MacMillan Wharf (or Pier)
Stretching 1,450 feet (as long as the Empire State Building is high), MacMillan Wharf is in many ways the real heart of town, and its chief gateway. Like any great civic hub, it embraces a multitude of functions and users; each all but oblivious to the other. First and foremost — though they often complain that they are treated last and least — come the commercial fishermen, whose large draggers and scallopers hug two finger piers on the east side of the wharf. Closer to shore, perpendicular floating docks accommodate smaller commercial vessels, including lobstermen. On the west side is the terminus for two fast-ferry services to Boston, where passengers queue up or disembark by the dozens, sometimes hundreds. Even more crowds are drawn to the gleaming white, dolphin-nosed whale-watching vessels. Sailboats and party boats complete the lively mix.
Before we wander any farther out on the 950-foot causeway, let’s talk nomenclature. MacMillan Wharf honors Provincetown’s most famous native son and its preëminent hometown hero: Rear Adm. Donald Baxter MacMillan (1874-1970), of 473 Commercial Street, an intrepid and imaginative Arctic explorer, anthropologist, geographer and naturalist. (The admiral and his wife, Miriam, are seen below at the 1957 ribbon-cutting.) The idea for the naming is credited to the artist George Yater, and was advanced on the civic front in 1955 by Selectman Frank Henderson. As to “wharf” versus “pier” — while neither is wrong, wharf comes closer to describing what this structure is, in the sense of having multiple piers and docks. And, yes, that would mean that if MacMillan Pier is truly a wharf, then Fisherman’s Wharf is truly a pier. What can I say? Pure Provincetown.
MacMillan Wharf is the successor to the Railroad Wharf of 1873, which was also known as Town Wharf, since it was given to the town by the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad after freight service to the water’s edge was abandoned. You’ll sometimes hear old-timers refer to MacMillan as Town Wharf. That’s led to a bit of confusion in some historical accounts, which state that MacMillan Wharf is an updated and renamed Railroad Wharf. It isn’t. It’s a completely separate structure that was built to the east of Railraod Wharf, and closely parallel, from 1955 to 1957. About halfway into the construction project, dismantling was begun on the older wharf.
The inadequacy of Railroad Wharf had grown indisputable around its 75th anniversay. “Each year it becomes necessary to remove worn or rotted sections and to replace piling, stringers and planking at a cost which is considerable to a town of this size,” The Provincetown Advocate said in a 1949 editorial. “Every few years, the town spends enough to build a permanent section of wharf.”
A $592,000 contract to build a new wharf with concrete causeway, roughly the same length as Railroad Wharf, was let by the town in June 1955 to the Westcott Construction Company of North Attleboro, Mass. The main contract was worth $592,000 (about $5 million in today’s dollars). The wharf was built on 14- to 18-inch-diameter pilings of creosote-treated Southern pine, warranted for a 50-year lifespan. The last slab of concrete in the roadbed was poured in June 1956, with 11 days to go before the Blessing of the Fleet, which was the first time the pier was put to public use. For liability purposes, the Town of Provincetown leased the still-curing concrete structure from Westcott for a five-day period and took out special insurance. The formal dedication of the pier occurred more than a year later, in July 1957, with Gov. Foster Furcolo presiding. A ribbon was cut and William Boogar’s elegant bas-relief plaque, pictured above, was unveiled. “These honors today are more appreciated than any of the national honors I have received,” the admiral told his audience.
The process of switching over from the old Railroad Wharf to the new MacMillan Wharf was complicated by the presence of an outlying parcel. The gambrel-roofed building now known as the Whydah Museum does not actually stand on MacMillan Pier but on a freestanding structure of its own, commonly called Baxter’s Pier and given the address 16 MacMillan Wharf by the assessor. It was built by Benjamin D. Baxter in 1946 as a fish-handling plant. Originally, it was tied by ramp to the old Railroad Wharf. Trouble erupted in the summer of 1956 when Westcott began agitating for permission to tear down the old Railroad Wharf structure, but the town balked on paying for a new — and necessarily longer — ramp between MacMillan Wharf and Baxter’s Pier, which would have left the fish-handling plant as a waterborne orphan with no vehicle access.
At the end of MacMillan Wharf, the town built a long, two-story fish-handling plant that it leased to Sea Food Packers, controlled at the time by Max Finkel. This company was taken over in 1963 by Frank J. Richards, a lawyer from Orleans, and George A. Colley Jr. (±1916-2002), who had already established another fish-processing company, Saltwater Fisheries, on Baxter’s Pier. Colley consolidated the companies and dominated the business for years. The Sea Food Packers building was known to generations of Provincetown visitors, since it bounded the walkway from the ferry landing at the end of the wharf. It was taken down during the 1987-1988 reconstruction of MacMillan.
Another structure at the end of the pier, behind the Sea Food Packers building, was the home of Provincetown Fishing Co-operative Industries, or the Provincetown Fishermen’s Co-Op. The organization, formed in 1970 under the management of Frank Lewis Reis Jr. (±1929-2013), was “designed to give the small operators a greater slice of the pie than they’d been getting from George Colley or Colley’s predecessors, the Finkel brothers, who ran Provincetown’s fish buying as a near monopoly throughout the ’50s,” Peter Manso wrote in Ptown: Art, Sex, and Money on the Outer Cape. The Co-Op building was begun in 1970. Like the Sea Food Packers shed, it no longer stands.
The parking lot at the foot of MacMillan was where Jay Critchley, of 7 Carnes Lane, came to wide notice in the 1980s. His Just Visiting for the Weekend, a station wagon encrusted in sand and parked at the foot of MacMillan, was swarmed by curious crowds. When Town Hall tried to tow it, Manso wrote in Ptown, the lawyer Roslyn Garfield argued that “no laws had been broken, that the car was properly registered, and that this lone unshaven man was only standing up for what he believed in, and doing so in a way that was typically ‘Ptown.’ The argument was successful. The car was a symbol of the small guy. In its humor and camp, it was the work of a populist hero.”
During and after its 30th anniversary, from 1987 to 1988, MacMillan underwent a substantial renovation that included demolition of the fish-handling buildings at the end of the wharf and the construction of two new finger piers on the east side of the wharf, designated Pier No. 1 and Pier No. 2, for the larger commercial fishing vessels. The concrete work was performed by J. L. Marshall & Sons of Seekonk. The photograph below shows the piles for Pier No. 1 as they were being driven in July 1987. Four more photographs appear at the end of this entry and an entire album is available on the Provincetown History Preservation Project site.
Concluding that the effective longterm management of the wharf was not practicable for town government and not possible for an unsubsidized private company, the town entered into a 20-year lease in 2005 with the newly created Provincetown Public Pier Corporation, which had been created in 2000 by the General Court “for the purpose of bringing sound and market-based management practices to MacMillan Pier operations; eliminating decadent, substandard or blighted open conditions therein; preventing recurrence of such conditions in the area; and permitting the removal or addition of structures and
improvements of sites for marine and marine-related uses.” (A year later, in 2006, the town also got out of the nursing home business.)
Until 2005, the pier manager — also called the wharfinger or the harbormaster — reported to Town Hall. The harbormaster position is now an office of the quasi-public corporation. It has been held since its inception by Rex McKinsey. (Pru Sowers, “MacMillan Pier Manager Keeps Job,” The Provincetown Banner, 16 June 2005.) In 2006, a year after the corporation took over, several physical improvements were initiated, largely for the benefit of the growing number of ferry passengers, which David Guertin, the director of the town’s Department of Public Works, estimated at 100,000 or more annually. (Pru Sowers, “MacMillan Pier Wins $500,000 Grant,” The Provincetown Banner, 23 June 2005; Pru Sowers, “Pier Improvement Designs Slated for Public Hearing,” The Provincetown Banner, 30 March 2006.) These included an octagonal open-air shelter at the end of the wharf, about 45 feet wide and 20 feet to the tip of its roof; canopied shelters along the west side of the pier; restrooms abutting the harbormaster’s office (mercifully ending what had been a quarter-mile sprint to the public comfort station near the Chamber of Commerce building) and a cupola-style observation post atop the office.
Eleven shacks along the causeway house the ticket offices of charter and recreational boating businesses. As of 2013, these included Beth Ann Fishing Charters, Cee Jay Fishing Parties, Dennis & Provincetown Parasail and Jet Ski, Dog Gone Sailing Charters, the Dolphin Fleet of whale-watching vessels, Ginny G Fishing Charters, Good 2 Go Fishing Charters, the Schooner Bay Lady II and Viking Princess Harbor Cruises of Provincetown. Since 2007, the corporation has made four sheds available near the foot of the wharf for emerging artists and artisans of the Outer Cape, under the MacMillan Pier Trap Shed Program.
Richard Pepitone‘s 1991 sculpture, Homage to the Fishermen, a tall trio of abstracted human figures in bronze stands at the entrance to the wharf. Bubbles the Humpback, is a 10-foot concrete creature that was salvaged and restored in 2008 by Julian Popko and family, who are also responsible for the lobster pot tree in Lopes Square. The most important — and initially inscrutable — object nearby is the “Portygee railway” on the beach just to the east of the wharf. Stout timbers form a frame with a long horizontal member, like a giant’s chin-up bar. It is actually a half-cradle against which vessels can be propped for inspection and repair. They are tied fast to the structure at high tide. At low tide, still held upright, their hulls are almost fully exposed. The name refers to the marine railways elsewhere in town that are used to haul boats clear out of the water, but take more time — and cost more money — than fishermen might have to spend.
And what can be said of the fishing fleet in 2013? Certainly, that it is beaten and bedraggled; a struggling fraction of what it was just a few decades ago. The latest governmental plague, as the fishermen see it, is a sector management program that has deeply diminished Provincetown’s allowable quotas and made it tougher than ever for the individual operator to survive. The permits are too measly to reward a single owner, the fishermen say, which encourages their sale to large combines. By this process, individual vessels are slowly stripped of any economic utility. They may look picturesque bobbing up and down at the wharf. But they should be out at work. If the fishery were really profitable, there would be far fewer photo ops along Pier No. 1 and Pier No. 2.
There are still men, however, who go to sea from Provincetown’s wharf. Some are pictured in the photo gallery below: Capt. Peter Cabral of the Terra Nova; the late Capt. Anthony L. “Tony” Thomas of the Plymouth Belle; Kit “The Pirate” Vallee and Capt. Ralph Wilkins of the Odysea; Capt. Scott Rorro of the Sea Hunter; Capt. Tobin “Toby” Storer of the Probable Cause; Capt. David Dutra of the Richard & Arnold, pictured with his wife, Judy, author of Nautical Twilight: The Story of a Cape Cod Fishing Family, a loving elegy to this vanishing way of life; Chris Milewski and Capt. Beau Gribbin of the Glutton; Capt. Manuel Diaz of the Antonio Jorge; Wayne Martin, offloading whiting from the Blue Skies; Capt. Jeff Richardson of the Sentinel (formerly the Jesse James); and Capt. Christopher “Chris” King of the Donna Marie and Cape Tip Seafoods, pictured with his son Jared.
Something draws them yet to set out their nets, their rakes, their lines and their traps. And it always seems premature to declare the death of the fishing industry, even though the forces working against it feel at times like a juggernaut. As a well-respected observer of Provincetown noted: “The sea’s bottom is being plowed up and the ocean’s fertility gutted. Sweatshops of sea and soil are replacing the free owners of land and vessels. Fishing and farming, the last stronghold of the individual, are altering their immemorial ways.”
It was Mary Heaton Vorse. She was writing in 1942.
Capt. Peter Cabral, Terra Nova; Capt. Anthony L. “Tony” Thomas, Plymouth Belle.
Kit “The Pirate” Vallee and Capt. Ralph Wilkins, Odysea.
Capt. Scott Rorro, Sea Hunter; Capt. Tobin “Toby” Storer, Probable Cause.
Capt. David Dutra and Judy Dutra, Richard & Arnold.
Chris Milewski and Capt. Beau Gribbin, Glutton.
Capt. Manuel Diaz, Antonio Jorge.
Wayne Martin, Blue Skies; Capt. Jeff Richardson, Sentinel.
Jared King and Capt. Christopher “Chris” King, Donna Marie.
Reconstruction of MacMillan Wharf, 1987-1988
Provincetown History Preservation Project