Stuart Smith looks back at a fishing village, forward at a sustainable community

Apr 24, 2024 | Charting the Past

Stuart Smith’s first dredging project, after the 1987 break in North Beach.

By Doreen Leggett

For much of Chatham’s history, everyone in town worked for the fishing industry either directly or indirectly.

“Chatham was entirely a fishing town,” Stuart Smith said. “It revolved around fishing.”

Smith, recently retired as harbormaster after 39 years working for the town, was no different.

One of his first jobs out of school, in 1983, was for David Carnes and Dick Larsen at Chatham Fish & Lobster, which opened in 1981.

“We did everything,” said Smith with a smile. “I smelled like a fish for years.”

Smith spent a lot of time at trap docks at Stage Harbor, loading tractor trailers with boxes or 55-gallon drums of squid, mackerel and herring. He’d finish there and head down to the fish pier to unload boats – Chatham Fish had the north packing bay – into truck after truck after truck. Sometimes Smith drove and delivered locally, or the fish went to places like Fulton Fish Market in New York City.

“Mostly cod fish and haddock and pollock,” Smith remembered. “Chatham would raise the prices of fish because it was such a sought-after product.”

Smith’s main job was at the wholesale and processing plant in Commerce Park. He said he learned a lot from the people he worked with, mostly a combination of Ivy Leaguers and Vietnam veterans.

“They just worked their tails off,” Smith said. “There was never a boring moment. I was surrounded by guys who had a lot of experience in history-shaping events.”

He left to run the equipment department for Gilbert “Gibby” Borthwick, the town’s highway manager.

“He was probably one of the best town officials ever. I learned a lot. You had to work or you were going to get his shoe,” Smith said with a chuckle.

When a wharfinger job opened up, Carnes and Larsen recommended Smith. The interview committee was mostly made up of fishermen.

“Quite an intimidating committee,” he said.

Before he started working for the town, he wasn’t convinced he was going to stay in Chatham. He had summered there forever, his parents bought a house in South Chatham the year he was born – 1962.

Smith was sixth of seven kids, his dad a chemical engineer for Raytheon so although he grew up in Westford, they moved around. He went to Chatham for the sixth grade and his high school years were split between California and Maryland.

“My dad was in the Navy in World War II, he always had boats,” Smith said. “We always were near the ocean.”

He was going to Cape Cod Community College, thinking of going into law enforcement and applied for a few jobs out of state.

But he got the wharfinger job, and a job as assistant harbormaster. The two departments were run separately until Town Manager Tom Groux merged them in the late 1990s.

The department also had no boats. They used Harbormaster Peter Ford’s personal vessels. Smith said he learned a lot about hands-on waterways work from commercial fishermen and oftentimes if he was taking Ford’s boat out on rescue, he had company.

“If you were responding there were a lot of fishermen willing to help,” he said.

The pier had been rebuilt a few years before he arrived, and he dealt with permits and offloading and the boating public. He would also oversee contracts, similar to now.

Smith said there was no money in Chatham in those days. There were summer visitors here from July 4 to Labor Day at most.

“After Labor Day fishing continued as everything else was closing down,” he said. “The fishing industry was thriving.

“When I worked for Chatham Fish and Lobster they were good times,” Smith said. “When I was wharfinger they were still good, but you could see the government on the horizon.”

Fishermen weren’t catching as much, they had to go farther offshore. Rules that didn’t make sense were consistently rolled out, “regulations being made by people who had no idea,” Smith said. For example, Chatham had a 50-foot limit at the fish pier and then the federal government revised its regulations so many Chatham fishermen were required to use 46-foot boats.

“There were people with chainsaws who cut the bow off the boat.”

In 1987 the ocean broke through the barrier beach by Chatham Light and Chatham Harbor became even more dangerous.

“Those were days when just going fishing was challenging enough. We didn’t have the communications systems or the weather reports that are available now,” Smith said.

Some years the channel filled in and even at high tide bigger boats would have to plow themselves in or unload on a mooring and bring in fish skiff by skiff. Trying to unload 100 boxes off a skiff in January is no easy task.

There was no county dredge and the harbor was not yet considered a federal navigable channel (Smith would work on that later) so the Army Corps of Engineers wasn’t dredging either.

Smith hired Bob Dubis, of J.W. Dubis and Sons, a Chatham excavation company. They came in with front end loaders and took out sediment.

“Those were some crazy years,” Smith said. “I was getting calls from regulators and the town was saying, ‘Don’t pick up, don’t listen to them.’ This was before the regulators understood our plight and became more helpful.”

The town also used Robert B. Our company and later AGM for hydraulic dredging. The contractors had to build 700-foot earthen roads when the tide was out to cart off the sand, and sometimes they had to work at night.

Chatham government didn’t have a big budget, Smith said.

“If you had extra hand soap for the bathroom that was a big deal,” Smith said. “Selectmen supported this, they knew how important commercial fishing was to this town.”

Smith remembers the management at Chatham Bars Inn was helpful. And when machinery had to go out by Cow Yard across to the town landing across private property to Tern Island, he still remembers the owner saying, “Make it happen. Anything for the fishermen.”

Although dredging is done by the book nowadays, extensive shoaling hasn’t improved.

“The conditions in Chatham Harbor are just abominable,” Smith said.

He said the risk requires boats that always work. You don’t want to turn that key and have it not respond.

Smith’s care and concern for making sure the department was there when needed was well known in the fleet. Although the Coast Guard also has a presence at the pier, there have been times in its history when they were not available.

Paul Bergquist remembers one of those times.

“My son was crewing on (F/V Black Mariah). They had a mishap on the bar,” Berquist said. “Stuart came out and saved the boys.

“In my book Stuart is a hero.”

Bergquist has known Smith for decades and knows of another time when Smith read the tides right and rescued another fisherman who had fallen overboard. The Coast Guard was searching in a different area.

Even in the day- to-day operations, and the controversies that arise in the harbormaster’s office, Bergquist said Smith was a steady hand.

“Stuart has done an excellent job,” he said. “He has always been fair-minded and is a gentleman.”

When Smith became harbormaster in 1999, with the passing of Peter Ford, he was the third class to go through state-wide harbormaster training. He worked with two other harbormasters to expand training and curriculum, as well as establishing a council so future harbormasters would be better prepared. Those efforts continue today, with Jason Holm, the new harbormaster, a former Coast Guardsman and familiar face in town.

He also worked with fishermen to craft more protective town regulations. Smith credits retired Captain Peter Taylor with positive changes.

Smith said that unlike other towns, when a commercial vessel with a mooring leaves, the harbormaster gets to choose the next commercial fisherman on the waiting list – instead of the next person on the list, who is usually recreational.

He hopes the state will come up with a better definition of a commercial fishermen. In the meantime, Chatham has developed criteria, which includes the number of commercial licenses the applicant holds and other requirements.

“I think it reflects the face of the industry today,” he said.

When Smith started it was easy to judge who was a commercial fisherman, as opposed to someone who goes commercial fishing. It helps to have the local knowledge, he said, so you know if the applicant also owns a plumbing supply company.

The vibe of the fish pier was different. Smith remembers being in his office and hearing a bang. He didn’t think much of it and then he saw hundreds of people running away from the fish pier. He hustled down and saw the late Jack Our, but didn’t see anything else, except feathers.

“Seagull won’t sh%t on my radar again,” Our volunteered

Just outside his old office is a sculpture, largely the results of advocacy by Eileen Our, a former selectwoman and Jack Our’s wife. It’s titled “The Provider.”

The wrought-metal sculpture features a hand pulling a fishing net, filled with fish and shellfish, from the ocean. There is an inscription underneath:

“‘Ever changing to remain the same.’ That’s a great saying. It fits the Chatham fishing industry perfectly,” Smith said.

“We don’t want to live in a community that all we have is Audis, and Mercedes Benz vehicles. I don’t think people want that. We have to have a community that is diverse and that means supporting the commercial fishing industry.”

Smith sees an upcoming moment to do that: A floating dock, part of a multi-purpose project at 90 Bridge Street, will be before Town Meeting in May.

“With the conditions at the fish pier, with shoaling, there needs to be options for unloading,” he said. “As important as the trap dock is, it’s one spot.”

During his retirement, he is looking forward to buying a new, bigger boat, and doing “The Great Loop” – from Nova Scotia down to Florida and back to the Cape – with his wife Julie.

And he’s looking forward to the summer.

“Thirty-six years without any time off. I’ll get it this year,” he said with a smile.



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