“Does this train stop at Provincetown?” So the apocryphal story began about an exchange between passenger and conductor on the Old Colony Railroad. “Well, lady,” the conductor answered, “if it doesn’t, there’s going to be an awful splash!” That was because the trackage of the Old Colony ended about 1,200 feet into the harbor, on Railroad Wharf. Passengers actually never got that far. (The depot was at 132 Bradford Street.) The terminal spur was intended as a means for fishermen to get their product to market with as little delay and exposure as possible; right from the boat up to the train carriage. The postcard above, clearly a pastiche, gets something fundamentally wrong. One track branched into two as it ran out to the end of the wharf; two tracks did not merge into one.
Construction of Railroad Wharf began in June 1873, a little over a month before passenger rail service was inaugurated from Boston, suggesting that there was a slight delay before freight trains were fully operational. When they were running, their route to the wharf took them beyond the passenger depot, down the west side of Standish Street, across Commercial Street, and out into the harbor. (Imagine if Donald Thomas, the Dancing Cop, had been in charge of train movements, too.)
The idea seemed to have paid off because The Provincetown Advocate noted on 6 May 1874, “The railroad wharf is to be extended immediately.” Freight was not the only traffic handled at the wharf. Beginning in the summer of 1877, it was the landing spot for the Artisan, a regularly scheduled steamer, under Capt. L. F. Higgins, that ferried passengers to and from Boston for $1.50. Railroad Wharf may have been Provincetown’s first intermodal transportation hub. In the early 20th century, the passenger steamship Dorothy Bradford also landed here on its daily trips, leaving for Boston every afternoon at 2:30 (Sundays and holidays at 3).
Perhaps the most emotional departure from Railroad Wharf occurred in April 1917, the month that the United States entered World War I, when the first detail of the town’s naval reserve coast defense departed for duty aboard the U.S.S. Actus. This was no idle prospect. In the months ahead, German U-boats came close enough to Cape Cod to sink fishing vessels and strafe beaches with gunfire. In one day alone, 10 August 1918, submarine U-117 sank nine swordfish schooners on Georges Bank. So as Provincetown boys shipped off that day, to the tune of Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean, The Advocate described the scene:
While relatives and friends called and waved final good byes and the instruments of brass blared and the bass drum thundered, a throaty chorus of cheering such as the old town had never heard before arose from the close-packed ranks on the quarter-mile-long pier and, dominating the music of the band, rolled across the calm sea in a tempest of sound.
In 1893, the giant New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad leased the Old Colony lines and turned it into a division of the New Haven, which basically fought a losing battle for freight and passenger traffic once the 20th century — and the motor vehicle — arrived. Trucks cut substantially into the New Haven’s freight revenues. “In the old days,” The Advocate noted in 1937, “as many as eight and ten cars were loaded with fish every day but today trucks, able to make swift overnight hauls to Boston and New York markets, have taken that business off the rails.”
The wharf was turned over to the Town of Provincetown by the New Haven Railroad in 1928, and within a short time was being referred to as Town Wharf. Because MacMillan Pier is also called Town Wharf, some historic accounts have conflated everything, saying that MacMillan is simply the renamed Railroad Wharf. But it is an entirely separate structure that was built alongside the older pier from 1955 to 1957. In the midst of that project, beginning in July 1956, Railroad Wharf was razed. ¶ Updated 2013-03-01