One of the most beautiful spots in Wellfleet, or for that matter, on the entire Lower Cape, is Old Wharf Road. It is one of those headlands that, along with Indian Neck and Lieutenant’s Island, thrust out into greater Wellfleet Harbor. It affords a lovely walk along shaded dirt roads, beside marshes that turn gold in autumn, dark tidal creeks, and distant views of the harbor islands. There is a town landing at the end of the road, which, among other things, provides access to the rich oyster beds of Loagy Bay.
It is one of my favorite walks, but it was several years before I became curious enough to try to track down the origin of its name – Old Wharf Road. Presumably it refers to a road that led to an old wharf that once stood along its shore. I looked through the books and pamphlets about Wellfleet in the library, but found nothing relating to an Old Wharf Road. Even Google was no help, simply listing a couple of homes on the road available for rental in the summer.
I finally found the answer in an obscure pamphlet, History and Lore of South Wellfleet, compiled by one Margaret T. Dooley, and published by the South Wellfleet Neighborhood Association in 1938. The publication is fascinating in itself, full of hand-drawn maps, old black and white photos, and a list of “Attractions of South Wellfleet”, including the fact that “It is not too near a large city.”.
According to Ms. Dooley, in the early nineteenth century South Wellfleet was “the center of the fishing industry.” This fishery was so important that Batelle & Batelle, fish merchants from Boston, built a wharf on the south side of Blackfish Creek – that is, on the north shore of Old Wharf Road. The wharf had a number of sheds for salting, packing and sail-making, a grocery store and a general store. At one time a hundred schooners with crews of 1500 men headed to the Grand Banks from this wharf. “These were,” as Ms. Dooley says, “busy times”.
But all things change. By 1880, it was determined that Blackfish Creek had become too shallow to accommodate the larger schooners. The wharf and its associated buildings gradually fell into disuse and many of the residents of the area moved to Wellfleet Center. Today even the pilings of the Old Wharf that were still visible when Margaret Dooley wrote her history have vanished, and there is no sign left of the Old Wharf except the road that still bears its name.
Yesterday afternoon I went for a walk along its shore. It was unseasonably warm and the air lent an aesthetic softness to the scene before me: withered marshes, rounded pine-covered hills, silvered marsh creeks, exposed mud flats. The whole vista had a scrim of brushed light laid across it, so that it looked like an old landscape painting. Yet there were also signs of a continuity with its commercial past. Out on the flats were a half-dozen rusty pick-ups, and I could hear the low roar of truck engines, the clanging, clattering noise of oyster racks being spread out on the beds, and the indistinct sounds of distant conversation and radio music. And it struck me that, although the Old Wharf is long gone, this is still a working landscape.