In this summer of 2018, as town officials figure out where Wellfleet’s now legal marijuana retail outlets will be located, it seems like the perfect time to remember the exciting night nearly forty years ago when the world of pot smuggling sailed into Blackfish Creek.
The summer of 1979 was proceeding as usual with many Wellfleet summer residents ensconced in their cottages. The notable issue of the day was the price of gas with headlines proclaiming “dollar gas is here.” Wellfleet employees were asked to walk or bike to work on Fridays. Chief Olsen of the National Park Service issued an order that the Rangers were not to carry guns during daytime hours. Plans to build a new library were proceeding with an easement sought through the Congregational church parking lot. The biggest social issue in the town was the young people hanging out on the Town Hall lawn and allegedly harassing everyone. Selectmen were ready to declare the space illegal until a committee was set up to see if a compromise could be arranged.
The Saturday night of July 15, 1979, was one of “pea soup” fog in Wellfleet. On Friday night, a 51 foot ketch* came into Blackfish Creek. Later, many said they wondered why a vessel of this large size was in the creek.
Its name Shango may have implied that perhaps this venture was one of many planned or already carried out. “Shango” refers to a western Nigerian religious cult, practiced in parts of the Caribbean and, today, is a Portland (OR) brand of marijuana with a medical dispensary in Las Vegas of the same name. Santana also had an album “Shango” in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, over on Cannon Hill’s neighborhood, the neighbors were wondering why two cars had been parked near a summer rental cottage, even though no people seemed to be in residence for two weeks. On Saturday morning, July 14th, a Cannon Hill resident had been awakened very early by a motorboat and people talking near her cottage. She listened through the dawn hours as a boat arrived and departed several times. After 9 AM, she called the Wellfleet police. An officer drove over and took down the plate numbers of the small red camper parked in the empty cottage’s yard where, at high tide, the water was within twenty feet of the structure. Later on Saturday evening, a group of neighbors sitting around on the deck of another Cannon Hill cottage, heard a motorboat and wondered why it was operating on such a foggy night.
The mysterious appearance of the ketch and the empty cottage with vehicles was enough for the Wellfleet PD to dispatch two officers to the Creek in a borrowed boat at around 4 AM on Sunday morning, July 15th. Simultaneously, a patrol car with three officers were sent to Cannon Hill Road. The officers in the boat, Chapman and Brintnall, witnessed a 16-foot Boston Whaler and three Zodiac rafts ferrying 2½ X 3½ foot bales of something from the Shango to the shore. Four men were working on the job. When confronted, three immediately ran and the fourth, a man named Paul Block who turned out to be the owner of the ketch, stayed and was the first arrest.
Mr. Block said he was surprised when the two officers, in civilian clothes, turned out to be local police. Over on Cannon Hill, the officers gave chase to other men who were around the cottage, along with a woman who emerged. Now there was another camper and a blue truck in the yard. Eventually, in addition to Mr. Block, seven others were arrested, some after a chase through the South Wellfleet woods as far as the intersection of Route 6 and Pleasant Point Road, near the Candlewood Cottages. The Massachusetts State police picked up one running man on Route 6 near the First National Store.
No guns were fired during the incident and no one was injured except for one officer who suffered a sprained foot later when he slipped while he was in the cabin of the Shango. The Wellfleet Police Department’s morale was described as “sky high” the next day as law enforcement officers from the state and federal agencies gathered in the police station, along with the press.
After all the excitement of the early morning hours, the legal processes took over, and the police counted eight bales of marijuana in the ketch and the rest in the two camper vehicles, for a total of just under two tons. At that time, the street value of a single ton of marijuana was about $1 million. After many had trooped to the shore to see it, the Shango was brought over to the town pier later on Sunday. It became a bit of a tourist attraction throughout the summer while the legal actions were worked out.
The eight arrested people, none of them from Cape towns, were all arraigned in Barnstable County Second District Court in Orleans, initially charged under state laws. For some, federal indictments were made, and so more serious charges were brought.
Nevertheless, there was to be much more to this story as it unfolded in the Boston and Cape newspapers that July. On the very same night, in Orleans, a similar incident, also with reporting by local residents, occurred near “Snow Shore,” a public landing in one of the points of land in Nauset harbor. There, men on a local lobster boat were unloading bales of marijuana into campers on shore, with a couple in a vehicle with radio equipment standing guard. The couple was caught, but three people escaped in the fog. Four perpetrators were arrested and another load of pot confiscated along with the lobster boat and the campers. The lobster boat was held but eventually not confiscated because the contraband had been removed and less than ten pounds remained. All the campers were “stuffed to the gills.” The police measured the bales by taking the campers to the Cape Cod Ready-Mix Concrete Plant in Orleans, and measuring them with-and-without their cargo to get their weight.
The Orleans and Wellfleet smuggling incidents turned out to be separate operations with the July 15th discoveries just an odd coincidence. This conclusion was based on the fact that the bales were wrapped differently, and the Wellfleet marijuana declared to be of “inferior” quality, although the news account did not report how that was determined. At one point, the Orleans bales were said to be labeled “Industria Colombian” and “Medellin,” a branding that indicated pretty powerful weed.
The Orleans story stayed in the news a bit longer, as law enforcement officials were sure that the lobster boat had been loaded from a “mother ship” off the coast. Indeed, a few days later, similar bales washed up on the shore of Scituate, on Massachusetts Bay. After days of the Coast Guard watching, another 50-foot ketch, Dominique, was found abandoned at the Boston Yacht Club in Marblehead. That ketch was eventually donated to the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. All of the marijuana captured on July 15th was destroyed. Other coastal marijuana smuggling stories took over the news.
But in South Wellfleet, some still remember that foggy night of “the marijuana boat” operation around Blackfish Creek.
*Many reports called it a schooner. But this was a ketch, defined by a foremast taller than the mizzen.
The Cape Codder, online at the Snow Library, Orleans
Boston newspapers online at GenealogyBank.com.