Fisherman Cold Storage Company.

Don’t be entirely fooled by the American Impressionists’ romantic depiction of the Provincetown waterfront in the early 20th century. It was brutally industrial in many places. Seven enormous freezer plants lined the shore from the Western Cold Storage Company (what is now the West End Lot) to the Consolidated Weir Company (now the Ice House condominium). They served the fishing fleet, keeping bait fresh until it was needed and keeping the boats’ catch fresh until it could be transported to market. The main buildings in these complexes were effectively multistory refrigerators. Fish were preserved, sometimes up to a year, in trays or pans on shelves within large rooms where temperatures were kept well below freezing. What pulled heat out of these spaces was a network of pipes through which calcium chloride brine or ammonia could circulate freely, since these liquids do not freeze at 32 degrees. The Fisherman Cold Storage of 1907 was the third such plant to be developed in Provincetown and the sixth in the whole state. Only Boston, North Truro, and Gloucester had older freezers.

John A. Matheson (1867-1936), who was to become the president of the First National Bank in 1918, was the moving force behind the Fisherman company. And its president. Joseph Augustus Manta (1873-1954), who lived next door at 179 Commercial Street, was the clerk. William B. Bangs was the treasurer. The first directors were John Adams, Matthew P. Campbell, R. Eugene Conwell, Frederick Fisher, Manta, Matheson, Jesse Rogers, John W. Small, and Walter Welsh. The corporation was initially capitalized at $60,000 (more than $1.5 million today).

Detail from the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Provincetown, Barnstable County, Massachusetts (1912), from the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. Digital ID g3764pm.g038261912.

Its charter envisioned that the Fisherman company would “hold and rent licenses and locations for nets, weirs and other appliances for catching and retaining fish” — trap fishing, in other words; operate fishing vessels; make and sell “artificial ice”; transport freight and passengers; sell coal; and manufacture and sell isinglass, a collagen derived from the swim bladders of cod that can be used to make glue or clarify beer. Fisherman contracted with the York Manufacturing Company for the cooling equipment at the heart of the plant. (York, though no longer an independent company, is still well known for its cooling and air-conditioning equipment.)

Construction began in the spring of 1907. The freezer’s stated capacity was 130,000 cubic feet, equal to Consolidated’s facility in the East End. Translated, that meant it could hold about 7,000 fish. They would arrive in buckets from fishing boats tied up at the pier, hoisted along a tramway to the fourth floor of the storage building, by far the largest structure in the plant.

Unless corrected, I believe that the present bulkhead is at least partly a remnant of the original Fisherman plant. It is quite distinctive — almost medieval-looking, with its semi-random courses of large stones. Contemporary accounts and maps from the 1940s describe a stone foundation at the freezer, so I’m supposing this is one and the same.

Antone B. “Tony” Lopes (1875-1951) was the foreman at the plant. Excitement occasionally surrounded the cold storage when a fishing boat brought in some unusual or exotic species. The company would oblige the public by placing the fish on exhibition in the freezer.

The cold storages were prominent elements on the skyline. The main warehouse and receiving room at Fisherman Cold Storage is the long building with cupola at the upper left of this undated photo taken from the Post Office cupola. Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his Facebook page, My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection, 20 October 2017.

The tramway that’s so prominent on the left was used to hoist buckets of fish from trap boats and draggers at the wharf up to the fourth-floor receiving room, where they were cleaned and prepared for freezing. Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his Facebook page, My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection, 25 March 2018.

The building at left was the receiving room and warehouse; the freezer itself. You can just barely discern the tramway that ran from that large fourth-story doorway down to the wharf. You can also see how prominent the 90-foot smokestack was on the skyline. Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his Facebook page, My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection, 1 August 2020.

The engine room powered the intricate system of coolant pipes in the warehouse. This photo, from the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, appeared in Images of America: Provincetown, Volume II (1998), by John Hardy Wright, published by Arcadia Publishing.

For instance, in September 1915, a six-foot-long, 75-pound tarpon — usually found in far more southerly waters — made a guest appearance in one of Fisherman’s weirs off Race Point, maintained by Capt. Frank Raymond. It was not a welcome guest, either, as its fighting reputation preceded it. “A smasher of things generally when cornered in a contracted space,” the Advocate said. “At the instant when a gaff was stuck into the fish, that fish sprang from the water inside the trap netting directly into the weir boat, and for a brief while had things all its own way, thwarts and all loose boat furnishings encountered in its floundering being sent flying.”

An enormous combine known as Atlantic Coast Fisheries (ATCO), headquartered in New York City, began acquiring the Provincetown freezers in the 1910s, eventually owning four of them. It swallowed up Fisherman Cold Storage in 1935. Whether or not ATCO intended to maintain the Fisherman plant is an open question. But the buildings and the wharf sustained terrific damage during a storm in December 1937. Much of the rest of the complex was leveled by 1938. All that remained for a while was the 90-foot-high brick smokestack from the former engine house.

The fraught task of tearing it down fell to the contractor Frank A. Days and his employees Irving Edwards and Joseph Souza in December 1941, just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. The trick was to replace a section of the brick foundation with timbers capable of temporarily supporting the weight of the smokestack. They were position so that the structure would, in theory, fall toward the water — and away from the many wood-frame buildings nestled nearby. At the appointed hour, the timbers were soaked with kerosene and deliberately set afire. The Advocate described the scene:

“Flames burned fiercely for 10 minutes and then a slight tremor was noticed at the peak of the stack. There was a slight movement of the whole as the great chimney started to move intact toward the shore. Midway, it seemed for an instant to pause, and then it broke squarely in two and dropped with a heavy thud to the sand. The weight of 50,000 bricks coming down at one time in one place bulged out a part of the retaining wall along the shore. …

“There’s a hole in the sky for a while where the old Fishermen’s chimney once pierced the sky and there’s nothing left now where the once prosperous freezer stood.”

The monumental stone bulkhead at Bubala’s by the Bay would seem — at least partly — to have been the original foundation of the Fisherman Cold Storage Company. Photograph taken in 2018 by David W. Dunlap.

2019, Dunlap.

2019, Dunlap.

2018, Dunlap.

In 1940 and 1950, ATCO offered to sell the property to the Town as a parking lot. But the offer was refused both times at Town Meeting (foreshadowing a similar outcome over Reginald W. Cabral’s offer of Grozier Park in 1963). After the second refusal, ATCO drove hickory posts into the perimeter around the former freezer site, thereby preventing the public from parking there any longer.

Christopher “Marcey” Salvador (1912-1989), owner of the Marcey Oil Company, bought the 19,480-square-foot waterfront parcel (nearly half an acre) from Atlantic Coast Fisheries in 1951. He graded it and turned it into a parking lot. It’s hard to imagine a time when that would have been considered highest and best use of shoreline acreage, but there you have it. The Advocate practically rhapsodized about the prospect: “The site is so beautifully located, overlooking the harbor, that some people may want to park and just sit.”

Salvador accommodated those hungry for views and those who were just plain hungry in 1958, when he constructed the Sea View Club, now Bubala’s by the Bay.

Advertisement from the 1920 catalog of the Provincetown Art Association.

¶ Last updated on 15 January 2021.

183-185 Commercial Street on the Town Map.

Also at 183-187 Commercial Street:

Jetty No. 6.

Bubala’s by the Bay.

M. & J. Matheson, Millinery & Fancy Goods.

Matheson’s Wharf.

Thumbnail: Detail from the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Provincetown, Barnstable County, Massachusetts (1912), from the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. Digital ID g3764pm.g038261912.

In memoriam

• Antone B. “Tony” Lopes (1875-1951)

Find a Grave Memorial No. 124852196.

• Joseph Augustus Manta (1873-1954)

Find a Grave Memorial No. 91286080.

• John A. Matheson (1867-1936)

Find a Grave Memorial No. 142067172.

• Christopher “Marcey” Salvador (1912-1989)

Find a Grave Memorial No. 139231348.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.