As long as you don’t think history has to be quaint, you can appreciate why Conwell Lumber is actually a very historical property, indeed. Its nature, size, evolution, layout and orientation recall the period from the 1870s through the 1950s when Provincetown received its freight by railroad from up-Cape, Boston and beyond. This site is integrally related to the development and decline of railroading in coastal Massachusetts, from the early Cape Cod Central Railroad to the Old Colony Railroad to the Old Colony Division of the New York, New Haven & Hartford. It has also been providing the town with lumber, hardware and other construction and household essentials since 1945, first as the Higgins Lumber Company — which grew up on the waterfront in the days of lumber schooners — and then as the Craig Lumber Company. But first: about that gentleman in the photograph.
That would be Major Sylvanus Bourne Phinney (1808-1899) of Barnstable, the founder of The Barnstable Patriot and an agent of both the Old Colony Railroad and its corporate predecessor, the Cape Cod Central. Phinney served in a number of official posts, headed the Cape Cod Unitarian conference and cultivated cranberries. A Boston newspaper account described him as the man who “builds all the railroads, improves the harbours, manages the agricultural interests, and, Atlas-like, upholds Cape Cod on his government-commissioned shoulders.” He also owned the large plot of land immediately north of the Old Colony railroad tracks as they intersected Conwell Street on their way to the passengers and freight terminals downtown. By the 1920s, the extensive property had been acquired by the Standard Oil Company, which used it as a depot.
The big event, however, occurred in August 1945, when the venerable Higgins Lumber Company moved here from its wharf at 337-341 Commercial Street. The Conwell Street location was ideally situated, adjacent to the New Haven Railroad tracks which were, by the mid-’40s, used only for freight service. Large pieces of lumber could be delivered to the company’s door without having to be taken through Provincetown’s winding little streets. In the years immediately following World War II, Higgins ran a series of remarkably prescient ads, reminding homeowners that the days of limitless resources were over and that the way to make one’s property livable was to tend the infrastructure carefully — with lumber, paint and insulation that could all by purchased (what a coincidence!) from Higgins. Some of these ads now read like mini-textbooks for green design and sustainable architecture.
Like freight railroads everywhere, the New Haven’s Old Colony division was devastated by the growth of interstate trucking in the 1950s. The New Haven closed its Provincetown freight terminal in 1959 and abandoned the Cape end trackage entirely two years later. The Higgins business lasted at least through the 1960s and perhaps into the early 1970s. The property was purchased in 1975 by William K. Craig and renamed the Craig Lumber Company. He remained for a decade until selling the property in 1985 to Joseph B. McCabe and Fred E. Sateriale, who were also partners in the Royal Coachman time-sharing condominium at 929 Commercial Street.
They sold the property in 1988 to Charles N. Rogers of North Truro. The store is an affiliate of the nationwide Ace Hardware Corporation co-operative and includes a Radio Shack outlet. The store is currently owned by Jeff Rogers and managed by Andy Fingado. In 1955, Higgins Lumber asked in its ad campaign: “How big is a piece of lumber? Just exactly as big as you want it to be.” Today, on its Web site, Conwell Lumber says: “If you need just a small piece of wood, we’ll sell you just a small piece of wood, and cut it for you.” Remarkable how little has changed at 21 Conwell in six decades. (That and the telephone number. It used to be just “150” in the days of Higgins. Today, it is 508-487-0150, with that three-digit original preserved at its root.)• Assessor’s Online Database (Carried in town records as 25 Conwell) ¶ Updated 2012-11-04