Cape Cod Cold Storage Company | Atlantic Coast Fisheries Cold Storage.
Cold storage transformed Provincetown. In 1893, the town presented the very picture of a traditional fishing village — something that could almost have come out of a 17th-century Dutch painting — with its shoreline of finger piers stretching forth from an array of little peak-roofed houses clustered cheek-by-jowl along the waterfront. Less than a quarter century later, seven gigantic flat-roofed freezer buildings loomed over the town, their smokestacks piercing the skyline from Atwood Avenue in the west to Howland Street in the east. Landscape artists of the early 20th century turned a blind eye to this industrial blight, but the freezers were what kept the town on the economic map.
Cold storage freezers were, in essence, four- or five-story-tall refrigerators. Throughout the buildings ran an intricate network of pipes, not unlike the cooling coils of an air-conditioner, but on a vast scale. The coolant within them was typically anhydrous ammonia or brine, both of which have freezing points far below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and therefore retain their liquid form under extreme cold.
An aerial photograph shows the Cape Cod Cold Storage complex, and Freeman’s Wharf, in the 1960s.
The four-story freezer was the heart of the complex, but this diagram by David W. Dunlap shows how many ancillary structures served the operation.
Fresh fish arriving at the cold storage piers by boat were frozen. Then they could be stored in large quantities for long periods of time. This was more than just a convenience. It actually shaped the market, because it gave fish dealers an upper hand in their never-ending struggle against the vagaries of nature and the cruelties of the sea. When fish were running abundantly (and prices consequently were lower), dealers could afford to withhold a portion of the catch from the market and freeze it. This frozen stockpile could then be used to cover demand when fish weren’t abundant. Plus, the once-cheap fish could be sold at the higher prices that prevail in times of scarcity.
Joshua Paine [III] (1865-1932), whose father had run the lumber yard that once stood at 125 Commercial Street, was the principal developer of cold storage plants in Provincetown. He took the lead in financing the Cape Cod Cold Storage Company, which built a freezer on the old lumber yard site in 1912-1913; the Puritan Fish Freezing Company, which built a freezer in 1914 roughly where Flyer’s Boat Rentals is today; and the Colonial Cold Storage Company, which built a freezer in 1915. Its elegant former engine room still stands at 229 Commercial Street.
At the same time that cold storage plants were proliferating, there came another hugely important development in the New England fishery: the deployment of beam and otter trawlers, fishing boats that trawled the sea bed with gigantic purselike nets whose mouths were held open underwater by rigid beams or plates known as otter boards that were spread apart by water pressure. Trawling yielded astonishing amounts of fish compared to line fishing, though it was indiscriminate by its very nature. Not only were target species caught, but so was everything else in the path of the open-mouthed nets. Unsurprisingly, efficiency and profitability — not conservation — won the day.
Joshua Paine of Provincetown, developer of the Cape Cod Cold Storage freezer, was also charged by the government with being a member of the Boston “Fish Trust” because he was a director of the Bay State Fishing Company, which dominated trawler operations.
Efficiency, profitability, and predictability are catnip to the corporate sensibility, and it didn’t take long for combines to be created by entrepreneurs like Frederick Munroe Dyer, a New York banker who sought to corner a market that had previously been hostile to human manipulation. Dyer’s Bay State Fishing Company began in Boston in 1905 by building a steel-hulled beam trawler called Spray. The company owned and operated a fleet of 15 trawlers by 1916, when it was incorporated with a board of directors that included Joshua Paine. Together with the Boston Fish Market Corporation (a group of dealers that held the lease on the newly constructed Fish Pier in South Boston), Bay State dominated the business. Small fishermen couldn’t compete with a company capitalized sufficiently to build as many trawlers as it needed. Setting his sights even farther, Dyer incorporated the Atlantic Coast Fisheries Company (ATCO) in 1917 to operate trawlers out of Newport and New York City, where the company had its headquarters.
Yet the antitrust spirit of the progressive era had not yet been completely extinguished. The federal government moved decisively against the Boston “Fish Trust” in 1917, charging Bay State and Boston Fish Market with operating as a kind of duopoly and exercising unlawful control over the production and distribution of fresh fish. Among the methods cited by the government were “withholding fish from sale” and “keeping fish in storage in violation of the cold storage laws of the Commonwealth.”¹
Joshua Paine was among the executives indicted in the “Fish Trust” case, which came to an end in 1923 when the United States Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the defendants. Paine, Dyer, and three others were sentenced to 10 months at hard labor and a $1,000 fine (roughly $15,000 in today’s money).
Under smart new management, both Atlantic Coast and Bay State emerged in the 1920s as the two largest fish companies in America — though as Fortune magazine pointed out, they were dwarfed by meat companies like Swift and Armour.⁵ Bay State’s claim to fame was developing methods for filleting fish on a large scale. ATCO, meanwhile, perfected a means of flash-freezing fish, cutting the period to 40 minutes from 12 to 24 hours. The quicker method helped preserve flavor, and the production of cellophane-wrapped flash-frozen fillets seemed in 1927 to have a like such a promising future that Atlantic Coast opened a processing plant at the old Groton Iron Works in Connecticut.
Known as ATCO, the Atlantic Coast Fisheries Company also used that as a brand name. This label comes from the Municipal Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 4990.
Atlantic Coast Fisheries eventually owned four Provincetown freezers. Because Western and Puritan were short-lived, there were really only five freezers in town, meaning that ATCO controlled 80 percent of the cold storage industry. Diagram by David W. Dunlap.
Importantly for our story, ATCO also began acquiring Provincetown freezers in this period, beginning with Paine’s Colonial Cold Storage, then moving on in 1927 to Paine’s Cape Cod Cold Storage. Eventually, the Fisherman Cold Storage Company and Consolidated Weir Company were also taken over by ATCO. By the 1950s, the Colonial and Fisherman freezers had been closed and demolished, and the Consolidated was being used to store cranberries.
But the old Cape Cod plant — the West End freezer — just kept going, providing employment for generations of town residents, even if it was grueling. “Working at the Cold Storage was hard work for short pay and did nothing more than cause fights between my mom and dad,” Mel Joseph recalled in the Provincetown Portuguese Festival booklet of 2010. His father, Francis G. “Molly” Joseph (1929-2006), drove the trolley that carried fish from arriving boats to the tram on which they traveled into the freezer.⁷
“She couldn’t put food on the table on his meager pay, and his penchant for spending too much on a pint or two from Perry’s Liquors didn’t help. It could be said that the crew at the Col’ Storage kept Perry’s Liquors doors open even in the worst of times. Of course, they only drank too much to keep warm in the damp Col’ Storage.”
ATCO continued innovating after World War II, satisfying American consumers who put convenience ahead of all other considerations when buying food. In 1947, the company introduced loaves of cod and haddock fillets — “skinless pieces of uniform length, width, and thickness, which are quick-frozen to be marketed throughout the country,” Jane Nickerson reported in The New York Times.² She added that the one-pound cod and haddock loaves were only three-quarters of an inch thick and that a customer could cut through the carton easily and return the unused portion, still wrapped, to the icebox. The mackerel fillets, introduced a month later, were put up at ATCO’s Provincetown plant.³
Ten years, later, the company clearly signaled a change of direction when it renamed itself Atlantic Coast Industries. The name was changed again, to ATCO Chemical-Industrial Products, in 1960. Pierce M. Welpton, the ATCO chairman, warned employees of the Provincetown plant in 1963 that the decline in demand for whiting and the increase in labor costs, per pound of fish produced, had created “severe conditions” for the company. “If we have no profits,” he said, “we cannot continue, at least not for long.”⁴
Indeed. The plant was closed in February 1965, even after managers tried to branch out from whiting to focus on quick-frozen cod, yellowtail, and haddock fillets. Three months later, Welpton sold the property to Robert M. Zimmerman of Wellesley, who transferred it in turn to investors operating as the Atlantic Coast Trust. Zimmerman was a trustee of this entity, as were Morris Benkovitz, Bernard Benkovitz, and Elliott W. Finkel.
Left: The tram over which fish were transported from the wharf to the freezer. This photo, from the collection of Salvador R. Vasques III, can be seen in My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection on Facebook. Right: The east side of the freezer partly collapsed in September 1974 after the ice that had been supporting the structure finally melted. The photo can be found in the Municipal Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 5110.
Under the names Atlantic Coast Fisheries Corporation (to distinguish it from Company) and Live Fish Company, the investors reopened the plant in June. A year later, the Atlantic Coast Fisheries Corporation — based in landlocked Pittsburgh — was advertising for fish cutters, fillet handlers, packers, and general help at the West End freezer. However, its new lease on life did not run long. The plant was crippled in 1971 when ice floes in the harbor smashed through the outermost 400 feet of Freeman’s Wharf, essentially a narrow-gauge railroad trestle along which fish were transported from arriving boats to the filleting department and freezer.
“The condition of the huge building rolled down hill,” Heaton Vorse wrote in 1978. “I heard folks say that if the freezing machinery ever broke down, the building would collapse. The only thing holding it up was ice. The story was good for a laugh.”¹³
Still, the business straggled along — loathed by those who worked there, but a slender economic lifeline all the same. Leo E. Gracie spent a summer at the plant, making $1.55 an hour, sometimes even $2.25, when overtime was available. It “was good money for a kid back then,” Gracie said, though his mother made him change his smelly clothes in the basement when he got home from work. He likened it to indentured employment.⁸
Mel Joseph was forbidden to seek employment there by his father, who drove the trolley.⁹
Peter Robert Cook’s mother, Grace Mary (Leroy) Cook (1913-1994), worked in the filleting department and had nothing but awful recollections. “Not a nice story,” Cook said.¹⁰
“Dreadful place,” echoed Frank Regan, who worked there in the winter of 1972-1973.
“Apart from the cold, there were the personal working conditions. Dull scissors to cut the fins off endless fish. Standing around a tub of fish, dressed in plastic over winter clothes, water dropping into your boots, no talking allowed. Yelled at for being slow, faster, faster.
“Upstairs, just ice — ice sloping into open elevator shafts, dim bulbs, dark rooms. Band saws without safety guards to cut frozen swordfish into steaks, faster, faster, no talking. Going into an unheated building, at 6 a.m., on a snowy day in clothes stiff with fish gunk from the day before was like a spiritual punishment.
“There was nowhere else to work and they were always hiring. I cannot remember what they paid. The whole place was a disaster. Scary and dangerous. The low-wattage bulbs was a sign that there was no concern for safety.
“It became harder in the spring to return to the fish factory after lunch breaks. Just a bit of sun and a couple of hits off a joint and most of the workers bailed. At the end, it was just a place to package frozen fish brought in on trailer trucks from God knows where. My worst job ever!”¹¹
Jennifer Cabral distilled it eloquently: “Like a frozen version of a sweat shop.”¹²
The Col’ Storage was closed for good in 1973. “Wider marketing of freshly caught fish and quicker means of distribution meant better prices to the fisherman,” Vorse wrote. “They didn’t choose to sell to the ice box. With nothing to freeze and nothing to sell, the plant had to close down operations on a Christmas Eve.”
On Labor Day 1974, the east side of the freezer collapsed. “It took a little less than nine months for the ice to melt, but when it finally did, one whole side of the structure fell to the ground,” Vorse wrote. “So it was not a gag, after all.”
Robert D. Wilkins, the town building inspector, ordered the Live Fish Company to raze all of the buildings within 60 days because they had become a health hazard, a fire hazard, structurally unsound, and an “attractive nuisance” — meaning that they might attract children who would be unaware of the danger posed by conditions. Demolition began in January 1975 and, by March, the wreckers had also knocked down the trap shed that preservationists like Josephine (Couch) Del Deo (1925-2016) had hoped to salvage.
While the plant was still standing, the Coast Guard announced its intention to use the site for its new Station Provincetown. An arrow on the front-page photo in The Advocate on 30 January 1975 marked the spot. The image comes from the Charlotte Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 134.
Demolition of the freezer resulted in a desolate scene along Commercial Street for a time. This photograph shows the former A&P at 120 Commercial Street, and the Cabral family home next door. It comes from the Cold Storage/Trap Industry Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 5272.
The United States took the property in 1977 for the purpose of constructing the new Coast Guard Station Provincetown. Today, only the brick cannery building remains from the days of the Cape Cod Cold Storage Company. The last day on which ATCO stock was traded, 6 November 1990, it was selling for a nickel a share. There were no buyers.⁶
¶ Last updated on 16 January 2019.
125 Commercial Street on the Town Map.
Also at 125 Commercial Street:
Thumbnail image: Label, from the Provincetown History Preservation Project (Municipal Collection), Page 4990.
¹ Commonwealth vs. Frederick M. Dyer and others, 243 Mass. 472, Page 473.
² “News of Food; New Type of Fish Fillets Is Developed; Each One Is of Same Size and Thickness,” by Jane Nickerson, The New York Times, 26 June 1947.
³ “New Fish Loaf Marketed,” The New York Times, 7 July 1947.
⁴ “Fishery Appeals to Employees,” The Provincetown Advocate, 18 July 1963.
⁵ “From the Drought, an Opportunity,” Fortune, April 1935, in Fortune Classic.
⁶ “Don’t Put H&R Stock on the Block,” by Andrew Leckey, The Chicago Tribune, 30 December 1991.
⁷ “The Cape Cod Cold Storage and Freeman’s Wharf,” by Mel Joseph, Provincetown Portuguese Festival 2010, Page 39.
⁸ Comment to a posting in My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection on Facebook, 30 November 2018 and 1 December 2018.
⁹ Comment to a posting in My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection on Facebook, 30 November 2018.
¹⁰ Comment to a posting in My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection on Facebook, 1 December 2018.
¹¹ Comments to a posting in My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection on Facebook, 1 December 2018 and 2 December 2018.
¹² Comment to a posting in My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection on Facebook, 3 December 2018.
¹³ “South Wind,” by Heaton Vorse, reprinted in Provincetown Trapboat Fishing: The End of an Era. In the Municipal Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 4924.