By Doreen Leggett
Nearly 50 years ago, a massive historic structure on Stage Harbor in Chatham that served as a cold storage facility was being knocked down when things went awry.
Captain Fred Bennett was there.
“I came in from bass fishing and there it was, burning,” Bennett said, and he captured it on film.
The year was 1971, the date Dec. 31, and the building, long uneconomical, was being knocked down to make room for a new home. While demolishing the interior, a worker started the fire with a cutting torch. Forty-four men from Chatham, Orleans, Harwich and Brewster fought the blaze for more than 30 hours before it was extinguished. The remnants were demolished shortly after.
The history of the cavernous building can be pieced together with help from the Chatham Historical Society, which has newspapers clippings about the Stage Harbor cold storage plant, and historian Spencer Grey, who wrote about the fire years ago in the Cape Cod Chronicle.
“About 1910 Eugene Snow and George Parker bought land at the end of Port Fortune Lane and built a plant for the purpose of freezing fish, and in 1913 they incorporated as the Chatham Cold Storage and Weir Company,” Grey wrote.
Weir or trap fishing long predated the cold storage plant. Grey writes that the first weir traps were set in the 1850s in the lower part of Chatham Bay, just west of Monomoy, serving Grand Banks fishermen’s need for herring bait.
When dragger boats and engine power came along decades later, traditional hook and line fishing boats phased out and the need for herring plummeted.
So fishermen pivoted, as they still have to do. The weir fishermen’s catch went to domestic and foreign markets. New cold storage technology allowed frozen product to become a more stable commodity that could be stored and shipped over longer times and distance.
A newspaper article from 1937 talked about the start of the season at Parker’s Landing, as it was called at the time. The trap season ran April to August and thousands of totes of fish from 10 traps were unloaded at the wharf in front of the plant and packed and shipped in refrigerated trucks.
The catch at the time was mackerel and squid. While mackerel could be frozen and sent to domestic markets, squid took a different path.
“There is practically no market for squid in the United States so it is mostly shipped to Argentine,” the story said, adding that Italy, too, was an important market, but the buyers there were very particular and only took six- inch squid.
Before the plant was built, the fish were put on ice and shipped to Boston by train, but eventually a shortage of ice occurred and the expense of packing and shipping made it unprofitable to market fish that way. Many trappers went out of business, Grey wrote.
He added that when the ice plant was built, trap fishing was on an economic downslide and Snow and Parker were able to buy out several other companies. But then the industry turned around in the 1920s and the plant became busy.
“After the fish were frozen, they were sent to the packing room to be boxed and loaded onto trucks for delivery to markets in the Northeast,” Grey wrote.
During the depression, fish prices plummeted and the Freezer Company went bankrupt, resulting in the sale of the land, wharf, and freezing plant to the United Cape Cod Cranberry Company in 1934, Grey wrote. (Although the plant was sold, fish was frozen there for years after.)
The building was purchased by Ocean Spray to freeze and store cranberries. That all changed in 1959 when the cranberry market collapsed on news that an herbicide had been used on the crop. The scare and loss of sales likely prompted the closure of the cranberry freezer in 1960.
The freezer remained abandoned for 10 years, until the fire and subsequent demolition.
Trap fishing, however, continued long after its demise.
George Parker owned the trap dock and fish weirs prior to Ernie Eldredge’s father “Bony” and Fred Powell. They split the property and fish weir operation in the 1950s and Eldredge got the trap dock and created Chatham Fisheries. Fred Powell had FT Powell & Sons who sold his business and property to Mark Simonitsch. It’s now Stage Harbor Yacht Club pier.
The Eldredge dock is now owned by the town. Shannon Eldredge, who owns Chatham Fish Weir Enterprises, runs her business out of there – and the catch still goes around the world.
Thanks to the Chatham Historical Society’s archives department for help with this story.