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Provincetown, MA

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History Highlights: Dikes and Breakwaters by Laurel Guadazno


An old postcard showing the West End Breakwater. Collection of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum.

A nice thing to do in pleasant weather is to walk across the west end breakwater at low tide to Long Point. The breakwater or dike was one of two projects built in town by the Army Corp of Engineers. The breakwater in the west end of town was built in 1911 to prevent quantities of sand from washing into the harbor. A stroll across the breakwater has long been a pastime for local residents. Mary Alice Luis Cook in an essay titled “Fond Memories of Provincetown” remembers, “As teenagers, we would walk up to the breakwater in the west end of town and, if the tide was low, we would walk as far as we could on the large blocks of stone until the water was too high for us to jump from one rock to the other-–just as you can see people enjoying themselves in this way today.”


Cover of the Annual Report of the Town of Provincetown, Massachusetts for the Year Ending December 31, 1963. Collection of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum.

The other Army Corp of Engineers Project in town is the breakwater located parallel to the shore opposite to and about 835 feet from the end of MacMillan Wharf. This breakwater was the result of many years of lobbying to create a “Harbor of Refuge” f or the fishing fleet. The cover of the 1963 Annual Reports for the town of Provincetown contained a photo captioned “Another Casualty-Fishing Vessel ‘Queen Mary’ breaks from mooring. Washed ashore in storm of November 30, 1963. One good reason why Provincetown needs a Harbor of Refuge for its fishing fleet.”

Text on the inside cover tells the story of the storm that was a catalyst for the formation of a Harbor of Refuge committee, “It was blowing the night before but no one suspected tragedy. Forecasts gave 35 mile winds--–a half-gale warning flew white over red. Those alert to danger heard the rising wind in the late evening. They laughed at the gale warning. Soon it was no kind of laughing matter. By midnight and high tide it was a heavy storm dead from the open Southwest. . . . As the tide flowed to high course the wind rose even more. By full light the East End was shrouded in spray. Fishermen on the wharf waited the turning of the tide again. When it came, Queen Mary Broke loose–then Revenge–then Joan & Tom. Revenge was saved by the Coast Guard. Nancy & Debbie made for Joan & Tom, but too soon, she was on the rocks. . . . Nothing could more profoundly illustrate the need of our community for a Harbor-of-Refuge than this damage to boats and property. In the past this has been an issue fought with controversy. In order to take a fresh approach to this problem a Provincetown Harbor-of Refuge Committee has been formed to bring together all those concerned with the problem and to seek to get all of the facts in order to make an integrated proposal to the community. This committee’s work will be a long hard task, as it strives to make a Harbor-of-Refuge a reality.”

In 1964 Town Manager Robert Hancock reported that the committee had arranged for legislation that, when passed, would make it possible for the town to have a breakwater. As it turned out this was an optimistic statement. It would take several more years and quite a bit of money for the project to reach completion. At a Special Town Meeting held November 25, 1968, the Town voted to provide its share, $380,000, to construct the breakwater. The vote was unanimous and the committee expected work to start in 1969. In 1969 the project was delayed by funding problems in Washington, but in 1970 construction actually began on the three and one-half million dollar project. Construction was completed in July 1972. Total cost for the breakwater was $4,308, 954 with $3,548,954 in federal funds and $760,000 in non-federal monies. It is 2,500 feet long and rises to an elevation of 15.5 feet with a basic top width of 10 feet. At the time it was expected that a safer harbor would provide for protection of the fishing fleet as well as lead to substantial development, either public or private, of marina facilities and contribute to the economic development of the town.