Ballast stone wall.

Don’t let the Second Empire-style exuberance of the White Wind Inn blind you to the other architectural masterpiece at this property: a retaining wall made of beautifully disparate cobbles. These are almost certainly ballast stones, weights that were used to stabilize empty vessels in the water until their holds could be filled with whatever cargo they had come to fetch, at which time the stones would be jettisoned. In the case of Provincetown, for instance, one can imagine ships arriving to collect the salt that was once processed here. In any case, stones of this size amounted to a precious commodity at the tip of Cape Cod and once the cobbles were unloaded here, the people of Provincetown tried to hold on to them.

The ballast stone wall at 174 Commercial Street is evident in the detail of this photo taken after the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church burned down in 1908. Postcard from the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum (PC0134).

Left: The wall is prominent in this 1949 Kodacolor print, courtesy of Brian W. Calhoon. Right: A 1942 view also shows the wall clearly. Courtesy of Brian W. Calhoon.

“Stones are very rare on the Cape,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in the “Provincetown” chapter of Cape Cod, the account of his 1849 visit. “I saw a very few small stones used for pavements and for bank walls, in one or two places in my walk, but they are so scarce that, as I was informed, vessels have been forbidden to take them from the beach for ballast, and therefore their crews used to land at night and steal them.” By “bank wall,” I believe Thoreau meant an embankment like the one at 174 Commercial, not a banking establishment.

Both photos taken in 2011 by David W. Dunlap.

This wall had certainly been constructed by 1908 because it shows up clearly in photographs taken of the fire that destroyed the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church at 170 Commercial Street. A much older stone foundation wall came to light briefly in 2016 at 34 Commercial Street and — fortunately — was photographed before it disappeared again under the renovation. “Rocks like these … are not found around here,” Bruce Deely told me as he pointed out the wall at 34 Commercial. “George Bryant used to say that stones like this came from the ballast of ships that came from the Orient. Many of them seem rounded and smooth, which was typical of ballast stone according to George.”

The pleasure of this wall was not just visual but tactile, as Rachel Turner-Hayden recalled. “Love that rock wall,” she wrote in a Facebook comment. “My grandparents lived on Winthrop Street, and I would run my hands down the rocks when my gram would take me for walks.”¹

Dunlap, 2008.

Dunlap, 2018

Some other ballast stone walls can be seen at 3 Carver Street, 88 Commercial Street (along the Mechanic Street frontage), and 366 Commercial Street.

¶ Last updated on 21 November 2020.

174 Commercial Street on the Town Map.

Also at 174 Commercial Street:

White Wind Inn | Former Mayflower Barber Shop.

Reynolds Gallery (White Wind Inn gazebo).

Thumbnail image: Photo, 2011, by David W. Dunlap.

¹ Facebook thread on My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection, administered by Salvador R. Vasques III, beginning 18 January 2018.

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