Auto Park and Brook’s Lunch. The mechanics at the auto park / Mobil gas station were great guys and quite capable. ‘Brooksy’, however, was better known for his scrambled eggs made with ‘pre-cracked’, occasionally spoiled, eggs. The railroad siding for my dad’s wholesale grocery warehouse had large brightly painted loading doors, that faced Lewis Wharf housing Britex and a produce packaging company. I remember going with my dad to the warehouse one Thanksgiving weekend around 1952 when he received a call telling him the warehouse had been broken in. I worked in that warehouse every school vacation, holidays and summers until I was a young man and loved every minute of it. The toilets required flushing by filling a gallon cooking pot with water and pouring it in the toilet. There was no heat, and using the toilets in the winter was perilous. Rats were as big at alley cats. The warehouse had a wonderful musty aroma that I can still smell today. By the way, the Thanksgiving day break-in was never solved. There is a $50 reward for anyone who can help solve it… any help Nick?

  9. Nick, once again thanks for the memories. I cant tell you how many times that “old man” Mazza [who resembled Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler} threw me out because I was under age & told me to “get the air” Wasn’t there a couple of restaurants called the Yankee Fisherman and the Rusty Scupper along the waterfront?

  10. Thank you for sharing the “old” North End. I’ve only lived in the North End 10 years, I love it and I love the old photographs and reading your stories. It helps me picture the way it must have been. Thank you

  11. Hi Nick. We drove old man Mazza crazy. Rack’em up!

    We fished down burnt wharf for all kinds of fish. I remember the shiners coming into the warm swirling water from the nearby power house. Tinker mackerel would come after them in August and then the mackerel would arrive shortly thereafter. Later in Septmeber we would jig for shiners and then go to the other side of the wharf to fish for silver hake and mud hake. We also fished for flounders in the summer. Besides eels, we also fished for pollock. I remember also trying to catch smelts. There was a kid named Donnie who was quick as a cat and would catch dozens of them. We would never dare to eat any of the fish we caught.

    I remember remember fishing with Bozo and Joe Cat when the Constanza brothers showed up. Joe Cat and Bozo convinced them we had a fishing club and if they wanted to join they had to initiated. The initiation was that each of them had to be hit with a pollock over the head. What an aweful story, but I never forget it. ?

  12. To get from side of burnt wharf to the harbor facing side, we could walk around to the front. There was a walkway along the side that was a shortcut. That walkway was decimated by the fire. It was just a skeleton of the original structure. It was hazardous to traverse it. But, we did it anyway. And, if you fell in, you would drop into the water. The height of the fall was based on the tide. Also, there was a good chance to hit a rocky bottom quickly in a low tide.

    One day, Joe Peck and I were quickly moving across it in a low tide. Neither one of us could swim. Joe lost his balance, fell and found himself hanging by one leg. Somehow, he managed to hang on and ultimately pick himself up. I will never forget Joe hanging on for his dear life with one leg draped around a flimsy board.

    1. Hey Sal, it’s been a long time. Joe Peck was in my high school class, a good guy.
      I’ll never forget the day I was under the Burnt Wharf when Lenny Quahog showed up. It was low tide and we were standing on the big granite blocks that held up the wharf, the ones we used to swim from. He motioned for me to come over to the edge and look at something. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Lenny had tied bricks to the tails of six or eight dogs and cats and watched them drown. They were floating vertically in the water and small bubbles were coming from some of their mouths. He gave me an evil smirk and I thought I was next to take a swim. I never ran home so fast in my life.
      He died several years ago in jail while serving a life sentence for murder. No surprise.

  13. Nick, Joe was a great guy. He always kept me updated to what was going on in the neighborhood. I miss him.

    I feel partially responsible for Lenny’s erratic behavior. When I was in the first grade, Lenny picked a fight with my brother and had my brother pinned to the ground. I came up behind Lenny and smashed him over the head with my iron lunch box. I ran around the block and he came after me. But, he was stagerring so much from the blow he gave up trying to catch me. ?

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