When wharves were Provincetown’s runways
By Seth Rolbein
Wharves are all about one thing: Access.
To the sea. To opportunities, resources and markets.
On land highways and railroads created much of the same. But actually the closer analogy would be to airport runways, long and narrow jumping off points into a great beyond.
No Cape Cod town built and used wharves more than Provincetown, in good part because no Cape Cod town had stronger need.
The first short one, according to information at Provincetown Monument’s museum, was built around 1830. By 1833 the town’s first long wharf was planted in the harbor, named for the company that built it, Union Wharf Co. It included a marine railway to haul boats in and out, again in the name of improving access. Union reportedly became the largest business corporation of its time on Cape Cod.
Others took the hint, powered in large part by the needs of a whaling fleet that in Provincetown’s heyday numbered 54 ships. Families with names still familiar – Cook, Paine, Nickerson, Freeman, Conwell – built wharves. Some say there were as many as 200 in the mid-1800s, though that seems an exaggeration; a hand-drawn map of the town in 1882 shows more than 50 distinct wharves jutting like quills from the arching body of the harbor.
If there was such a thing as a flagship wharf, it is what we now call MacMillan Pier, named for the town’s famous native son and admiral who explored the Arctic Circle with Robert Peary in 1908. An earlier version of the wharf was built to handle steamboats, then another to take on the railroad that finally reached Provincetown in 1873. For that it needed to be heavy duty, rails carrying locomotives and cars along its spine, with a broad walkway for passengers and strollers.
But just as the railroad opened Provincetown to fast, reliable contact with big markets from Boston to New York, especially for fish, the need for wharves was diminishing. The whaling fleet had declined by half come 1880, down to seven vessels by 1890. Inshore fisheries remained strong, but many of the historic wharves were left to rot. Weakened, they were no match for the infamous Portland Gale of 1898, a hellaciously destructive storm that reduced many of the piers to splintered pick-up sticks.
One that survived, barely, was Lewis Wharf, located in the East End of town, with a two-story fish shed listing over its planks. By 1915 it had been purchased by Mary Heaton Vorse, one of the avant garde types who had made their way to Provincetown around the turn of the century. She wasn’t interested in reviving fish packing; she saw a dramatic opportunity.
Clearing floor space, fashioning a rough stage, Vorse and her theatrical band began staging plays, a precursor of the way Bohemians and hippies would take over abandoned warehouses and industrial buildings in many big cities and turn them into lofts, studios and performance spaces.
The next year, 1916, a moody playwright by the name of Eugene O’Neill staged “Bound East for Cardiff,” about a seaman onboard a tramp steamer whose life is slipping away. An account by a writer named Susan Glaspell says there was thick fog opening night, and the tide was high at performance time so waves could be heard (in some places seen) lapping under the rough planks, all creating a perfect setting given the seafaring content.
Cultural historians say that “American” theater – more realistic, concerned with working people rather than aristocracy, using common language rather than contrived prose -- was born that night, on that wharf; The Provincetown Players, as they came to be called, moved on to establish a theater in New York City, and a few played a key part in forming what today is the Cape Playhouse in Dennis.
In the hundred years since, only MacMillan, publicly owned and managed, has remained broadly true to the original mission of Provincetown’s wharf builders. A smaller but still active commercial fishing fleet ties up to the pier’s east side, although the fish-packing house at the end is dormant. Along the west there is room for high-speed ferries, whale watchers and charters, a museum, even little shanties down the spine with space for local merchants to sell everything from sweatshirts to art.
There are other wharves still around, however. What for years was known as Cabral’s is now the Provincetown Marina, expanded, fortified, and fancified, offering berth to dozens of private boats under sail and power.
Farther west juts the substantial United States Coast Guard pier, cement replacing wooden pilings, the Guard’s jumping off point for everything from inspections to rescues.
Also to the west is one more funky long wooden wharf, Captain Jack’s, supporting small buildings that have managed to remain upright, condo’d, rented to summer visitors who want to hang out over the water (literally) and get a taste of old Provincetown.
And several restaurants in town take advantage of pilings that could be called short wharves to offer diners great views of the water. One, what used to be Rose’s Wharf and home to a defunct restaurant called Old Reliable, seems poised for resurrection, possible because enough remnants still exist to “grandfather” zoning and allow new tidal building.
But when low tide reveals short nubs of wood once planted so well that they still poke out of the sand after decades of tides and storms, looking like decayed and broken rows of teeth, there is no more use to them. They are mute telltales, remnants of when Provincetown’s access to the sea made it, per capita, the wealthiest town in Massachusetts.