Thursday, May 28, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Pacific Guano Company

     For well over a century Cape Cod has been one of the premier vacation destinations in America. Its combination of miles of pristine beaches along with world class restaurants, accommodations, and shops have made it a favorite of solo travelers, couples, and families from all across the globe. From Chatham to Provincetown, from the Canal to the Atlantic, there is no shortage of wonderful places to visit and stay.

     The summer resort is a staple of the Cape with generations of families either having a second home or visiting the same area year after year. Many of these places lay along the water and have been romanticized over the decades as the playground of the wealthy. One of the original summer resort areas though had a very different journey to the present. Not many such areas can say their roots lie in the droppings of seabirds and bats. This is the story of Woods Hole’s Penzance Point and the guano that paved its way to private community.

Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory

     The narrow finger of land that today is known as Penzance Point sits at the western end of Woods Hole. It is approximately 110 total acres in size and today is the location of some of the most expensive homes on Cape Cod. In the mid-19th century it was a completely different story. At that time the strip of land was known as Long Neck.

     In the late 1850’s the oncoming Civil War coupled with the whaling industry’s decline in the eastern United States saw an abundance of idle clipper ships that had once been used for trade with Asian countries. An idea was hatched by some of these ships captains based out of New York and Boston to put them to use. Asa Shiverick Jr., whose father and uncles had built some of the ships, led the charge along with Prince Sears Crowell to create a new business on Cape Cod featuring fertilizer also known as guano.

     Shiverick and Crowell moved from Dennis to Woods Hole in 1859 and joined up with the Boston firm of Glidden & Williams. They chose Long Neck as the location of their new company to be called the Pacific Guano Company. Used only as a sheep pasture up until that time the spot was chosen due to it being a natural deep water harbor capable of holding larger clipper ships. The building of the factory dramatically altered the tiny village of Woods Hole. Nearly 200 workers were hired to create the factory. A large dormitory, some small homes, and a Roman Catholic Church were built to accommodate them.

     The product created by the factory, guano, came mostly from seabird droppings. It had begun seeing an uptick in popularity during the early 1850’s as a better alternative to manure as fertilizer. So popular did guano become that in 1856 Congress passed the U.S. Guano Act essentially allowing any American citizen could lay claim to any uninhabited guano-filled island in the world for the purpose of harvesting the product. After its creation the Pacific Guano Company staked its claim and began getting ready for work.

Woods Hole  on the right with the former location of the Pacific Guano Co. near Penzance Point circled. Google Maps

    The new company chose Howland Island, an island roughly 520 acres in size and located 1,700 miles southwest of the Hawaiian Islands, to mine for guano. The Pacific Guano Company’s factory, located about 500-feet west of the present-day Woods Hole Yacht Club, was finished and put to immediate use in 1863. Soon after opening Azariah Crowell came aboard as the company’s chemist to add improvements to the guano making it an even more effective fertilizer. One such improvement was adding scrap from local fish markets to the guano. The combination of bird droppings and fish scrap however did not make Woods Hole a pleasant smelling village.

A sketch of the Pacific Guano factory in Woods Hole by S.S. Kilburn c.1860's

     Thirty-three ships were used during the first few years of mining guano for fertilizer. Six were lost on their return voyage while two others were captured by the Confederate Navy during the Civil War. It only took four years before Howland Island was basically mined out and in 1867 the Pacific Guano Company moved on to Swan Island in the Western Carribean and Navassa Island located thirty miles west of Haiti. The company hit its peak after purchasing Chisolm Island in South Carolina which was rich with rock phosphate. This provided another option besides bird droppings and fish scrap. It also led to a second Pacific Guano Company factory being built in Charleston, South Carolina in September 1869.

     The railroad was extended into Woods Hole in 1872 along with a new stone bridge across the Eel Pond channel. 200-lb bags of fertilizer were loaded onto the train cars and shipped out. Pacific Guano had its own booth at the Centennial exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. As the 1870’s ended annual sales at Pacific Guano topped 50,000 tons. It seemed as though the prosperity would never end. That would not be the case though.

     A diminishing amount of sites to mine guano coupled with an increase in the advent of artificial fertilizers began to take its toll on Pacific Guano. In 1889 shortly after an accident involving a worker word began getting out that the company was in peril. Its liabilities were listed at $3.5 million ($97.5 million in 2020) at a stockholders meeting in March 1889. Despite that there were assurances the company would be able to meet its guano demands for the year. In August 1889 the company was forced into bankruptcy and both factories ceased operations.

     Two years later in June 1891 the entirety of the property and Long Neck as a whole was purchased by Horace Crowell and William Nye. The factory and most of the buildings associated with Pacific Guano were leveled although a few were purchased and floated to different locations. The dormitory was moved and became known as the Breakwater Hotel. After developing the land for a year Crowell renamed it Penzance for a similar area in Falmouth, England and put eighteen lots up for sale.

     Over the decades that followed Penzance Point became one of the most exclusive areas of Cape Cod. In December 2019 a 9.6-acre estate was put up for sale on Penzance Point with a listing price of $25 million. It is one of the most expensive home ever listed on Cape Cod and has since been sold.

The Hotel Breakwater in 1913, courtesy of Sturgis Library


     After decades of life being dominated by the Pacific Guano Company and its odors of seabird droppings and fish scraps Woods Hole became known as a hub of the scientific community shortly after the company’s demise. The last remnant of the Pacific Guano Company, the Breakwater Hotel, survived until 1960 when the Marine Biological Laboratory purchased and demolished it for further expansion of the lab.

My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing

View my previous blog posts: In My Footsteps:Cape Cod's Most Beautiful Routes to Explore

Photo Prints available here: Smug

Be sure to check out my website: Christopher

Thursday, May 7, 2020

In My Footsteps: 2001 Cross Country Road Trip

     In November 2019 I went on an amazing 6-day road trip that began on Cape Cod and encompassed a total of 2,100 miles. It was not however the longest road trip I had ever been on. The 2019 trip was the bookend to another trip that took place in 2001. The main difference was the 2019 trip was for fun, the 2001 trip was more by necessity. That trip came about due to having to move back to Cape Cod from Las Vegas, Nevada. It was also aboard a Greyhound bus, and began in the dead of night. This is the story of that 2,700 mile, 3-day journey that began my love of travel and my desire to do a proper road trip on my own.

     After spending time going to college and working in Las Vegas things were not working out as I’d hoped. It became time to unfortunately call it a day and head back to Cape Cod to start a new chapter. It also didn’t help that I had discovered how much I loved to gamble. By gambling I mean blowing my paycheck at slot machines in Albertson’s and 7-Eleven. The trip across the country began in the Greyhound depot of Las Vegas located about 10 minutes north of the famed Strip. It was winter and the dead of night as the bus began its journey. Though nearly 20 years ago now so many of the memories of this trip are still vivid in my mind.

The El Bambi Cafe and Sinclair signs from 2011
(ArbyReed on Flickr)

Beaver, Utah

The first several hundred miles of the journey was along I-15, then to I-70. I-70 begins near Cove Fort, Utah and travels more than 2,100 miles east ending at Baltimore, Maryland. In between short bouts of sleep the first place I remember stopping was Beaver, Utah as the skies began to see their first glimmers of morning. It was a truck stop complete with a Sinclair gas station which fascinated me with its brontosaurus logo because I’d never seen one before. There wasn’t much time to look around however the bus allowed us to stretch our legs and I walked across the parking lot to a small diner called the El Bambi Truck Stop Cafe. It was every bit the classic road side diner complete with the swirling desert case and a counter of truckers having breakfast and coffee before being on their ways.

Grand Junction, Colorado

About 300 miles east of Beaver is Grand Junction, Colorado. This is an up and coming art city but also known for its mountain biking, wineries, and overall scenery. It is where the Colorado and Gunnison Rivers meet, thus the ‘junction’ name. While there I was able to take a walk and see some of the famed Art On The Corner sculptures. The outdoor-exhibit started in 1984 by Dave Davis includes some permanent pieces and some that are actually for sale. In recent years its Downtown has become a Certified Creative District and is an up and coming place for younger people to live.

Art on the Corner in Grand Junction, CO 2001
Somewhere along the way at a convenience store at a bus stop I decided to buy some cheap sleeping pills to help make the long stretches on the bus go by faster. These came in to play at the next stop 120 miles east in Eagle, Colorado.

Eagle, Colorado

This small town lies close to the Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts. It is popular for its hiking and definitely scenic views. While waiting for the bus to leave Las Vegas I had struck up a conversation with a guy about my age who was also heading across the country. At the stop in Eagle the guy got off to go into the store but was late coming back out. As the bus began to drive away he came running out and although I did see him the sleeping pills had me in such a haze that all I could do was watch him fade away. He did catch up with us a few stops later just in case anyone wondered what happened to him.

Denver, Colorado

The most nerve racking part of the 125-mile trip east to Denver was a winding drive through the Rocky Mountains as the snow fell. There is nothing like feeling a bus skid while being thousands of feet up separated from the cliffs by a single metal guardrail. After arriving in the city we were allowed a little under an hour to ‘enjoy’ Denver. This meant taking a walk outside in the light snow for a few blocks. Besides a convenience store and the Ritz-Carlton hotel I did not see much of Denver. Not truly sightseeing but more than most stops.

Ogallala, Nebraska

After leaving Denver we headed northeast on I-76 to perhaps the most unique spot I saw on this trip. This small town was once a stop on the Pony Express. It sits close to the border of the Central and Mountain Time Zones, leading to some late sunrises. This was the case when I arrived. It was a perfect combination of a late sunrise, powerful sleeping pills, and a bus station with red and white vinyl checkered cafe tables looking like it was straight out of the 1950’s. I started wondering if I was either still asleep or in an episode of The Twilight Zone. It was an interesting and unique time I spent in this bus station, plus my Nana loved the town’s name so every time I think of stopping here it reminds me of her.
My postcard from Ogallala 2001

Nebraska is smack in the middle of the Great Plains. Riding by bus through it showed just how flat and sprawling the land is. Not to say that the area isn’t worth visiting, I just know that the views surrounding I-80 through Nebraska and Iowa doesn’t lend itself to many picture postcard images.

Walcott, Iowa

The World’s Largest Truck Stop is located here. On the eastern edge of Iowa it opened in 1964 and is open 24/7/365. It is 30,000 square feet and serves on average more than 5,000 people daily. It has a barber shop, chiropractor, dentist office, laundrymat, private showers, and even dog groomers. I only got a small taste of this attraction, as was the case with most places on this list. It looked and felt like a huge shopping mall, except for when the loud speaker would call out random truckers names saying their showers were ready.

The entrance to the World's Largest Truck Stop in 2001

Davenport, Iowa

Located on the Mississippi River less than 15 miles from Walcott. It is widely considered one of the best small cities in America. Upon arriving at the bus terminal I spotted the incredible 3,800-foot Centennial Bridge which connects Davenport to Rock Island. I took off running nearly a half-mile to snap a couple of photos of the bridge in the short amount of time that we were stopped in Davenport.

Chicago, Illinois

My first experience in the legendary Chicago I am sure is not indicative of the greatness of that city. However this is how I spent my time in Chicago. The bus rolled into the station around 5am. The bus needed to refuel and get cleaned up so everyone was told they needed to get off and spend some time in the bus terminal. That was no big deal until the driver made it a point to warn us about pickpockets and strongly suggested that none of us venture off into any dark corners of the bus terminal. Needless to say I stuck close to where we all disembarked and simply waited for the all clear to return to the bus. To be fair though I did not see anything close to the ominous warning the bus driver gave us.

Leaving Chicago led us through the rest of Illinois and through Indiana with the main stop off being the city of Elkhart.

Elkhart, Indiana

Located 110 miles east of Chicago this city is famous for two contributions to the world. One is being the RV Capital of the World, the other is once being considered the Band Instrument Capital of the World. At one point Elkhart was home to 60 instrument manufacturers.
It was here that we disembarked at a gas station with several passengers walking next door to the McDonald’s. The line was a bit long and some of us began to worry that the bus might leave without us. Luckily the woman at the end of the line chimed in and said the driver wouldn’t dare leave without her, she was his wife!

There was a brief stop, more of a slow down, in Cleveland, Ohio. This was after midnight and the city looked impressive despite only stopping long enough to do a quick pickup/drop off. I was in and out as we passed through Ohio into Pennsylvania.

State College, Pennsylvania

It was here that I again realized how strong the sleeping pills were that I had been taking to help with the trip. This stop was early in the morning and somehow in a haze I wandered into a convenience store and made a few purchases and got back on the bus. Only a few hours later did I see the random purchases I made with almost no recollection.

From there it was roughly 500 miles back to Cape Cod and more specifically Hyannis. It ended more than 3 days of seeing many sites, though not as much as I wish I had at the time. Thankfully during my most recent road trip I was able to stop and see many things on my itinerary and document them with photos and videos. Maybe someday I will recreate this route and be able to enjoy it more, until then it made for an interesting few days in 2001.

My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing

View my previous blog posts: In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Deacon John Doane

Photo Prints available here: Smug

Be sure to check out my website: Christopher