When the Cape fishing industry was worth its salt

Jul 26, 2023 | Charting the Past

By Seth Rolbein

With all our modern emphasis on developing wind and solar power, and all the controversy about what offshore turbines might mean for commercial fishing, it’s worth remembering that both innovations harken back centuries, and served as crucial support for Cape Cod’s dominant, historic industry.

As proof, witness Cape Cod saltworks.

The importance of salt as a preservative, especially when it came to fish but for any meat or poultry, cannot be overstated. One of the first things the Brits set about doing soon after the Pilgrims arrived in 1620 was try to manufacture salt in bulk, mimicking efforts back home. But they ran into a big problem:

Cape Cod soil was nothing but porous sand, lacking any clay base that would hold seawater long enough to allow for evaporation and leave behind valuable salt to be scraped into barrels, as was done in the old country.

So the Colonists could only boil down small batches of seawater in kettles, not much volume and a timely process that devoured firewood.

Not until 1776 did John Sears, also known as “Sleepy John” and later “Salt John,” set out to create solar-powered saltworks of shallow vats fed by Cape Cod Bay at Quivet Neck (then the northside of Yarmouth, now Dennis).

His first efforts weren’t successful, partly because of leaks he soon caulked. Then he scavenged a bilge pump off the famous Outer Cape wreck of the British warship Somerset and moved more water. Wooden coverings to protect the vats from rain, pulled aside in sun, created a checkerboard look. There were three stages advancing over weeks of evaporation, the third called “the salt room”; 350 gallons made one bushel, 80 pounds.

The essential fishing industry was the crucial customer, salt the crucial preservative. One of many 40-ton vessels fishing to the West Indies used 700 bushel a year packing fish into hogshead barrels. That’s a market, and production wasn’t expensive; free seawater, unattractive land easy to appropriate along the shore.

The technology had a lot of passivity in it, letting the sun do the warming work on shallow ponds, dragging coverings that could be drawn over when rain threatened to dilute again. But it wasn’t all passive; windmills became an important power source for drawing from high tide. Meanwhile, protective, patriotic tariffs enacted by the Continental Congress encouraged production.

The boom was on.

By 1802, according to Henry Kittredge’s “Cape Cod,” 136 salt makers had set up shop. By 1830, 442 Cape businesses made more than 500,000 bushel a year not counting secondary products like “Glauber” salt (apparently used to prevent hides from stiffening) and Epsom (a soak for joint ailments). According to Bob Kelley from Yarmouth — the most knowledgeable person on the Cape about salt works history — 90 percent of coarse salt went to the fisheries.

Salt became the dominant shoreside industry to support the dominant offshore industry. During apex decades two centuries ago, the 1820s and 1830s, Provincetown alone had 20 to 30 mills with circling arms wrapped in canvas, drawing water through hollowed logs into vats covering scores of lowland acres. So did most other towns.

By the 1840s production began to decline. Salt mines in upstate New York created competition. Bob Kelley notes that tariffs and import taxes protecting local businesses also fell away and that played a big role in the gradual demise.

A devastating storm in 1858 smashed mills and wrecked infrastructure, though salt preserved wood as well as fish; rock-hard planks were scavenged for construction. Some commercial salt production continued into the late 1880s, especially on the south side of Yarmouth near Bass River, managed by a deeply-rooted Quaker community.

Technology and taste also changed the fishing industry’s reliance on salt. As fleets began to use engines, fishing closer to shore, fresh fish began to replace salted flakes, kept wholesome by another innovation; ice hosed and shoveled into holds. Freezers and ice houses allowed fish to be stored for months at a time, just waiting to be thawed, cooked, and served.

The dynamic economic driver that was the Cape Cod Saltworks has few contemporary remnants save old photos, and a replica at the Aptucxet Trading Post in Bourne – plus some boutique saltmakers for a high-end market, far from packing hundreds of thousands of pounds into fish barrels.

Yet the best words to describe an almost-forgotten, anachronistic industry are modern:

Powered by wind. Using solar energy. Sustainable.

(Adapted from Seth Rolbein’s weekly column, A Cape Cod Voice https://sethrolbein.substack.com/ )


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