187 Commercial Street.
Matheson’s Wharf was so called after its acquisition by Capt. William Matheson (1828-1896), who lived at 186 Commercial Street. Matheson’s office was in a wharf head building at 187 Commercial Street (denominated No. 186 in the 19th century) where two of his daughters also operated a millinery shop. Because Matheson’s Wharf was once the maritime gateway to Provincetown, where passengers arrived by steamboat from Boston, it was also called Steamboat Wharf. (Historians, including this one, must be careful not to mistake it for the “Steamboat Wharf” at the center of town.) And late in its life, it was referred to as the Fisherman Cold Storage Wharf. But it was originally known as Bowly’s Wharf, after the two brothers who constructed it in 1849: Capt. Gideon Bowly (1816-1893) and Joshua Elsbery Bowly (1813-1883). Their name is frequently rendered “Bowley,” but their gravestones say “Bowly.”
“Bowly Wharf was a busy place,” Irving S. Rogers wrote in the Advocate. “Whalers were outfitted and rigged for the long voyages. In one large loft on the pier the ever-toiling sailmakers were fully occupied plying needle and palm to serviceable canvas. The ship’s carpenters had a large room which smelled pleasantly of new cordage, freshly sawed lumber, and oakum, while out on the pier the ship’s riggers swarmed over the vessel’s lofty yardarms.”¹
Matheson’s Wharf appears at the center of this late 19th-century bird’s-eye view. Directly above it is the spire of the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church, 170 Commercial Street. Bird’s Eye View of the Town of Provincetown, Barnstable County, Mass., 1882, by A. F. Poole. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library, Call No. G3764.P78A3 1882.P6.
In 1863, the Bowlys extended their wharf to 1,200 feet (about 250 shorter than modern-day MacMillan Wharf) to ensure that deep-drawing steamboats could tie up at lower tides. With that, regular passenger and freight service began to Boston on the newly built, single-screw steamboat George Shattuck, in which the Bowlys held an interest. Joshua Bowly was the Provincetown agent for the boat. A relative of the brothers, Capt. Gamaliel Bowly Smith (1812-1888), was the skipper.
If you know Gifford Cemetery, you almost certainly know Captain Smith already. His is the grave guarded vigilantly by the life-size marble sculpture of a dog — a pointer, perhaps? — in a sphinx-like pose, under the trees along Wareham Road. “Every inch a seaman and a gentleman,” the Advocate said about Captain Smith in 1869. The Barnstable Patriot echoed the praise in 1872: “That prince of ship masters … has not his best as a steamboat commander on the Atlantic coast.”
The newspapers also spoke highly of what we might today call the guest experience aboard the steamboat, thanks especially to N. Porter Holmes (1830-1906), the clerk, and Sarah Sally (Lecount) Smith (1819-1888), who was married to the captain and served as the cabin attendant.
Matheson’s Wharf in the late 1890s. From Paul Koch’s Glass Plate Collection in the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 1251.
Matheson’s Wharf, seen under the bowsprit of a vessel tied up at Joseph Manta’s Wharf, 179 Commercial Street. Courtesy of Charlotte Matheson Fyfe.
Matheson’s Wharf photographed by W. M. Smith. Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his Facebook page, My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection, 22 July 2018.
“All who enter her precincts feel at once at ease and at home” the Patriot said of Mrs. Smith. “To her all look for material aid and comfort in troublesome times, when for a season the waters are breaking up from their foundation,” said the Advocate. Holmes, the Provincetown paper said, “will serve you with or without consideration in the best spirit of accommodation.” The Barnstable paper called Holmes “a host in himself” who “knows how to make the patrons of his line feel at home.”
No matter. When the Old Colony Railroad inaugurated service to Boston on 23 July 1873, the bottom fell out of the passenger steamboat market — at least temporarily. The railroad finally made it possible to journey over land to Provincetown in four-and-a-half hours, with a little more certainty, a little less time, and a lot fewer waves. If George Shattuck faced a northwesterly over to Boston, it could be five-hour trip.
A year later, service on George Shattuck was discontinued. (Perhaps this is why the date “1874” was inscribed on Captain Smith’s grave, by the dog’s forepaw, Amy Whorf McGuiggan speculated in Provincetown’s Historic Cemeteries and Memorials.) For one season, United States took over from George Shattuck. The steamship Acushnet provided regular service in 1875 and 1876, followed by what seems to have been a hiatus.
Then something transformative — and seemingly paradoxical — occurred.
Railroad service brought an end to packet boats, but ushered in the era of pleasure cruisers by calling Cape Cod to the public’s attention as a resort. That era hasn’t ended yet.
“The Cape was the Italy, so to speak, of Massachusetts; it had been described … as the drowsy Cape, the languid Cape, the Cape not of storms, but of eternal peace,” Henry James wrote in The Bostonians (1886). “Bostonians had been drawn thither, for the hot weeks, by its sedative influence …. In a career in which there was so much nervous excitement as in theirs they had no wish to be wound up when they went out of town …. They wanted to live idly, to unbend and lie in hammocks, and also to keep out of the crowd, the rush of the watering-place.”
A marble dog guards the grave of Capt. Gamaliel Bowly Smith, commander of George Shattuck, in Gifford Cemetery. The captain died in 1888, but the memorial carries the date “1874,” the year Shattuck was retired from service to Matheson’s Wharf. Photographs taken in 2017 by David W. Dunlap.
Acushnet was fitted up as an excursion boat, offering meals on board, for this new class of passenger — the excursionist, seeking respite from the industrial clamor of Boston on the waters of Cape Cod Bay without having to choke on cinders from a locomotive and stop at every depot and junction on the way.
Each Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday in the late summer of 1880, Acushnet left Boston from Comey’s Wharf, at the foot of Foster Street in the North End, roughly where Mirabella Pool is today. It was bound for Steamboat Wharf. It returned on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. An 1880 advertisement by the South Shore Steamship Company enticed customers:
“Parties wishing to enjoy the scenery of a sail down Boston Harbor, past Minot’s Light and the shores of Massachusetts Bay, should take the Acushnet for Provincetown. Those who enjoy boating, bathing, and fishing will find Provincetown Harbor one of the most desirable on the New England Coast. Whales are seen almost daily, and bluefish, codfish, and mackerel are caught in abundance.”
Visitors weren’t the only ones to be drawn in. So were investors. In 1882, the newly organized Boston & Provincetown Steamship Company entered into a contract with the Lockwood Manufacturing Company in East Boston, at the foot of Liverpool Street, where LoPresti Park is now. It called for the construction of a passenger and freight steamer, 160 feet long and 27 feet abeam, with “commodious” cabins and 10 staterooms, accommodating some 600 passengers. (By comparison, Provincetown IV is 98 feet long and 30 feet abeam, with room for 150.) The keel was laid in late 1882 or early 1883, only months after the death of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, America’s most popular poet, whose works included “Paul Revere’s Ride.”
Longfellow was built in East Boston from 1882 to 1883, just months after the death of the celebrated poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was the first vessel constructed expressly for Boston-Provincetown excursion service, and its schedule permitted the first generation of day-trippers to disembark at Matheson’s Wharf. Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his Facebook page, My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection, 18 February 2016.
Left: Ad for Longfellow, circa 1893. Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his Facebook page, My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection, 3 August 2020. Right: The back cover of the 1885 guide and directory, Chequocket; or, Coatuit; The Aboriginal Name of Provincetown. From the MacMillan Collection on the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 364.
Longfellow was the name given to the new boat. It was the first steamer built expressly for the Provincetown-Boston route. John A. Matheson (1867-1936) was the agent. And the master was Capt. John Smith (1829-1900), a native of Cape Breton who had fished aboard Grand Bankers and commanded coasters before taking the wheel of Longfellow.
Unlike George Shattuck, Longfellow made the round trip daily, allowing day-trippers about 90 minutes in town, between the scheduled 1:00 p.m. arrival at Matheson’s Wharf, and the 2:30 p.m. departure for Battery Wharf in Boston. Meals and refreshments were provided on board but the Boston & Provincetown Steamship Company posted an unvarying rule: “No liquor sold.” (Was this a wink-and-a-nod to B.Y.O.B.?)
Among the thousands who crossed Cape Cod Bay for the first time on Longfellow was Lucy Osborn Ball (1860-1941) of San Francisco, heading to her honeymoon in Truro. A year after her arrival, in 1891, she and her husband, Sheldon W. Ball of New York, developed the cottage colony of Ballston Beach, three-and-a-half miles south of Highland Light, on the Back Shore. They were assured that Longfellow passengers bound for Truro would reach Provincetown in time to make connections with the afternoon train up cape.
“Time between ports only four hours,” an 1885 advertisement promised, meaning the boat was 40 minutes faster than the Old Colony train. “Every attention paid to passengers for their comfort and safety; making a short ocean voyage, passing many historical points, and entirely devoid of danger.”
Longfellow approaching Steamboat Wharf. Photo by G. H. Nickerson. Posted by Salvador R. Vasques III on his Facebook page, My Provincetown Memorabilia Collection, 5 January 2017.
Longfellow at Matheson’s Wharf in the late 1890s. From Paul Koch’s Glass Plate Collection in the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 1172.
Well, not entirely devoid of danger. On the memorable evening of 8 September 1895, at about 7 o’clock, Longfellow was returning from Provincetown with a boatload of Knights Templar and other day-trippers. Suddenly, just off Rowe’s Wharf, “Terror Reigned,” as The Boston Globe headline put it the next day.
“The steamers Longfellow, Capt. John Smith, one of the smallest propeller boats in the excursion business, and the mammoth Portland, Capt. Deering, one of the largest sidewheelers running out of Boston, came together in collision amid the fleet of yachts and other craft of various sizes lying off the Massachusetts Yacht Club’s quarters.
“The crash was followed by the danger blasts of both boats, and screams and cries of thoroughly frightened passengers upon both, and the police and fire boats and tugs and small boats of every description hurried to the scene to render assistance if necessary.”
Miraculously, no one was seriously injured that night. But, yes, this was the Portland that gave its name to a gale on 26-27 November 1898 during which the steamship sank with 192 passengers and crew members aboard — all lost.
And it was Longfellow that brought confirmation to Boston of Portland‘s loss. The steamboat was towing the dismasted fishing schooner Unique from Long Point to the Inner Harbor. Off Minot’s Light, Longfellow was spoken by a tug on which a Globe reporter stood. “Have you heard any news of the Portland?” the journalist shouted through a megaphone.
“There is a lot of wreckage from her on Cape Cod,” Captain Smith replied. “Life preservers have come ashore having her name on them.” Then he closed his cabin window and proceeded toward T Wharf.
Left: Coxswain Klaas Djarken Wessels of the U.S.S. San Francisco, who died in an accident in Provincetown Harbor, is buried in the Alden Street Cemetery. 2017, Dunlap. Right: Wessel’s body was transported to Matheson’s Wharf in a waterborne cortege of three whaleboats towed by San Francisco’s steam launch. The warship with double funnels, seen on the horizon above the whalers, may be the San Francisco. From the Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell, Book 2, Page 21, in the Dowd Collection of the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 604.
Dwarfed in magnitude by the sinking of the Portland was a fatal accident earlier in 1898 involving the protected cruiser U.S.S. San Francisco (C-5), at anchorage here in the early weeks of the short Spanish-American War. Coxswain Klaas Djarken Wessels (1869-1898) and three other sailors were being lowered from the cruiser in a longboat, on their way to town during a gale to gather the ship’s mail. On the lines, the boat upended. Wessels was thrown into the water and drowned. His body was brought to Matheson’s Wharf on a whaleboat. He was given a military funeral as Provincetown’s first casualty of the war and is buried in the Alden Street Cemetery.
It seems reasonable to assume that the Portland disaster would have seriously depressed excursion boat traffic. But neither Captain Smith nor the Boston & Provincetown Steamship Company waited to find out. In January 1899, because of poor health, the captain retired. Two months later, the company sold Longfellow for $23,000 to the New York & Porto Rico Steamship Company.
The good news for Provincetown was that another operator, the Bay Line (formally the Boston, Plymouth & Provincetown Steamboat Company) was soon readying the 165-foot-long steamship Cape Cod for duty. The bad news for Matheson’s Wharf was that the Bay Line struck an agreement with Old Colony to dredge a 250-foot-long channel to allow Cape Cod to dock at Railroad Wharf.
So in 1900, the “Steamboat Wharf” designation migrated to Railroad Wharf.
A four-masted schooner at Matheson’s Wharf. Courtesy of Charlotte Matheson Fyfe.
Schooners at Matheson’s Wharf. Courtesy of Charlotte Matheson Fyfe.
There was a third act for Matheson’s Wharf, however. The John Matheson who’d been an agent for Longfellow, together with other local investors, built the Fisherman freezer complex at 183-185 Commercial Street in 1907. The wharf was in use for three more decades, even after the Atlantic Coast Fisheries combine swallowed up the Fisherman Cold Storage Company in 1935.
Seventy-mile-an-hour winds battered the wharf on the night of 6 December 1937. For a few hours, it seemed as if the wharf had survived, along with the 100-foot-long pier shed in which 25 fishermen stored gear and equipment. On noon the next day, though, shortly after 10 men had left for lunch, the wharf and shed fell into a roiling sea with a terrific crash, timbers flying. Only an isolated portion of the pier was left standing, at the water end.
Longfellow, too, had come to a dramatic end. On 9 September 1904, under charter to a company that was shipping about 350 tons of dynamite, the steamboat sprang a leak under the engine room on the dangerous Nantucket Shoals. The captain hoped to make Provincetown, but when the steamer was three to four miles southeast of Highland Light, the crew abandoned it. All 16 men reached safety, thanks to the United States Life-Saving Service.
For two months, the dynamite-laden vessel sat on an underwater ledge off Ballston Beach. Then, during a November gale, as the hull was being pummeled by waves, something triggered two tremendous explosions. The blasts rattled buildings, windows, and nerves.
“We went down on the shore shortly afterwards and found dead fish piled up two-and-a-half-feet high,” S. Osborn Ball (1895-1970) recalled. There were stateroom doors, empty dynamite boxes, kerosene drums, and chairs strewn over the beach. And a pennant from Longellow, on which his mother had sailed to her honeymoon.
Matheson’s Wharf in 1907. Those are kegs of mackerel in the foreground. From the Scrapbooks of Althea Boxell, Book 11, Page 58, in the Dowd Collection of the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 4703.
¶ Last updated on 29 March 2021.
Site of 187 Commercial Street on the Town Map.
Also at 183-187 Commercial Street:
• Jetty No. 6.
Thumbnail image: Matheson’s Wharf in the late 1890s. From Paul Koch’s Glass Plate Collection in the Provincetown History Preservation Project, Page 1251.
• Capt. Gideon Bowly (1816-1893)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 119084270.
• Joshua Elsbery Bowly (1813-1883)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 124291463.
• N. Porter Holmes (1830-1906)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 142767277.
• John A. Matheson (1867-1936)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 142067172.
• Capt. William Matheson (1828-1896)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 52876983.
• Capt. Gamaliel Bowly Smith (1812-1888)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 142807323.
• Capt. John Smith (1829-1900)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 188812872.
• Klaas Djarken Wessels (1869-1898)
Find a Grave Memorial No. 144348846.
“Puffs and Pot Shots,” by Irving S. Rogers, The Provincetown Advocate, 16 October 1941, Page 2.