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How do we hold onto our history?

Provincetown Theatre on granite arch, along with figurehead; on beach behind Whalers' Wharf—near MacMillan Pier, Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Andrew Siplas
CC BY-SA 4.0
Provincetown Theatre on granite arch, along with figurehead; on beach behind Whalers' Wharf—near MacMillan Pier, Provincetown, Massachusetts.

February 10th marked the 25th anniversary of the great fire at Whaler’s Wharf in Provincetown. Anyone who was there that night, which was most of the town’s year-round residents, remembers the billowing flames, the ash that rained down on the cold winter beach, and the way the town smelled of smoke for weeks to come. In the subdivision on the other side of the highway, near Blackwater Pond where chickadees spend the winter, people awoke the next morning to find their cars covered in a thin layer of black soot.

In the last twenty-five years, there has been a lot written about that night. Thank god the wind wasn’t blowing, thank god for Provincetown’s all-volunteer fire fighters and the mutual aid that arrived from other towns to fight the blaze. Thank god that the people who were there that night carried artwork out of Julie Heller’s gallery over to the Town Hall, where it could be stored safely. I remember being ten years old standing on the cold beach, watching a caravan of people carry paintings in gold frames tucked into the crook of an arm. At least, I think I remember, or maybe I read about it, years later. I know I’ll never forget the smell.

The great brick facade of Whaler’s Wharf had to be demolished in the days that followed. Once a theatre, the building was home to a dozen or so small mercantile shops and artists studios. The brick facade kept the flames from crossing Commercial Street, but pushed the blaze towards the east and west of the shops, where the fire spread to the Crown and Anchor Inn, the Handcrafter, and threatened nearby Marine Specialties. The concrete arch that declared PROVINCETOWN THEATRE is all that remains of the old Whaler’s Wharf, tucked out back near the candy-colored ocean kayak rentals.

Reading old newspaper clippings from the time of the fire, I saw one phrase come up over and over: “we were watching our history burn.”

There is a new Whaler’s Wharf where the old used to stand. There are many who have visited Provincetown in the last twenty years who have never experienced the town as it was before that night. When I walk by the new building now, I think of the bricks that once stood there. Individually, each brick is small enough to fit in your hand. Together, they kept the fire from ripping further through the heart of downtown.

I have been thinking about how we remember places once they are gone. That sort of fire creates a once-in-a-generation kind of loss. But there are other threats, of flooding, erosion, and sea-level rise all over the Cape and Islands. As more buildings along the shoreline are lifted, moved, or removed, as the places we remember change before our eyes, how do we hold onto our history?

I guess we tell stories. A building may burn or slip into the sea, but stories about the people who lived and worked there will endure. I wonder how many of the people who stood with me on that beach on a cold night in February 25 years ago are still around. Some have died, some had to move because they could not afford to stay. Maybe a community is only as good as its stories. I wonder what stories they took with them I will never hear.