Smokestacks Come to Yarmouth

Oct 25, 2023 | Charting the Past, News

The Bay Street Freezer plant belched to life in Yarmouth in 1917.

We found this gem of a piece entitled “Smokestacks Come to Yarmouth,” on the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth’s website. The story and accompanying photographs bring to life the Bay State Freezer Company that once existed at the end of Wharf Lane in Yarmouthport. It was researched and written in 2005:

By Haynes Mahoney

When it first came to life in March, 1917, the 100-foot stack belching plumes of smoke from its coal-fired engines, buckets of fish rising to freezers in the five-story building, it must have been an incredible disruption to the quiet marshside world of Yarmouth Port at the end of Wharf Lane.  The local stockholders hoped the Bay State Freezer Company, Inc. would bring them riches.

Not that commercialization of the little port at the estuary of Mill Creek was a new development. In the first half of the 19th century, the town’s main wharf had become the center of packet services to Boston and coastal shipping as far as Canada and the Caribbean. A general store, warehouses and a sail loft were busy with seamen and townspeople, as well as truck wagons and carriages when sloops and schooners were unloading and embarking. Nearby, Nathaniel Simpkins operated a fishing business with a half dozen schooners bringing in mackerel and cod to his wharf on Short Wharf Creek.

After the Civil War, when the railroads took over much of the Cape’s passenger and freight service, Yarmouth’s northside maritime trades went into decline.

The next commercial venture at Yarmouth’s port was a lumber company established by John Hinckley. Schooners from Maine could bring in lumber, even rafting their cargoes ashore if the tide wasn’t right. But by the early 20th century, even the Hinckley Company had moved to the railroad in Hyannis.

Yarmouth’s little port became a quiet scene beloved of swimmers, boaters and sports fishermen until 1912, when Yarmouth Selectman Charles R. Bassett organized the Bay State Freezer Company, Inc. He and his partners began selling stock and raising money to build a fish freezer plant.

It was an ambitious undertaking, with a five story building including corporate offices on the top floor, two 100 horsepower boilers, and a 65-ton refrigeration machine driven by a 150 horsepower engine. It would have its own wells, electric lighting systems, fish weirs and fishing crews.  That there were some doubts about this industrial intrusion was indicated by the Yarmouth Register on March 31 1917, when it reported the slashing of shrubbery to pave the sandy Wharf Lane.

“Lovers of the natural beauty of this locality will regret to see this work of commercialization going forward but those who desire the industrial development of Yarmouth will rejoice to see the new road.”

One of the local citizens who rejoiced at the new opportunity was Samuel R. Thacher, just out of high school, who went to work at the plant in 1920.

“When the freezer plant was built,” he recalled, “a wharf was erected out to the water, and a channel dredged out towards Sandy Neck so the boats could get in and out. Fish traps (weirs) were set up  — two traps with crews and boats for each trap.  At low tide they went out with big scoop nets to collect the caught fish.  They were brought into the wharf where they were dumped into big buckets and hauled by winch into the plant. “Here they were dumped into trolleys to distribute the fish to the packers at long tables.  The fish were then laid head to tail into metal trays about two by four feet each and sent into the freezer room for storage. When ready to ship, they were brought out, the trays turned upside down, and run under a stream of warm water to drop out the frozen fish.  These were then packed into wooden boxes for shipment…”

The fish were 90 percent whiting, he said, a good fish with white, soft but firm flesh, easy to clean and to remove the whole backbone, though the fish were not cleaned before shipping. That was done by retailers at the other end. He recalled that large shipments were sent “to the middle west.”

A painting contractor in later years, Thacher liked the fish plant job, even though he worked six days a week, and sometimes at night when a boat was late coming in. He was paid 17 1/2 cents per hour, earning $18 per week. Regular work was hard to find and the plant provided a steady income.

The plant failed after a few years, partly because of the expense of keeping a channel dredged so the boats could get to the weirs. Thacher was puzzled why the company didn’t survive by selling ice.

The plant could produce 20 tons a day, beautiful clear ice in 300 lb blocks for $13 a ton,” he said.  “Buyers came from all parts of the Cape. We could have sold twice as much.”

Guido R. Perera, whose family had owned property in the vicinity, said the plant “was a monstrosity” and the project was badly conceived.  There were already a number of freezer plants operating in Massachusetts, including one in Barnstable that continued until the later 20th century.  He recalled that the operators built a sturdy wharf, and dredged a deep channel which was later used for purposes other than hauling fish during prohibition days (ie liquor smuggling).

The plant was auctioned off in 1922, and some of its buildings later used for summer rentals. Guido’s son, Ronald eventually acquired the property, and included a portion of the old plant in the east wing of his newly built home.

The Pereras well remembered the destruction of the 100 foot smoke stack in July 1966. “We had a grand picnic and a large crowd came to watch,” Faith Perera, Ronald’s mother, said. “There was much cheering when the wrecker’s ball finally brought it down.” The only regrets were reputedly expressed by mariners who used the old stack as a navigation aid.

(Note: For some of the background details of this story, Haynes Mahoney expressed his indebtedness to Bainbridge Crist’s article “The Rise and Fall of Bay State Freezer Inc.” in the Register Newspaper, May 11, 1978, and interviews with the late Samuel Thacher, and members of the Perera family.)



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