163 Commercial Street.
Central Street isn’t. Central, that is. While Center Street is near the center of town, Central definitely has a westward bias. Then again, it doesn’t take its name from geography, but from a landmark that dominated Provincetown in the 19th century: the Central Wharf, a thriving maritime hub that projected 1,000 feet into the water from almost exactly the site now occupied by the Boatslip. (For reference sake, that’s more than two-thirds the length of MacMillan Wharf, or the distance from here to Seamen’s Bank, or the height of the Chrysler Building.) Central Street was the upland extension of this mighty wharf, which came to near-complete ruin during the Portland Gale of 1898.
Eight years earlier, James H. Hopkins wrote in the History of Barnstable County: “For many years, the Central and the Union Wharf Companies were the chief mercantile firms of the town, each owning many vessels employed in the various branches of the fisheries. With each wharf were connected blacksmith’s shops, marine railways, ship carpenter shops, and other facilities for the fitting and repairing of vessels.”¹
Old Central Wharf, by Frederick J. Mulhaupt (1871-1938), 10½-by-14¼-inch oil on panel. From the MutualArt website.
A view in the 1870s from the west side of the wharf, at low tide. Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection Facebook page, 28 September 2018.
Central Wharf was not only big, but early. It was constructed in the 1830s, though sources offer slightly conflicting information. The exhaustive and reliable History of Barnstable County places the date at 1839. Yet, the Central Wharf shows up clearly in the fabulously detailed Map of the Extremity of Cape Cod, the surveys for which were completed in 1835. Whatever the case, it’s completely safe to say that it was standing by 1840. Eight years later, it success as a commercial enterprise was all but assured by the installation of a marine railway. Inclined tracks extended from the end of the wharf into deeper waters. An enormous cradle traveled up and down these tracks. At high tide, a ship would floating far enough over the tracks that the cradle could be rolled under the hull. Once fastened into the cradle, the entire vessel could be hauled up the tracks and out of the water entirely, for repairs and painting below its waterline. Hoisting power typically came from a winch to which a horse was harnessed.
Capt. Joseph Atkins (1766-1851), who was responsible for the magnificent 160 Commercial Street, built the wharf. He ran the general store, with David T. Fairbanks (1802-1874). Captain Atkins’s son, William A. Atkins (1818-1897), joined the business, with Eben S. Smith. John Atwood had control from 1858 to 1863, when Atkins and Smith took over again. Capt. Nathan Young bought into the partnership, as did Atkins Nickerson (1818-1899), R. E. Nickerson, Abner B. Rich (1829-1892), and James A. Small. Many of these same men were officers or directors of the Seamen’s Savings Bank.
The Central Wharf Company described itself in an 1885 advertisement as: “Packers of mackerel and dealers in ship chandlery [candles, wax, soap], ship stores [operating and maintenance supplies and equipment], seamen’s outfits, groceries and provisions, paints, oils, wood and coal, salt, fish barrels and packages, dry and pickled fish, etc., etc.”² They were also agents for Brand’s Patent Bomb Lance, a rocket-propelled whaling harpoon tipped with an explosive shell designed to go off on impact with the giant creature.
Detail of A Map of the Extremity of Cape Cod: Including the Townships of Provincetown & Truro: With Chart of Their Sea Coast and of Cape Cod Harbour, State of Massachusetts, by Maj. James Duncan Graham, 1835. From the Boston Public Library, Norman B. Leventhal Map Center. Call No. G3762.C35 1835 .G7. (Color added by the author for clarity.)
Detail of the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Provincetown, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, by the Sanborn Map Company, 1889. From the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. Digital ID No. g3764pm.g038261889. (Some blue coloring added and extraneous markings removed by the author for clarity.)
Detail of the Bird’s Eye View of the Town of Provincetown, Barnstable County, Mass., by A. F. Poole, 1882. The red square in the lower panel shows the area of the close-up. From the Boston Public Library, Norman B. Leventhal Map Center. Call No. G3764.P78A3 1882 .P6.
The building at far left is the sail loft. In the grouping out on the wharf are, from left, the paint shop, the shipsmith shop, a fish warehouse, and a store house — the tall building at the end of the group. Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection Facebook page, 31 July 2016.
A postcard showing the east side of the wharf. The tall store house is clearly visible. It’s much the same vantage as the Mulhaupt painting. Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection Facebook page, 14 April 2020.
Another view from the west side. The head house stands outboard from the tall store house, perpendicular to the rest of the group. It’s also visible on the post card and in the 1882 axonometric drawing. Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection Facebook page, 21 September 2017.
Looking back to the town from the wharf. Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection Facebook page, 3 March 2019.
Theirs was not the only business on or around the wharf. The same 1885 directory includes ads for Isaac Collins, a ship carpenter and spar maker (masts and yards); James Fuller & Son, master builders and masons; F. A. Paine & Company, sail makers (as well as tents and flags); and Isaiah A. Small, a blacksmith and shipsmith. Another directory, published a year later, includes Francis P. Cook, a rigger; William H. Healey, a clerk; Eben Lothrop, a sailmaker; and Horace H. Watson, a weigher.³
Imagine the clamor! The Central Wharf was like its own little fishing village.
Among the ships that the Central Wharf Company sent off to fisheries around the world were the 116-ton whaling schooner Carrie W. Clark, which sailed under the commands of Capt. Elisha Burch and Capt. George Marshall; and the schooners Bloomer, John M. Fiske, Mary Eva, Millie Washburn, and St. Michael. As many as a dozen vessels could load and unload at a single time.
Amid this tumult, it’s easy to imagine a small child — terribly curious and eager to see all the amazing creatures and machines and hubbub there was to see — wandering undetected out on the wharf, too far for her own good. That was Lillian Russell Atkins, 4 years, 4 months, and 17 days old at around 9 o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, 31 August 1898. She set off to explore the wharf, which was right across the street from her home, at 162 Commercial Street. Lillian had made it just as far as the sail loft when she stepped through an opening in the wharf deck where a plank was missing. Now, a grown man might have only broken his leg in such a fall. But Lillian plunged entirely through the deck and into a high tide below. Shortly after noon, her body was recovered.⁴
Lillian’s parents, William T. Atkins (1853-1902) and Bessie Elsworth (Beaver) Atkins (1858-1931), never fully recovered from this tragedy.⁵ Unwilling and unable to look out from their house to the wharf under which their daughter had perished, they sold the property in 1900 to Lorenzo Dow Baker, co-founder of the United Fruit Company.
Advertisements in Chequocket; or, Coatuit: The Aboriginal Name of Provincetown … Business Directory of the Merchants, Store Keepers and Artisans, published in 1885. In the MacMillan Collection of the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 364.
Postcard sent 17 November 1879 from the Central Wharf Company to the firm of Nickerson & Baxter, 90 Commercial Street, Boston. It requests 100 pounds of ganging, which will be used in line fishing. Ganging is a leader line with a hook on one end that’s attached to the main line on the other end. The wharf company also requests 10,000 No. 7 hooks. Ten thousand. Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection Facebook page, 9 May 2019.
As the whaling industry faded, though, so did the fortunes of the wharf. A new lease on life arrived in 1891 with Joseph A. Rich, whose Boston-based wholesale fish company established its Provincetown headquarters on the Central Wharf. His building and several others on the wharf were wrecked by the great storm of 26-27 November 1898 (known as the Portland Gale because of the loss of the passenger steamer Portland), as was the wharf itself. There was no point in reconstructing it.
But if you squint at a modern aerial photo on Google Maps, you can convince yourself that there is a shadowy ghost of the pile field still to be seen. Who knows? Perhaps there is an artifact of the wharf at your feet. The Central had four large ballast rooms, filled with rocks, that helped steady the pier and hold it in place against heavy seas, since the pilings were not deeply driven. Irving S. Rogers invited readers of The Advocate in 1941 to go see for themselves. “A glance at the beach,” he wrote, “will reveal what happened to the rocks when the pier was razed.”⁶
Central Wharf after the Portland Gale of November 1898. Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection Facebook page, 8 April 2019.
After the storm. From the glass plate collection of Paul Koch on the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 1048.
Take a look at the upper Google Maps aerial view of the water off the Boatslip. You may discern what looks like the ghost of a pile field. The yellow dotted lines in the lower view trace the location and length of the pier.
¶ Last updated on 6 June 2020.
Site of the Central Wharf on the Town Map.
Also at 163 Commercial Street:
¹ “The Town of Provincetown,” by James H. Hopkins, Chapter 28 in History of Barnstable County, Massachusetts, edited by Simon L. Deyo, New York: H. W. Blake & Company, Page 994.
² Chequocket; or, Coatuit: The Aboriginal Name of Provincetown … Business Directory of the Merchants, Store Keepers and Artisans, compiled and arranged by Herman A. Jennings, Yarmouth: Cape Cod Item Job Printing Office, 1885, Page 56. In the MacMillan Collection of the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 364.
³ The First Resident Directory of Provincetown, Mass., compiled and arranged by J. H. Hogan, South Framingham: Lakeview Press, 1886. In the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 171.
⁴ “Sad Accident,” Yarmouth Register, 3 September 1898. Found and contributed by Denise Avallon.
⁵ William Turner Atkins obituary, Yarmouth Register, 1 March 1902, Page 8. Found and contributed by Denise Avallon.
⁶ “Puffs and Pot Shots,” by Irving S. Rogers, The Provincetown Advocate, 9 October 1941.
• Capt. Joseph Atkins (1766-1851)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 51088536.
• Lillian Russell Atkins (1894-1898)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 153413891.
• William A. Atkins (1818-1897)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 51088711.
• Abner B. Rich (1829-1892)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 51025580. Truro.
• Joseph A. Rich (1865-1931)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 191846104. Newton.