Fishing became the basis of the Wellfleet economy and grew steadily after the Revolution. In 1831, Leonard Battelle and Robert Little, both of whom were in the shipping business in Boston, joined Richard Arey, South Wellfleet local, in building the South Wharf on Blackfish Creek. They purchased the land from Major John Witherell, a Revolutionary War veteran whose holdings seemed to spread out over the land from the old “Cannon Hill” (the south of the Creek hill, not the other north of the Creek) through to the edge of the Creek on the point we call “the Old Wharf” today. Today, the pilings from the wharf are still visible.
In the early 1830s, Mr. Battelle was in business with Mr. Little in Boston, merchants with a business that dealt in goods from the West Indies, according to the Boston City Directories for 1829 and 1830. Both men were married in the 1820s. Mr. Battelle died in 1840, another possible reason for the transfer of the South Wharf property to others.
From research on the life of Richard Arey, it looks like his involvement only lasted ten years, since he was listed as “insolvent” on a deed, and another source reported the wharf burning in 1840. Deyo’s history lists the owners of the wharf and its store as:
1845: Collins S Cole took the store and Nathan Paine the wharf
A few years later: Elisha Smith, George S. Newcomb and George Saunders took ownership of both wharf and store (on the 1858 map, they are marked as the property owner of the wharf)
Still later, Newcomb sold to Alvin Paine; Saunders and Paine continued to 1866
1866: the Southern Wharf Company of forty shares was formed, and “stock taken up in the amount of $5,000”
1880: Alvin Paine became the owner.
There isn’t very much documented evidence on the South Wharf. No photo or sketch of the South Wharf has been found (to date!). One source that provides some details on the operation is a document prepared by the Cole family that preserved the written memories of Charles Cole, who lived in South Wellfleet from 1854 to 1943. That document is available at the Wellfleet Public Library. Earle Rich, another local writer, wrote a piece on Cole’s description, in 1973. Cole wrote:
“Mackerel fishing at South Wellfleet began about 1826, and sometime between that year and 1834 Battelle and Little of Boston built a wharf on the south side of Blackfish Creek …The wharf was large enough to accommodate sheds for empty barrels, full barrels of mackerel and mackerel bait (porgies and clams), salt sometimes stored in bulk, and obtained from the Salt Works, there being several along the Creek, and a shed for packing the fish.”
This account says that Collins Cole and Nathan Paine took over in 1834, and carried on the business in partnership until 1840 when Smith, Newcomb and Saunders took over. Cole’s memory of the wharf burning is dated during the Smith, Newcomb and Saunders ownership. His other dates agree with Deyo’s.
Cole lists the following vessels and their Captains “packing mackerel here” in those years.
Emerald Captain Timothy Ward Alonzo Captain A.T. Gross
Fairtrader Captain Solomon Smith Leader Captain Nathaniel Y.Paine, Jr.
William Henry Captain John Chipman Diman Captain Solomon WIley
Blossom Captain Ebenezer Cole Aurora Captain John Wiley
Hope Captain Isaiah Hatch Swan Captain Jonathan Doane
Sister Captain Seth Newcomb Sea Captain David Childs
Cherub Captain Asa P. Arey Catherine Captain Henry Newcomb
Liberty Captain Reuben Brown Fannie Captain Stephen Hatch
Warbash Captain Ezekiel Young Chariot Captain David Wiley
Mattamore Captain Samuel Smith
These men — plus a few others — are the residents of South Wellfleet in the early and middle of the 19th Century. They are the property owners on the maps that show this detail. They are the owners of the pews in the Second Congregational Church. Their names are still with us on the gravestones at the South Wellfleet Cemetery.
In the 1850 Federal Census, there were 2372 counted in the town of Wellfleet. The first 422 names are in the South Wellfleet area, from the Eastham border to just past today’s LeCount Hollow Road. There were 79 households in that portion of the census count, with 125 men old enough to have an occupation; of these, 81 are listed as Mariners.
The Cole memories and the David Balch article about Wellfleet during the 1860’s are the best sources for understanding what fishing meant in the day-to-day life of Wellfleet men. Cole writes of an early fishing season for cod, haddock and halibut off Nantucket Shoals. The mackerel season was about six months long, from early summer to late autumn. The most popular fishing areas were off the coasts of Maine and Canada. Fishing was done by land-lining, with each man owning and operating his own gear. After spotting a school of fish, the men would throw chum (chopped bait, usually porgies) around the ship and begin working their lines, five or six each. This would continue until there were about 200 barrels of fish caught. The mackerel were pickled in brine to preserve them. Later, back on the wharf, they were sorted into three sizes and packed for market.
Cole’s memory includes an incident concerning the schooner Ida R. Freeman, also reported in a New Hampshire newspaper in 1880. The schooner arrived back at port, and the crew all went to their homes, leaving the 90 barrels of mackerel on board. Three crew members who were “Swedes” stole the boat, heading for Europe. In addition to the fish, they took the dories, the seine boat, and the crew’s clothing. The newspaper noted that they had provisions enough for eight weeks. Cole remembers the thieves as Norwegians, and that the boat was actually found, but sold “over there” rather than brought back to Wellfleet.
After the fishing season was over, the boats would be run ashore at a high tide. South Wharf boats were placed just north of the wharf or across the Creek at “Point Pleasant.” In the spring, after the ice had cleared, the crew — usually the same men each year — would work on the sails and painting the hull before re-launching for the fishing season.
While searching today for mention of the South Wharf in newspaper databases now online, one sad little story emerged from 1879, when Benjamin Snow, despondent about the death of his wife, was found on the flats “at the South Wellfleet Wharf” with a rope around his neck attached to a large stone.
In a later, blog, I’ll write more about the decline of the fishing and its impact on the South Wellfleet community. At some point, the South Wharf stopped its operation and the wharf would have disappeared, worn out, or perhaps crushed by the ice in a cold winter. The road to the Wharf became “Old Wharf Road.”
Earl Rich has a much later memory of the Old Wharf, one that went back to Prohibition (1919-1933). During those years, liquor would be brought to the coast on large vessels, and off-loaded to smaller ones, in burlap bags. The Old Wharf became a good spot to unload the bags, as there were few houses close by. Rich writes of the Pierce Arrows and Packard limousines that picked up the liquor there. This memory of the burlap bags is repeated in other local histories, Donald Sparrow’s of Eastham included. My father recalled the lights that flashed from the “rum runners” that my parents could see from their cottage on Prospect Hill.
Earle G. Rich “The Old South Wharf, South Wellfleet” The Cape Codder October 7, 1971
“The Notes of Charles F. Cole” manuscript from the Wellfleet Public Library
Balch, David “The Anatomy of A Fishing Village, Wellfleet, Mass. 1860-1865” (1985 paper) available at the Wellfleet Public Library
Newspaper account on line at www.genealogybank.com
Deyo, Simon. History of Barnstable County, New York, 1898. Wellfleet chapter on line at www.capecodhistory.net.