Taves Boatyard marine railway.
Frank “Bisca” Taves (1905-1984) was the son of a couple who come here from São Miguel, the largest of the Azores. He didn’t follow his father to sea, though his role in the fishery was as important as any man’s. Taves devoted his life to building and repairing boats. His yard is still functioning — though at nothing approaching yesteryear’s volume — and it still bears his name. In fact, it still seems to have the same hand-lettered sign on its corrugated tin shed that Ross Moffett photographed several decades ago.
The heart of the operation is a marine railway, constructed in 1944, that makes it possible to haul large fishing boats out of the water entirely, allowing dry access to the entire area of the hull that’s normally below the water line. This is critical for inspection, repairs, routine maintenance, and painting.
Left: Head-on view of the marine railway at Taves Boatyard shows the tracks running out to the harbor and the cradle in which boats are hauled to dry land. Right: Frank “Bisca” Taves in an undated photograph from Bill Berardi’s “Faces of Provincetown” collection, assembled and scanned at Provincetown High School, under the direction of Judith Stayton, and held by the family of Gordon Ferreira.
A railway — two parallel rails — runs about 225 feet from the yard, into and under the waters of Provincetown Harbor. On the rails are two enormous cradles that look, when empty, like the upturned skeletal rib cages of giant creatures who have somehow beached themselves at 129R Commercial Street.
The cradles are mounted on carriages with double-flanged wheels. At high tide, the cradle is sent out to the far end of the railway. Since it’s submerged at this point, a boat can be floated somewhat easily into its mechanical clutches. Tucked within the cradle’s rigid upright ribs are a corresponding number of hinged ribs that can be raised or lowered to better conform to the shape of a boat’s hull. Once the vessel is cradled and made fast, it can be winched out of the water.
There were once four or more railways along the waterfront. Today there are only two: at Taves and at Flyer’s next door, 131A Commercial Street. These are among the last vestiges of the working waterfront. If it’s not you doing the hard work of hauling, welding, and painting, they are as picturesque as they can be, especially when a big boat is “on the ways” or “on the rails.”
The Taves story begins with the arrival in town, around the turn of the 20th century, of Marion Taves (1883-1962) and Caroline (Perry) Taves (1887-1973). Both were natives of São Miguel, 2,400 miles away, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The older Taves was a fisherman. The younger Taves was known as Bisca (sometimes spelled “Biska” or “Bishka”), after a Portuguese trick-taking card game that he played “quite proficiently,” Leo E. Gracie recalled. Among his siblings was a much younger brother, Marion “Rocky” Taves (1921-1996), who would one day join Bisca at the boatyard.
Ross Moffett’s beautifully evocative photograph of the boatyard comes from the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 1223.
John W. Gregory also photographed the West End boatyards. The image comes from “My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection” on Facebook, posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on 14 April 2017.
Harvey Dodd drew this delightful vignette in 1964. The illustration comes from “My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection” on Facebook, posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on 16 November 2018.
Joseph Andrews’s design for the 38-foot-10-inch lobster boat Mayflower, constructed at Taves Boatyard. Image from the collection of Joseph Andrews.
Mayflower on the ways at Taves. Joseph Andrews collection.
Note how Mayflower‘s lines follow Andrews’s drawing above. From his collection.
Columbia on the ways at Taves in 1964. Joseph Andrews collection.
Andrews, Philip Meads, and Ernest Tasha. Mounted on the railway cradle is Plymouth Belle. Joseph Andrews collection.
Alwa on the rails at Taves Boatyard. Joseph Andrews collection.
Left: Queen Mary is on the rails. Looming in the background is the freezer of the Atlantic Coast Fisheries cold storage plant, which was demolished in 1975. Joseph Andrews collection. Right: Plymouth Belle approaches the cradle of the submerged marine railway carriage, in preparation for being hauled out of the water. Image from “My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection,” posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on 21 March 2018.
Yankee of Harwich Port on the rails. Joseph Andrews collection.
Andrews visited the boatyard after it closed in the mid-1980s. From his collection.
Like Francis “Flyer” Santos and Joseph Andrews — Provincetown’s two other great boatwrights in the second half of the 20th century — Taves apprenticed with Manuel “Ti Manuel” Furtado, at Furtado’s Boatyard, 99-101 Commercial Street.
In 1939, Taves bought this waterfront parcel from Frank Souza Aresta, of 3 Carnes Avenue, who had owned it since 1928. Taves must have had at least a rudimentary railway in place, as accounts in The Advocate as early as 1941 refer to boats being “hauled out” at his boatyard. That verb suggests something more than a stationary “Portygee railway” — a heavy timber beam on two large posts that will support a boat in an upright position on the sand as the tide goes out, exposing much of the hull below the water line.
Taves applied in early 1944 for permission to build a single-track marine railway. At an average low tide, its tracks would be more than a foot-and-a-half above the water line. At an average high tide, much of the track would be submerged, to a depth of more than seven feet below the water line. Approval was granted in March.¹ An item in The Advocate at the time — more than a year before the end of World War II — noted that the Navy was going to get involved with the project, and expand it into a two-track railway.² I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any evidence that this was actually constructed, however.
Biska and his father “aren’t anticipating many idle moments ahead,” the squib concluded. A few random examples of how the prediction came true: Mary Madelyn was transformed in the winter of 1947-1948 from a 40-foot to a 52-foot dragger, with a new keel. New England was put back in order in 1961-1962 after sinking at MacMillan Wharf. And Cap’n Bill received a new G.M. V-8 engine in late 1967.
Taves went beyond maintenance work and into construction. “All last winter he has been building a fleet of fine, seaworthy rowboats,” The Advocate reported in January 1946, “and this season will rent them out by the hour, day, week, maybe season. He’ll also have fishing tackle and bait on hand. There’s something about the flavor of flounders caught yourself out there in the harbor quite unlike anything you can get in store or restaurant.”³
Twenty years later, Taves reached the apogee of its boat-building era with the construction of such large vessels as a 38-foot-10-inch lobster boat, designed by Joseph Andrews for Herbert Lovell of Barnstable. In the winter of 1965-1966, when fishermen on the Cape were prevented from going to sea, they would head instead to 129R Commercial Street from Orleans, Chatham, Yarmouth, and even Barnstable, “to stand quietly around, smoking and watching the practice of an old art and craft that shows up best when men ply it by hand,” The Advocate reported in January 1966.
“The mass-produced boat may be slick enough, the fishermen admit, but there’s something about the boat built by hand that involves them as no factory-built craft ever can: wrapped up in her timbers, planking, and screws are their livelihood and often their very lives. …
“The Lovell boat — she will be called the Mayflower — has a 5-by-16-inch one-piece keel, 32 feet long. She has a 12-foot beam. Her mahogany hull is fastened with Everdur bronze screws — there’ll never be streaks from rusty screws down her hull — and her oaken frame is shaped of ‘steam bend’ timbers, tough enough to take the rough seas when they come.”⁴
This aerial view from 2010, by David W. Dunlap, shows the tracks of the railway crossing the beach and entering the water.
Photos taken in 2017 (left) and 2018 (right), by David W. Dunlap.
David W. Dunlap (2009).
A sectional view shows the rails and cross ties. David W. Dunlap (2009).
The carriage wheels have flanges on both sides. David W. Dunlap (2009).
Cee-Jay on the rails in 2011. David W. Dunlap.
David W. Dunlap (2012).
David W. Dunlap (2011).
David W. Dunlap (2009).
Naviator of Wellfleet on the rails. The roof of the winch house is in the foreground. David W. Dunlap (2011).
Cable attachment to the carriage. David W. Dunlap (2011).
Two rails. Two rainbows. David W. Dunlap (2012).
Mayflower was not even the longest boat to come out of the Taves shop during this golden age. That distinction goes to Columbia, a 43-foot-long cabin cruiser with a flying bridge, 14½ feet in the beam, that was designed by Phil Bolger and completed in June 1964 for Elmer M. Costa of Orleans. “Taves did major repairs to almost every boat in Provincetown … but had never built a boat from the keel up,” Elmer’s son Marc Costa wrote in 2012. “Columbia was the ‘one,’ and the heart and soul of Frank Taves and the three other builders went into her. Their craftsmanship attests to the fact that Columbia is still here 45 years later, and in original but used condition.”⁵
Andrews, of 28 Conant Street, was one of the boatwrights whose heart and soul went into Columbia and Mayflower. He began working at Furtado’s in 1932, where he made the acquaintance of the young Flyer Santos. Early in World War II, young Andrews was given a draft deferment because he was the sole supporter of his family. He joined Santos at the shipyard of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company in Rhode Island. Soon, he was reclassified 1-A. Rather than let himself be drafted into the Army, Andrews enlisted in the Navy. He saw 19 months of uninterrupted service in the tumultuous Pacific Theater on the light carrier U.S.S. Cowpens. He survived the infamous “Halsey’s Typhoon” of December 1944 in the Philippine Sea, which claimed three destroyers and more than 800 lives, including a sailor on Cowpens.
Back in Provincetown, Andrews was hired by Santos to work at Flyer’s Boatyard, first opposite 94 Commercial, then at 131A Commercial. In 1958, he moved over to Taves, where he stayed for the next 26 years, working as a ship’s carpenter and engine mechanic, repairing rails, decks, frames and timbers, and replacing such critical elements as the shaft logs, where the propeller shaft penetrates the hull, on big draggers like New England and Victory II.
Raphael Anthony Merrill (1920-2001) of Truro was another well-known Taves boatwright. Like Taves, Santos, and Andrews, he had apprenticed at Furtado’s. After an eventful stint with the Army in North Africa and Italy during World War II, Merrill worked for Flyer, then at the Pamet Boatyard in Truro. He ended up at the Taves Boatyard, where he remained until his retirement in 1982.
The last of the great Eastern-rigged wooden draggers, Richard & Arnold, Capt. David Dutra, received a going-over at Taves in 2014, four years before she steamed out of Provincetown for the last time. David W. Dunlap.
Those who recall the later years at Taves have some sharp stories.
“Spent a lot of time between Flyer’s and Taves, just appreciating the woodworking skills needed to maintain a fleet,” Leo A. Gracie wrote on the “My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection” Facebook page on 10 January 2018. “Peter Van Arsdale and Freddie Hemly would hang out in each shop until we got in the way. Flyer was the teacher and Bisca was the grinch. Worried about liability etc., etc.”
“Frank couldn’t see any damned reason at all to buy a hydraulic jack,” Ted Box wrote on Facebook on 23 January 2014. “So we used these old screw jacks that took all the strength you could muster to lift a dragger enough to pry loose the worm shoe [a sacrificial strip of wood that protects the keel and other timbers from shipworms]. Once, when Frank was in his 70s, we were performing that very operation, and I was concerned that he might get a heart attack from the extreme exertion involved, so I was taking up the slack. After a while, I figured, in true Provincetown fashion, ‘Better you than me, pard,’ and allowed him to take up his rightful share. He never broke a sweat.”
Box’s comment inspired Jeffrey Parker to write, on the same day: “Bishka. I was in there a lot when I was rebuilding Lapwing. Once I had to replace a plank that tapered to a point and had curvature in two directions. I figured this was going to be too much for me to duplicate. I very carefully and slowly removed the old plank and took it to Frank to use as a template. He pulled out a mahogany board and ‘traced’ my old plank. Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh, and through the bandsaw. It was awful, didn’t come close to fitting. I had to edge nail a piece along one side to build it back up. He charged me full pop, of course. It was then that I realized that Frank couldn’t see!”
Sea Hunter on the rails in 2011 (left) and 2012 (right). Photos by David W. Dunlap.
Capt. Scott Rorro of Sea Hunter during a break in the work at Taves. David W. Dunlap (2011).
With Sea Hunter out of the water, critical elements of its hull — like the propeller and rudder — can be inspected and, if necessary, repaired. David W. Dunlap (2011).
Bisca Taves died in 1984, at 79. The boatyard closed soon thereafter. Merrill had already retired. Andrews figured it was time for him to “call it square.” Bisca’s widow, Mary P. Taves, died in 1993. The following year, the property was sold by the executor of her estate, for $105,000, to Alfred J. Pickard Jr. of Wellfleet, through the Taves Boatyard Nominee Trust, formed in 1994. Pickard and his wife, Donna (Harrington) Pickard, run the Wellfleet Marine Corporation, which was founded in 1954 by her parents, Warren “Bing” Harrington and Irene Harrington. The Pickards already owned the main house at 129 Commercial.
The sight of a boat “on the rails” at Taves can transport you back to the time when this was a restless, muscular, and industrial waterfront. When the cradle is empty, the town somehow feels emptier, too.
¶ Last updated on 8 January 2019.
129R Commercial Street on the Town Map.
Also at 129R Commercial Street:
Thumbnail image: Richard & Arnold on the rails at Taves, 2014, by David W. Dunlap.
Shawn Alford wrote on 2 January 2016: I really enjoyed reading and looking at all of my great-grandfather’s boatyard history. I have many fond memories being there and playing around the boatyard, although Grandpa Taves often yelled, “Be careful.”
For further reading online
• Raphael Anthony Merrill
Find a Grave Memorial No. 138458013.
• Caroline (Perry) Taves
Find a Grave Memorial No. 162463889.
• Frank “Bisca” Taves
Find a Grave Memorial No. 190457791.
• Marion Taves
Find a Grave Memorial No. 124697978.
• Mary P. Taves
Find a Grave Memorial No. 190457836.
¹ “Plan Accompanying Petition of Frank Taves to Build a Marine Railway in Provincetown Harbor,” 14 March 1944, Barnstable County Registry of Deeds, Plan Book 69, Page 97.
² “To Fellows and Friends Afar and Abroad,” The Provincetown Advocate, 2 March 1944, Page 1.
³ “To Fellows and Friends Afar and Abroad,” The Provincetown Advocate, 13 June 1946, Page 1.
⁴ “Boat-Building Art Thrives Here,” The Provincetown Advocate, 6 January 1966, Page 1. Clipping within the Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell, Book 2, Page 126, on the Provincetown History Preservation Project website, Page 1045.
⁵ “Columbia — A Member of the Family,” by Marc Costa, Wicked Local, 28 April 2012.