The Railroad Comes To Provincetown


Provincetown's wharves came to an undignified end. It was a slow death, mirroring Provincetown's decline after the Civil War. It marked the end of its Glory Years as a major fishing and whaling port. Mackerel and cod resources had dwindled, as had the whale population; this, coupled with the reduced demand for salted fish and whale oil - the latter because of the discovery of petroleum - brought about economic decline. Provincetown's large fleet of mackerel and cod schooners had shrunk from over two hundred vessels in 1850 to fifty or sixty by 1875. Whaling brigs and barks outfitted for extended round the world voyages were refitted for the Grand Banks trade. Lodge members Stephen Cook and Edwin Grozier chose to continue in the whale fisheries, with the difference that the dwindling numbers of whales were now chased in waters closer to home - the North Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. Whaling expeditions in the North Pacific and Arctic oceans had been conducted throughout the Civil War , some with disastrous consequences. During the 1870's these expeditions were again taken up in earnest by New Bedford whalemen . Pursuit of the whale in the Arctic also lured Lodge members Captain John Atkins Cook and Manuel Gomes away from Provincetown.

Standing erect and well groomed among the decaying wharves was Steamship Wharf. Starting in the the 1770's with Past Master John Cook's packet schooner LOUISA until 1873 with member Joshua Bowley's steamship GEORGE SHATTUCK the packets had been tied up daily depositing freight and passengers from Boston. Until the arrival of the railroad in 1873, steamship companies had monopolized service to Provincetown and Cape Cod. Overcoming opposition, the Old Colony Railroad in 1849 started a slow crawl down the peninsula, courting and winning each town along the way. Within a year after the railroads arrival, the GEORGE SHATTUCK had discontinued its Provincetown run. Steamship Wharf became Railroad Wharf.

Provincetown had been virtually an island dependent on the sea until the railroad nailed down a permanent connection. Its only access to the rest of the peninsula had been either a precarious wooden bridge leading to sandy roadways or beach routes. During major storms these approaches washed out. The fourteen mile final extension of the Cape Cod Railroad between Wellfleet and Provincetown was at one time considered a necessary federal project for the rapid land protection of the fort and harbor at Provincetown. The extension of the rail line would enable troops to be brought in quickly, if needed. This military justification of the railroads extension had long been a special issue of Major Sylvanus Phinney in his newspaper the Barnstable Patriot. In 1869 when Phinney sold the Patriot to the new owners of the Provincetown Advocate there appeared to be a new rationale for building a railroad to the tip of Cape Cod. The editor of the Advocate Dr. John M. Crocker, Master of King Hiram's Lodge in 1875 and 1876, wrote "Thoreau declared that it was the destiny of Cape Cod to become one of the greatest watering places in New England. It only remains to make these towns of easy access by rail to turn the outside world toward them for a summer resort." This idea became almost a weekly part of Crocker's editorial agenda and his persistence paid off.

In October of 1871 after a special town meeting the Advocate's headlines read "SET THE FLAG! FIRE THE BIG GUN! We Are Going To Have A Railroad!" At 1 o'clock on Tuesday , July 22, 1873 the special excursion train from Boston pulled by locomotive # 25, named the EXTENSION pulled into Provincetown. A second train with a red funnel and MOUNT HOPE painted on the sides , pulled thirteen bright yellow coaches that included among its passengers three governors , one candidate for governor, General Benjamin F. Butler, the Mayor of Boston, Cape Cod political and business figures and railroad officials. Benjamin Butler later bought a house in Provincetown from which he went forth across the Commonwealth in search of votes . He persisted and was elected to a two year term in 1883. Detraining passengers formed a procession at the terminal on Back Street (now Bradford Street) and marched up High Pole Hill to a tented pavilion with seats set up for a thousand people. The tent was decorated with flags and flowers and a huge illustration of a locomotive boldly lettered PROVINCETOWN. A banquet of hot turkey and chicken, lobsters, fruit and vegetables was set up and after dark two hundred couples danced to Porter's Quadrille Band. They played the "All Aboard" polka and "Down Brakes" waltz among other selections.

From that moment on Provincetown lost its insularity; it was now attached to the rest of Cape Cod, Boston and all points west. Crocker wrote in the ADVOCATE that day "We have long felt our isolation" and rejoiced that the train finally "brought low" the hills of sand.

Fishermen loved the railroad as it gave them an opportunity to ship their catch quickly to Boston and New York. The packet owners detested it as the train was soon carrying everything they had been and in each town on Cape Cod as the tracks arrived the stage coaches retreated. By 1873 the stage coach routes established by Lodge members Lysander Paine and Samuel Knowles were withdrawn . Knowles gave his stage coaches new coats of paint and began meeting trains at the Provincetown station where he would take passengers and their baggage to hotels like the Atlantic House and New Central House. Shortly after the steam trains started running to Provincetown Crocker would write in one of editorials "The story that the station at North Truro is indicated by a milk can is not so. They have a pile of ties there with a man sitting on it, and are soon to possess a nice little station."

(More to come)


All the historical content in these pages researched and compiled by Wor. James J. Theriault, curator of King Hiram's Museum and lodge historian. Any comments concerning content may be sent to James J. Theriault, 541A Main Street, Hyannis, MA 02601


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