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

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