Changing Wellfleet: Constructing Route 6 in 1948

When Route 6 became a modern highway after World War II, its change from a winding two-lane country road to a wide modern highway made a major impact on the Wellfleet landscape. The road was widened from 18 to 36 feet, and its surface modernized with bituminous concrete. The new road brought cultural and economic change as well, bringing more and more seasonal tourists to the little Cape town. Leisure-time vacationing had started at the turn of the century, but now Wellfleet blossomed into a town that was part of the Cape’s important tourist economy.

These two photos from Ruth Rickmers’ book Wellfleet Remembered (Volume 2, 1982) show the visual and spatial impact. The previous rustic two lanes with prim white fencing is now an expanse of asphalt. 

Route 6 before and after

In 1938, Route 6 in Eastham grew to four lanes “…of hard bituminous macadam and its course north of the center straightened.”  Edward Hopper’s painting “Route Six, Eastham”, painted in 1941, shows only two lanes, but in an article about Hopper’s use of images of the road, Nicholas Robbins reviewed sketches that Hopper made, and which show that there were four lanes.  Together with his painting “Gas” in Truro, and “Orleans” with its Esso Station sign, Hopper makes the highway part of the Cape landscape. Robbins notes that Hopper came to Truro initially in 1930, acquiring his house in 1934, and thus “saw the beginnings of Cape Cod’s shift from a semi-remote outpost to the commercial landscape that accommodated an increasing number of automobile tourists.”

“Route 6” by Edward Hopper

“Gas” by Edward Hopper

“Orleans” by Edward Hopper

Route 6 continues to demand our attention today with its tragic accidents, the worrisome state of its drivers, and the high-traffic months when even the simplest errand demands detailed planning. But in 1948, this was the future of these small Cape Cod towns: the development of a strong tourism economy, with everyone arriving in a car as quickly as possible.

Dorothea Lange photo of an American family on the highway

The world was fast-changing in 1948. The Cape Codder reported the new plans to dredge Wellfleet harbor that year, the rebuilding of the Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank next to the Catholic church on Main Street, and that a Boston station was working on sending a television signal to the Cape. Discussions began to take place at the annual Town Meeting about zoning regulations and creating a town planning board, with both topics meeting with resistance. Residents worried about “preserving the character” of the town, a concern that still exists.

Route 6, a part of the nation’s highway system since the 1920s, was renamed the “Grand Army of the Republic Highway” in 1937 to memorialize the Union Army forces of the Civil War.

GAR Road sign, Route 6

Route 6 was created from an earlier County Road which wasn’t even fully paved, as described in this earlier blog post.  More and more “autoists” traveled to the Cape as the automobile became a favorite form of recreational touring. Tourism rescued towns like Wellfleet from years of economic depression that had started in the 19th century when the fishing industry diminished.

The outer Cape’s representatives urged the continuation of the Route 6 rebuilding, continuing the work completed in Eastham. But starting in 1940, road-building to accommodate the Army became the state’s priority, particularly around Camp Edwards on the upper Cape. World War II put the continued redevelopment of Route 6 on hold.  Finally, on January 31, 1946, on the first page of the first edition of the newspaper, The Cape Codder, announced the highway project would start again.

Charles Frazier, head of the Selectmen of Wellfleet, recently returned from Navy service in the Pacific, had been fighting for the Route 6 project since 1940. When the decision to rebuild past Eastham came in 1946, Mr. Frazier was given great credit for pushing the Massachusetts Highway Commission. The state and federal governments shared the costs of the roadbuilding at that point, before the Eisenhower-era federal interstate highway program.

The towns from Wellfleet to Provincetown felt like second-class citizens of Barnstable County, with their bumpy pot-holed road holding them back from full participation in the tourism economy. Even the Lieutenant Governor, Mr. Bradford, had complained about the roadway on a recent trip. Bradford was elected governor in 1947, serving one term until 1949, and oversaw a part of the rebuilding project.

Memories of the old road and the rebuilding project remain. In my family, there was always a summer trip to Provincetown. We had to hope that we would not get stuck behind a smelly fish truck—passing safely was extremely difficult on the curvy two lanes.

My childhood friend, David Sexton, remembers the excitement of taking a trip during construction when one of the lanes would be closed. The flag-men, who worked without communication, had a clever system: the flag would be given to the last car allowed through, as a signal to the next flag-man that the lane could be opened for cars going in the other direction. His summer of 1948 memories as a five-year-old are of fervently wishing that his family car would be the one to carry the flag. My brother, an older boy, remembers collecting the empty soda bottles the workmen tossed aside along the highway, and turning them in for cash from the General Store proprietor, Mr. Davis, no doubt causing his scowl at these bothersome transactions.

The road-building announcement in January 1946 was overly optimistic.  Mr. Lawrence Gardinier of the Wellfleet Board of Selectmen made the estimates. He said the work would begin in July of that year, and that the planned cutoffs would take about six months’ work, guessing that it would be completed the next year. The engineering drawings appear to have been completed. The new road was expected to follow the current road from the Eastham/Wellfleet town line to Mr. Davis’ General Store in South Wellfleet, where it would “branch off and rejoin the current highway near the fire tower.”

This 1946 description also notes that the new highway would bypass the town centers in both Wellfleet and Truro. In Wellfleet, the road would “veer off” almost opposite Mr. Holbrook’s (gas) station and “pass in back of the Holiday House” (named “The Wagner at Duck Creek” today). The wetland behind the Inn was to be partially filled in. There would be an underpass at Long Pond Road, thus protecting the children on their way to Wellfleet School. It would reconnect with the old road “this side of Gull Pond Road,” where today’s Briar Lane meets the highway.

In an interview reported later, Charles Frazier said that bypassing the Wellfleet town center would help preserve the character of the town. Widening the two lanes into Wellfleet, lined with some of the town’s oldest structures, would have been impossible.

Despite the 1946 optimism, the rebuilding of Route 6 did not begin until the spring and summer of 1948. That year, four miles were competed from the town line to Daniel Mandeville’s house, near the fire tower. The legal work of taking portions of many property holders through eminent domain proceedings is recorded in detail on the Barnstable County deeds database. The delay may also have been the need to move both Mabel Doane’s house and Earle and Sadie Atwood’s house.

Mabel Doane’s house had to be moved across the road, and is now located at the corner of Cemetery Road in South Wellfleet. Mabel was Ikey Paine’s sister, a Wellfleet resident discussed in an earlier post. The current owners told me the story of the move. Mabel Doane loved sitting in her window and watching for the traffic on the old two-lane road. When the house was moved, it had to be turned around so her road-watching could continue.

Earle and Sadie Atwood’s house may have been near the area where today’s Way 112 (a part of the old road) emerges back onto the highway.

The end of the road work in 1948 was at Daniel Mandeville’s house. Mr. Mandeville moved to Wellfleet in the 1920s, buying an old house and some land. The history revealed in the deeds shows that this house is still in existence, and near a new road “Designer’s Way” off Route 6. Mr. Mandeville is mentioned a few times in The Cape Codder newspapers as having a “clam tree” in his front yard: a tree that he decorated with clamshells.

An article in the Provincetown Advocate described the new highway as 36 feet wide, with three lanes, that were eventually shifted to the two lanes with wide shoulders we have today. There were no sidewalks and curbs “as were included in some sections in Eastham,” but there would be “curbs where there are traffic islands.” The article describes “… four inches of hardening clay or loam will first be laid, and on top of this, three inches of crushed stone penetrated with asphalt … a surface of bituminous concrete will finish the road.”

The Cape Codder reported in August 1948 that the new highway was completed over a long stretch starting at the Eastham line, and it was “smooth as velvet.” The workmen kept the traffic moving efficiently and created lots of goodwill by chatting with the visitors “from all parts of the nation.”

In South Wellfleet the Route 6 roadwork seems to have been pretty routine. Many trees were cut down on both sides of the roadway, and the distinctive white fence (as pictured above) taken down.  However, when the road workers got to the curve at Blackfish Creek, there was news about the excavation over the creek.  On May 13, 1948, The Cape Codder reported a conversation with the crane operator who had to dig thirty feet down to get to a solid bottom. Tractors were pushing “tons of sand” into the excavated parts. The supervisor of the crew reported that he had discovered “the keel of some old hulk farther on in Blackfish Creek.”

Newly built Route 6 crossing Blackfish Creek and separating from the old road

By September 1948, the Governor announced that the 1949 work on the highway, to extend another three miles, would be put out to bid. The 1949 season would see the road finished to a point near the Truro line. The diversion around the Wellfleet town center would require “some filling in of the pond behind Holiday House” and that the curve beyond Gull Pond Road would be eliminated. An October column noted that “townsfolk can drive to Orleans in twenty minutes now.”

There were new concerns raised as the highway project moved along. The raw landscape alongside the road raised concerns about plantings to improve the appearance of the roadway. Frank Sargent, then the Director of the State Division of Marine Fisheries, was sent to inspect the culvert over the Herring River and found there was “no serious obstruction” to the anadromous fish. Further, when the state erected the “Welcome to Wellfleet” sign, they got the wrong date on the town’s founding, and created a flurry of comments.

By 1950, the work on the highway moved to Truro. In 1951, bids were sought to build out three miles, “spanning the Pamet River, going behind the Truro Memorial Library and rejoining the present highway near the cemetery in North Truro.”

In the early 1950s, the highway building reached Provincetown, and a lengthy debate on how to get to the end of the Cape ensued.  Initially, the plan was to follow the railroad tracks. An esplanade on the bayside was also considered. Finally, the decision was made to build “via the sand dunes” with great concern about the construction. A group that had a shack for iceboating on nearby Pilgrim Lake (East Harbor) noted that the moving sand covered their building within a short time of its erection, burying it under the moving dunes. This did become a problem for the roadway, with the state of Massachusetts spending thousands of dollars each year to keep the road clear, using snowplows and road gangs. The double-barreled roadway was finished in 1954/55, ending at what was called New Beach, later renamed Herring Cove Beach.  In 1957, the state gave Provincetown permission to name the new Route 6 the “MacMillan Highway” in honor of the town’s famous Arctic explorer, Rear Admiral Donald MacMillan.

Here is the famous “beginning of Route 6” sign, noting the mileage first to Long Beach, California, and now to Bishop, after California relocated the road.

Route 6 sign in Provincetown

Note

A second road project that has changed the Cape is the Mid-Cape Highway, a new four-lane freeway, with the first section built 1950-1953, taking traffic from Sagamore to Exit 6 (Route 132). It was labeled “Route 6” when it opened, and the old County Road renamed “Route 6A” causing great consternation from the businesses and the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce who felt pushed aside. In 1966-1971, the road was extended from Exit 6 to Exit 9 in Dennis, and then a “Super 2” built from Dennis to Orleans. After 36 people were killed (over several years) on the Dennis-Orleans two-lane portion, the berm and reflectors were put in place and all passing prohibited. Adding the parallel roadway was abandoned in the 1970s due to environmental and land-use concerns.

 

Post-Script

Thanks to the Wellfleet Historical Society and Museum’s recent project to digitize all the photographs in their collection, we now have access to many postcards and other work that documented how Wellfleet looked in the earl years of the 20th century. One popular topic was photographs of the “improved” State Road that was created in the 1920s. Here are a few of them.

 

Sources

The Cape Codder online at the Snow Library in Orleans

The Wellfleet Historical Society and Museum, Main Street, Wellfleet – photo collection

Provincetown Advocate online at http://advocate.provincetown-ma.gov

Barnstable Deeds database online at https://enthusiasts.ciachef.edu/cold-carrot-bisque-soup-recipe/

Robbins, Nicholas “The Road” in Hopper Drawing ed. Carter E. Foster. New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2013

Rickmers, R. E. Wellfleet Remembered, Volume 2, Wellfleet, Blue Butterfly Publication, 1986.

 

 

 

 

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About pamticeblog@gmail.com

Family history researcher living in New York City.
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