Torn from today’s headlines: Environmental disaster! Illegal drainage and discharges into the harbor! Construction work overnight and on weekends! Incessant commercial traffic! Out-of-towners trampling on town residents’ rights! The impending end of the fishing economy! A fight pitting hardscrabble Provincetown against the genteel tourist trade! And to think … it all happened in the late 1940s.
The bitter neighborhood fight over the Provincetown Fisheries plant is almost 70 years old, but the day-to-day accounts in The Advocate have a very contemporary ring. That’s because at least two key points — as resonant today as they were shortly after World War II — colored the debate and legal battle. One: the pollution of Provincetown Harbor, a shame and an annoyance for decades, had reached the point where it could no longer be ignored. And two: the future of the Provincetown economy was not going to turn on industrial fish processing; not if that use — noxious in the tender nostrils of visitors — was going to threaten the growing investment in tourism.
Let’s set the stage. The parcel at 389R or 389B or 389½ Commercial Street is the upland extension of what was once Conwell’s Wharf. In the early 20th century, the L. Pickert Fish Company used Conwell’s as a canning plant. As a result, it was often called Cannery Wharf. The upland building was not employed in the canning process, but for the less noisome steps of packing and labeling. Conwell’s Wharf was doomed in 1926, when the USCG Morrill sliced it in half during a bad storm, leaving the piershed building stranded on pilings in the harbor. After Pickert closed, the upland building sat bleak and abandoned.
As the Great Depression lifted, James A. Vitelli came up with a plan to renovate the building into apartments on the second and third floors, with a nightclub on the ground floor. In 1939, Frances Bell’s Mooring Mast and White Whale clubs moved here from 323½ Commercial Street. It’s unclear whether the apartments ever opened. Just as the war was ending, in May 1945, the Vitelli property was purchased by Emmanuel Lippman and Dietrich Blanken of New York, evidently on behalf of C. G. Wadman & Company. (The Advocate, 3 May 1945.) A year later, Provincetown Fisheries Company was operating a busy and smelly plant out of the building, filleting and quick freezing fish, in what was otherwise a gentrifying quarter of town. It had also built a drain illegally into the harbor for the purpose of flushing fish offal — known as gurry — directly into the water immediately offshore.
The lawyer for Provincetown Fisheries, Joseph H. Seaman, conceded the illegality of the drain at the outset. But he “pointed out that the townspeople have been dumping sewage and fecal matter on the shores for years, both below and above tide water, and nothing had been done.” A stalwart defense! (“State May Act in Harbor Pollution — Case Against Fish Plant Opens Oct. 14,” The Advocate, 3 October 1946.)
The case for the packing plant was undoubtedly further harmed by the fact that the people testifying about its noxiousness were not delicate city folk, but veterans of the fishery, like Capt. Arthur Duarte, owner of the Casa Dominho at 384 Commercial Street and a man accustomed to the smell of fresh fish. At the 1946 hearing, he testified that the odors had been tremendous. (“Cape End Sewers and Smells Are Aired as Hearing in Equity Continues,” The Advocate, 17 October 1946).
Mr. Duarte explained that the fish delivered to the plant was mostly whiting, which in warm weather decays rapidly, and that in some instances the fish which had been caught in the morning was not delivered until afternoon, or at times had been allowed to stand overnight, and that the stink was terrific.
Capt. Anthony Russell of 385 Commercial Street testified to the presence of gurry and fish scales on the beach, of awful smells, of green flies and rats. As if this weren’t bad enough, by March 1947 neighbors were being plagued by truck traffic at night. That was joined by arc-welding at night and on Sundays. Clearly, despite its employment of 50 workers, Provincetown Fisheries was being cast as a bad neighbor.
In October 1948, Judge Collen C. Campbell issued his Solomonic finding. (“Immediate Action Will Be Sought to Force Injunction Against Fishery,” The Advocate, 21 October 1948.)
I cannot refrain from finding that Provincetown is a fishing town, and its principal business is fishing, and smells and odors are almost if not impossible to eliminate from the beaches …. [T]he defendant’s plant has unreasonably caused the plaintiffs great distress of mind and body due to the obnoxious odors …. I find, however, that the plant is consistent with a fishing town, that it employs 50 people and is a distinct asset for a great many employees and men engaged in the fishing industry and I am reluctant to find a nuisance exists for the reason that in a town such as Provincetown, both sides must make certain concessions.
(Emphasis mine.) Eventually, Superior Court decided in favor of the neighbors. Provincetown Fisheries was facing other many other troubles besides the lawsuit and didn’t even appear in May 1949 when its appeal finally reached State Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld Superior Court, sending the indirect message that the time of industrial fish processing — at least in the East End — was over.
The proprietor of Seafood Packers on Town Wharf, Max Finkel, revived the plant in 1950 as a retail and wholesale fish market, under the name of the Pilgrim Fish Corporation. William Wright, the manager, said the plant would employ about 50 workers: freezer men, floor men, cutters, skinners and wrappers. The processing of whiting was to occur out at the end of Town Wharf. Finkel had it torn down in 1961. Word was at the time that the site would be “converted temporarily into a parking lot.”
More than a half century has come and gone. And it’s still a parking lot; Elena Hall’s parking lot. There’s not a trace of gurry, nor faintest scent of whiting.