Cape Cod Cold Storage trap shed.
The overnight demolition of historic structures isn’t a phenomenon peculiar to Provincetown’s new Gilded Age. In March 1975 — contravening an implicit understanding with preservationists that was supported by the United States Coast Guard — the Pittsburgh-based owners of the old Cold Storage ordered the razing of a 20-by-50-foot, two-and-a-half-story trap shed on the remnant of Freeman’s Wharf. What they tore down was perhaps the last upland vestige of the trap-fishing industry, which was once a mainstay of the town’s industry and economy. Symbolically (though coincidentally), the last trap fisherman retired nine months after this demolition.
First, a word or two about trap fishing — an endeavor so primitively simple in its basic design that it’s almost impossible to believe it persisted in Provincetown Harbor until 1975, the year Microsoft was founded. In the spring, trap fishermen constructed enormous structures, commonly known as weirs, in relatively shallow inshore waters. The fish all but caught themselves, and had only to be harvested from the weirs during day trips throughout the season. (That’s not suggest it was easy work. Ferocious fighters like tuna often had to be gaffed, or even shot. Man versus fish in the limited confines of a trap sometimes played out like a maritime version of cage fighting.)
The traps were so effective in depopulating the coastal fishery that both Massachusetts and Rhode Island considered bans as early as the 1870s, when the matter came before Congress. A contemporary report by the U.S. Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries offered a concise description of trapping:
“The pounds and weirs are adapted not only for taking, but many of them for retaining, the fish until it is convenient to remove them, needing no watching to prevent their escape. … The most common form on the south side of New England consists of a fence of netting [known as a ‘leader’ because it led fish into the trap], extending from the shore, and nearly perpendicular to it, for a distance of 50 or 100 fathoms or more [300 to 600 feet], as the circumstances may require. The outer end of this straight fence or wall is carried into a heart-shaped fence of netting [the ‘heart’], the apex of which is connected with a circular ‘bowl’ of net work, the bottom of which lies upon the ground, at a depth of 20 to 30 feet.
“The fish, in their movement along the coast, first strike against the fence of netting and are directed outward [toward deeper water], following the fence or ‘leader’ along until they reach the end, which, of course, brings them within the ‘heart.’ Here they wander around for a time, their only easy avenue for escape being through the apex into the ‘bowl,’ and in which when entered they continually circulate about without ever finding the outlet.
“It is a peculiarity of fishes in their movements, especially when in schools, that they do not turn a sharp corner, but move around in curves; and the nets in question are so arranged that the curves they are likely to take never bring them toward an avenue of escape, but rather tend to conduct them farther within.”¹
A fishing method that allowed a man to come home at night — when he might otherwise be huddled in a dory out on the Grand Banks, separated by many miles from the mother vessel during a terrifying storm — certainly had its attractions. Provincetown was represented before Congress by the ichthyologist Capt. Nathaniel Ellis Atwood (1807-1886), who lived on Long Point. He opposed any regulation of the weirs. Atwood blamed aggressive bluefish for the disappearance of other species. After all, he said, nets had been in use since the time of Jesus.² And so the weirs remained. In the early 20th century, some 100 traps were set between Wellfleet and Race Point, Kathie R. Florsheim wrote in a 1977 essay reprinted in Provincetown Trapboat Fishing: The End of an Era.³
Flying over Provincetown Harbor in 1966 on assignment for National Geographic, the photographer Laurence Lowry made one of the best images I’ve ever seen of a weir, because it shows the elements so clearly. Lowry was really aiming to depict the town shoreline and the dunes beyond, but his camera perfectly captured the trap.⁴
In this 1966 Ektachrome for National Geographic Magazine, Laurence Lowry caught an entire working weir not far from the West End Breakwater. Fish would be stopped by the net fence known as the “leader,” then follow it, first into the “heart” and finally into the “bowl,” from which they were unlikely to escape before the netting around them could be taken in. The dory at upper left gives some sense of scale.
A model of a weir, built by Robert Reginald “Reggie Bull” Enos (1924-2015), at the Pilgrim Museum and Provincetown Museum, gives some idea of its complexity. The photo was taken in 2009 by David W. Dunlap.
Though essentially passive by nature, the weirs nonetheless required constant tending during the six or seven months a year they were used. The hickory poles rotted, the nets were torn frequently, and the whole structure could be wrecked in a storm. Bill Berardi took this and other remarkable photos in the 1970s. They can be seen in the Municipal Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 5982, to which they were lent by Kathleen (Joseph) Meads.
Left: Bernard Nunes, Joe Bent, and Dan Pimental are hauling in a net within a trap in this 1970s photo by Bill Berardi. Right: Tuna were among the catch on the day Berardi went out to the trap. Kathleen (Joseph) Meads lent both photos to the Municipal Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 5982.
The proliferation of weirs and freezers was not coincidental. They both responded to a booming demand for bait, chiefly herring and mackerel, by the line-fishing vessels of the era. Then, as line fishing gave way to trawling and dragging in the early 20th century, the trappers and freezers turned to food fish like whiting and tuna. In this equation, each side needed the other, but the freezer operators ultimately held the upper hand because they set the prices. Francis James Rowe (±1898-1958) was the general manager of Provincetown operations for the Atlantic Coast Fisheries Company. Fishermen who made the mistake of taking a catch directly to Boston or Gloucester might then find themselves frozen out at the West End freezer. Capt. Bernard “Sonny” Roderick Sr., skipper of Shirley & Roland, recalled: “Frank Rowe was all business, and he’d throw away business rather than give in to any boat captain’s demands.”⁵ The feeling was mutual. Sometimes, skippers were offered so little at the pier that they would simply give away their catch rather than sell it for pennies. Poor families and starving artists depended on this largesse — even though it was sometimes born more of disgust than charity.
Trap boats were low-slung but capacious affairs, specially designed to allow them entry into the bowl of the weir and to hold hundreds of pounds of catch. In this gorgeous photo by Bill Berardi, lent by Kathleen (Joseph) Meads, a trap boat heads out to a weir, dory in tow. In the Municipal Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 5982.
The trap boat Charlotte was built in 1918. She was abandoned in 1968, but salvaged in 1977 by the now-defunct Provincetown Heritage Museum. In this photo by Peter Carter, Cyril Patrick Jr. and Joseph “Ducky” Perry are seen with the boat just before repairs began. (Dick Alberts is just outside this crop.) In the Charlotte Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 643.
Immaculately restored, Charlotte was taken to the Provincetown Heritage Museum, in what is now the Provincetown Public Library. She’s seen in this photo by Josephine Del Deo passing by the L & A Supermarket (now Far Land) at 150 Bradford Street. In the Charlotte Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 697.
Over the years after the Provincetown Heritage Museum closed, Charlotte was allowed to go to ruin again — this time, beyond salvation. Only the transom survives intact, at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum. The photo, by David W. Dunlap, was taken in 2013.
The trap shed on Freeman’s Wharf was such a prosaic element in the drama that its role over the years was not recorded with any great fidelity, other than that it served as a store house for trap-related gear. Historical preservationists, including Josephine (Couch) Del Deo (1925-2016), believed it was important enough to warrant conserving when the United States Court Guard took over the West End freezer complex from a group of investors led by Bernard Benkovitz of Pittsburgh. “It is a significant reminder of a structure used extensively in American fishing commerce,” Del Deo wrote in 1974.
“Furthermore, it is the last building of its kind in the town and should be conserved. Subsequent to the preservation of the building, there may be substantial educational benefits to the town and to the public at large, especially if the building is utilized for a ‘Fishing Industry Museum.'”⁶
Del Deo and members of the Historic District Study Committee — including John Bell, Mary-Jo Avellar, Paul Mendes, George Bryant, Phyllis Temple, and Edward Allodi — believed they had a deal with Benkovitz to salvage the structure before Freeman’s Wharf was entirely demolished in early 1975. The United States Coast Guard believed the same thing. On 14 March, Rear Adm. J. P. Stewart, the commander of the First Coast Guard District, told Del Deo in a letter (copied to Benkovitz and The Advocate) that the trap shed “might best be relocated to a low-maintenance site and developed as a museum, or for whatever other purpose thought most appropriate.”⁷
This pier shed was identified in the Massachusetts Historical Commission survey as the trap shed on the Cape Cod Cold Storage Company wharf, better known as Freeman’s Wharf. The photo was taken around the time the freezer opened.
A 1970s photo shows how much the building had been enlarged over the years. It is in the Charlotte Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 367.
Not long before the trap shed was demolished, Josephine Del Deo took these pictures of its interior. I’ve taken the liberty of giving them a silvertone cast, since they remind me of the work of Paul Strand. They’re in the Charlotte Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 293.
Susan Avellar recorded the trap shed in its final years. This picture also shows the aerial tramway over which fish were hoisted from Freeman’s Wharf up to the third floor of the freezer. In the Municipal Collection of the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 4960.
Another photo by Susan Avellar from Page 4960 of the Provincetown History Preservation Project website.
Five days later, on 19 March, Del Deo learned that the Massachusetts Historical Commission was prepared to nominate the trap shed for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. The next day, Capt. Norman Scherer, chief of staff at the First Coast Guard District, sent Benkovitz a telegram requesting a three-week demolition delay to allow the Historic District Study Committee to make relocation arrangements.
No matter. A demolition crew arrived 14 hours later and made quick work of the trap shed. It was Josephine’s husband, Salvatore Del Deo, proprietor of Sal’s Restaurant nearby, who found the wreckers already well at work.⁸ An 11th-hour telegram requesting help from the Secretary of Transportation, under whom the Coast Guard was then administered, was unavailing.⁹ And too late, in any case.
The Provincetown Advocate told the story of how defeat was rescued from the jaws of victory in March 1975. From the Charlotte Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 1212.
Mary-Jo Avellar’s photo in 1975 shows the wreckage of the upper part of the shed at the left, and the building’s main frame in the center-right. At the far right are the carts from the trolley that ran to the end of what was once a 1,200-foot pier. In the Charlotte Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 806.
For his part, Benkovitz was unapologetic, telling The Advocate that preservationists had known since October of the impending demolition, since he and the other investors were required to deliver a clean site to the Coast Guard, meaning that — in his view — they had had plenty of time to arrange for removing the shed. He added that he had actually done the committee a favor by delaying the demolition for as long as he possibly could, incurring additional expenses for liability insurance as a result.
Del Deo had the last word, in a letter the next week to Captain Scherer.
“The trap shed remains a symbol of the essence of Provincetown. It was, perhaps, a kind of herring gull among its architectural brothers, not very special in any way except that it was the last of a kind of building that once proliferated along the waterfront …. I hope that, although the trap shed is no longer an object in physical focus as you look out to sea, its remembered presence will act as a warning to us all not to treat our heritage lightly.”¹⁰
¶ Last updated on 6 December 2018.
125 Commercial Street on the Town Map.
Also at 125 Commercial Street:
Thumbnail image: Photo, 1970s, from the Charlotte Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 367.
¹ Report on the Condition of the Sea Fisheries of the South Coast of New England in 1871 and 1872, by Spencer F. Baird, United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries, 1873, Page xxv. NOAA Central Library, COF_1871-1872.PDF.
² Report on the Condition of the Sea Fisheries, Page 124.
³ Provincetown Trapboat Fishing: The End of an Era, Provincetown Historical Association, 1978. In the Municipal Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 4924.
⁴ “Massachusetts Builds for Tomorrow,” by Robert De Roos and B. Anthony Stewart, National Geographic Magazine, December 1966, Pages 826-827.
⁵ “The Cape Cod Cold Storage and Freeman’s Wharf,” by Mel Joseph, Provincetown Portuguese Festival, 2010, Page 43. On the Provincetown Portuguese Festival website, 2010 booklet.
⁶ “Trap Shed of the Atlantic Coast Fisheries,” by Josephine Del Deo, Massachusetts Historical Commission Inventory, 13 December 1974, Form No. 3-P. Copy in the collection of the Provincetown Public Library.
⁷ “Letter to Josephine Del Deo from U.S. Coast Guard 04/14/1975,” Charlotte Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 385.
⁸ “2 Days After Landmark Tag: Shed Wreckers Strike at Sunrise,” by Alan Bernheimer, The Provincetown Advocate, 27 March 1975, Page 3. In the Charlotte Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 1212.
⁹ “Mailgram re: Trap Shed Demolition From Sec. of Transportation,” Charlotte Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 1311. The title of this page is in error; the telegram was to the Secretary of Transportation.
¹⁰ “Trap Shed,” by Josephine Del Deo, The Provincetown Advocate, 27 March 1975. In the Charlotte Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 1276.