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WHOI Sea Grant's Low Power Radio Project: Sound Waves 1620 AM

Transcript for Part II -- Woods Hole: Then and Now

SOUND: Ferry horn, seagulls.

JAY ALLISON: Welcome back. I'm Jay Allison. We assume you are still in the parking lot? Well, we'd like to tell you a little bit about it. Like everything, it has a history.

MUSIC: Mary Malloy, singing.

JAY: That's Mary Malloy, an historian who works here in Woods Hole at the Sea Education Association, and she's singing a sea shanty from the 1840s. Before that time, Woods Hole was a subsistence economy, men and families pulling a living from the land and the sea. But around the middle of the 19th Century, the commercial life of Woods Hole began, and the place you are right now, the humble Steamship parking lot, was just about at the heart of it. In the last 150 years, it has seen all sorts of industrious activity: Whaling, guano production, railroading, smuggling, commercial fishing -- it all came through this spot.

Look out to sea. Out toward Vineyard Sound and beyond. It looks about the same as it ever has, just about as it would have to a young farm boy about to set sail on his first whaling voyage.

MUSIC: Song ends.

MARY MALLOY: The port of Falmouth, in the 1850s actually was in Woods Hole. There was no place in Falmouth that was deep enough for the draft of a vessel, especially of a size that went whaling.

JAY: Historian Mary Malloy again, now talking not singing.

MARY: There were more than 50 whaling voyages that actually were registered in Falmouth and sailed from Woods Hole and they were built right on the wharf that now has the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on it. So, the place where Oceanus and Atlantis tie up to, is the very same place where you would have seen the Falmouth whaling vessels Awashaunks and Unkus and Commodore Morris tied up in the 1850s. And when their cargo came ashore, the spermicetti, which was the stuff that came from the head of sperm whales was actually processed right in Woods Hole. And, the Candle House which is just almost across the street from there -- it's a wonderful old stone building. It's marked with a historical marker. That building had a press in it where they actually pressed the wax out of this substance that was called spermicetti. And the wax was then used to make spermecetti candles which were a primary product of the whaling industry. And, in that building in Woods Hole, a candle was made which Thomas Edison then used to measure one candle power of light. So, that set the standard at the time electricity was developed.

MUSIC: Piano music echoing the shanty comes up.

JAY: The next industry to occupy this town was somewhat less glamorous than we consider whaling to be--not that spermacetti is exactly glamorous, but bird manure might be considered even less so. Local naturalist, artist, fisherman, co-founder of the Penikese Island School, and generally good source of facts and lore, Dave Masch.

DAVE MASCH: To your right, you as the, as the ferry boat leaves you can see Penzance Point with the large mansions on it. It's been a retreat of very wealthy Americans since early in this century. Before it became a home for extremely wealthy folks, it had a guano factory on it. Guano being bird manure that's used in agriculture. And, this stuff used to be mined in Peru, brought all the way up here and then processed into useful agricultural fertilizer right here on Penzance.

JAY: You have to understand something about guano. One, it's a mixture of bird manure, rotted fish and strong chemicals and two, it doesn't smell very good. And a town that sports a guano factory doesn't smell very good either. Fortunately, the prevailing southwest winds here mostly carried the smell up Buzzard's Bay, but still, not a high point in the history of Woods Hole. We'd have included more interviews about bird manure, but really, no one cares to discuss it much anymore.

MUSIC: Piano.

JAY: There's nothing left of the old Pacific Guano Works, but if you go out to the entrance to Penzance Point, you can still see three granite blocks that mark where the factory gates used to be. In the late 1800s, about the time the guano factory gates closed for the last time, the trains which originally carried manure through this parking lot, started carrying a more refined and pleasant sort of load. Tourists. In 1884, the train called "The Flying Dude" could make the trip from Boston in an hour and forty minutes. Other trains were the Cape Cod Weekender from Worcester and the Advance Neptune from New York City. Train travel was a great convenience for the wealthy summer residents of Woods Hole and the Islands. In the mid 1930s on an August Sunday afternoon, you would have found assorted steam locomotives, pullman cars, diners, coaches, baggage cars and freight cars crowding right into this parking lot. Retired fireman, fisherman, and carpenter Buck Handy remembers the trains from when he was a boy. Standing on the bridge over the parking lot and marveling at how long they were:

BUCK HANDY: when they used to run the, uh, New Yorker out of here, now, the, train, the riding section would be way back in here and the engine would be way up, halfway up the tracks to that first house over there on that other side of the harbor.

JAY: Buck and the other kids used to act as impromptu porters for the visitors.

BUCK: You know, we used to go down and carry bags off the train, down to the steamboat dock -- they called it smashing bags. Carrying bags from the train down to the boats. I never did make much money at it. But a lot of the kids did. They knew how to work it good, I didn't.

SOUND: Steam whistle.

JAY: On March 12, 1965, the last train pulled out from Woods Hole. The modern history of this ground as a parking lot for cars began.

SOUND: Whistle fades out.

MUSIC: Sea shanty begins.

JAY: Although Woods Hole has been marked by a Yankee ethic of hard work and inventive industry, not all of it has been exactly legal.

LORETTA DOUCETTE: - There was rum running in this area, too. Now the Depression , I think, began in 1929. People were hungry.

JAY: Longtime local resident and retired civil service nurse, Lorretta Doucette.

LORRETTA: Some of them went rum running because the rum runners were paying them much better monies than they could make with their fish. And the fishing industry wasn't paying very much. Can you believe it, that in those days if they got 5 cents a pound for haddock that was good money. What are you paying for haddock today?.

DAVE: Over centuries, all coastal communities all over the world, just about, have had some kind of smuggling go on.

JAY: Again, Dave Masch.

DAVE: I mean, rum running was a big deal around here. There's a restaurant here in town called the Black Duck and it's named after a boat called the Black Duck which was one of the famous fast boats that brought Canadian whiskey, or any kind of whiskey, in from offshore to the mainland here in the States back in the prohibition period.

LORETTA: A lot of the fishermen had families to support. And, that's why they did it. Not to break the law. But, they had to feed their families. And my own father did it. And, he did it once and got caught.

MUSIC: Sea shanty.

JAY: Most of the commercial fishing that has gone on here has been the legal kind, the kind that has gone on from the beginning, men dragging a living up from the sea. Mary Doucette.

MARY DOUCETTE: All of our life our father was a fisherman and one thing about the wives and children of fishermen is, that when they leave port to go to sea, we never know whether we're going to see them again. That was a worry of a wife and children. And, when my father would get into whatever port he got into, he would call my mother immediately, no matter what time of day or night it was.

BUCK HANDY (What was your favorite part about fishing?) I don't think there was any -- well, settling up (laughing) -- getting paid for your trip.

JAY: Again, Buck Handy.

BUCK: Oh, no, there were a lot of good parts, lot of good parts. Especially if fishing was good. But, if you were tearing up all the time, like when dragging your tearing up and your tearing your gear up. Then, that took all the pleasure out of it. Because then you're spending all of your time mending twine, you know, things like that. But, when fishing was good, it didn't make no difference how hard you worked. You could be bone tired, but you knew you were going to get something out of it when you're through, you know. And, that was, that was nice.

MUSIC: Sea shanty.

BUCK: Those days, we had plenty of fish, whether it was haddock which were certain times of the year, codfish, but especially yellow-tail flounder and there was plenty of those and, uh, but, it was like everything else. They fished them and they fished them out. You can't -- it's hard to get a good yellowtail today.

JAY: In the 1930's fishing boats would line up for two or three days to unload their catches at Sam Canon's fish market which used to stand by the ferry dock in front of you. The fish market closed in June 1966. Today only a handful of commercial fishing boats are registered at Woods Hole. Dave Masch.

DAVE: It used to be you could come down to the dock and people would give you fish. Now the fish is worth so much and -- fish didn't used to be a luxury product. And, now, it pretty much is, um, it was more important in the economy - the community, at one time than then science. But, that was a long time ago. I mean, science has been the big contributor to this community for 50 or 60 years and the fishery is just kind of a left over thing. Though a guy can still make a living if he works hard, even with clam rake and a rowboat if he wants to work hard at it. He can get by, he won't get rich, but he can get by.

JAY: Just as he might have, right here, in a different world, 150 years ago.

This radio broadcast is brought to you the by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Sea Grant Program, and was produced by Atlantic Public Media for the new NPR stations in our regions, CAI at 90.1 FM for the Cape and Martha's Vineyard, and WNAN 91.1 for Nantucket. If you want to find out more about Woods Hole, or just about anything to do with this region, visit our website at

Finally, to conclude our piece on commerce, be aware that there are restaurants and shops and businesses in town, quite a few of them in historic buildings, would be happy for you to drop by while you're here and make your own contribution to the local economy.

Thanks to Glenway Fripp for his piano playing. My name is Jay Allison and I hope we have helped you pass some time profitably. Stick around and you can hear another piece, this one about the journey you are about to take: "The Steamship and the Trip Over."

Thanks for listening.

Be sure to read all of the transcripts for the "Sound Waves" low power radio program:

Part I -- Woods Hole: Science Town
Part III -- The Ferry Trip


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