From The Archives: Lodge Member John Whitcomb,
Provincetown Ship Builder
Lodge member John Whitcomb was a ships carpenter from Yarmouth, Maine and moved to Provincetown in 1865. He began construction on his first schooner, the Alcyon, in December of 1865. The 137 ton schooner was launched in 1866 at his boat yard which was opposite his home at 421 Commercial Street. The 129 ton Cara Morrison, built for owners in Wellfleet, was also launched in 1866. The 129 ton F.W. Alton was built for Thomas Daggett in 1867, followed by his fourth ship, the 166 ton brig D.A. Small, built for Lodge member David S. Small and launched in 1868. In 1869, the 131 ton schooner Lattie Belle was built for E.C.Small, and the 137 ton schooner Willie Swift was built for Lodge member Samuel S. Swift in 1875.
The lumber and timbers were transported from Maine, New Hampshire and points South. White Oak from Truro and the land in back of Provincetown was also used.
The photo above shows the Yacht Charlotte, built for Chicago millionaire James A. Lawrence, being launched from John Whitcomb’s Shipyard on June 18, 1901. No vessel of this size had been built in Provincetown since 1875, and it was such a gala occasion, that schools were let out so that the youngsters might witness the launch.
After launching the Charlotte, his last ship, he opened a shipwright and spar business in the rear of the Post Office on Railroad Wharf. This yard also included a marine railway which was used to build vessels. At one time he employed 30 men. His business also included repairs to vessels. On July 12, 1888, the three-masted A.G. Ropes, flagship of the I.F.Chapman Co., was damaged in a squall off Nantucket while enroute to San Francisco carrying oil and coal. After being repaired by Whitcomb, the ship and her crew left Provincetown on September 29, 1888 and arrived in San Francisco in 110 days.
Schooner A.G. Ropes after being damaged in a squall in 1888
Provincetown is a quick study. A glance at the activity across its wide natural harbor tells immediately what it is about. This has been true from the beginning. Today there are two long wharves filled in the summer with pleasure craft, charter boats, whale watching boats, Plymouth and Boston ferries, and launches for visiting ocean liners. Its once predominant fishing fleet is now berthed in one small section of a single wharf. How different the view is today from the one Henry David Thoreau had on an October afternoon when he watched a fleet of two hundred mackerel schooners tacking about the harbor. It was an incredible sight for the Concord native as he imagined the white sails to be a "city of canvas."
Provincetown was then an international port. There were wharves for drying cod and pickling mackerel; piers for coopers, chandlers and sailmakers; and longer wharves for berthing the Grand Banks schooners and whaling vessels that called Provincetown home.
By December of 1795 when King Hiram's Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons was chartered, Provincetown, Massachusetts had already earned the distinction of being the birthplace of American government and of the commercial fishing industry in the United States. The Mayflower Compact, the firm and enduring basis of our constitutional government was signed in Provincetown Harbor on November 21, 1620 and the Province Lands were one of the first areas in America to be set aside exclusively as a fishing preserve by the General Court of the Old Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1670.
A dispensation was granted on December 12, 1795 to form an organization known as King Hiram's Lodge A.F. & A.M. with a charter signed by Paul Revere, Grand Master of Masons in Massachusetts.
King Hiram's Lodge began with twenty two members and elected John Young as their first Master who served until 1799. John Young, born in 1756 the son of an Acadian national was an apprentice at the iron forges of Hugh Orr of Pembroke. In 1792 he obtained a charter from the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts to constitute Old Colony Lodge in Hanover, Massachusetts and was elected its first Master. In June of 1793 following the death of his first wife Leah Bonney, Young had moved and opened his own business on his family's land in Truro. John Young's acquaintance with shipowners Solomon and Jonathan Cook resulted in the origin of King Hiram's Lodge and the first meeting was held at the home of Captain Jonathan Cook located at what is now 292 Commercial Street Provincetown.
The Revolutionary War had destroyed the fishing fleets as well as the whale fleets and when peace came the impoverished people were obliged to build smaller vessels. They turned to fishing off the coast of Labrador and the Bay of Chaleur. Here they ran into trouble with the British who were trying to close Canadian waters to Yankee fishermen.
The Embargo, followed by the Non-Intercourse Act which forbid trade with Great Britain and France were regarded as necessary measures to prevent the seizure of American ships and the impressment of their crews into service by foreign powers. Provincetown vessels fared worse than being captured as a result, the ocean fisheries were abandoned and dismantled ships rotted at their wharves. The situation was apparent at the Lodge when on January 16, 1809 it was "Voted that our lodge put by the celebration of St. John at this time, on account of the badness of the times." After the declaration of war with Britain on June 18, 1811, British Men-O-War surrounded Cape Cod with H.M.S. Majestic making her base at anchor between Provincetown and Truro. It used the old mill on Mill Hill as a target during artillery practice. The people of Provincetown usually preferred the eastern part of town while this occurred. With Provincetown nearly deserted the Lodge met on February 1, 1812 and voted that a deed be procured for the Lodge building and it be put in the name of Reuben Nickerson, Treasurer of the lodge.
The selectmen of Provincetown, Wellfleet and Truro, were forced to enter into agreement to provide stores at the market price to the British frigates, which had to be rafted out by schooners in Provincetown harbor due to the 12 to 14 foot rise in tide. The market price the British paid for beef in 1814 was 7.00 per pound and it is said that several fortunes in Provincetown had their beginnings in British gold. At his request the Lodge invited Herman Merrick, chaplain of H.M.S. Guerriere to the meeting of January 8, 1812, "He being a Mason." The Guerriere was captured by the U.S.S. Constitution, "Old Ironsides", in 1813.
On July 27, 1814 Lt. Commander Henry Edward Napier of H.M.S. Nymphe recorded in his journal, "Provincetown formerly famous for whaling, now completely cut off and at the mercy of any person." During the blockade Provincetown ship owners turned to privateering. Jonathan Cook, the second Master of King Hiram's Lodge gained recognition in Henry Napier's journal on June 27, 1814. Frustrated at not being able to capture Cook's schooner POLLY suspected of carrying government stores out of Provincetown, he wrote " My hope is that he will be hung before his next birthday." Member Thomas Smalley's schooner GOLDEN HIND ran the blockade to keep Provincetown provisioned. He would sink his boat in the eastern harbor where the British ships could only enter at high tide. During the night at low tide he would re-float her and sail out avoiding capture.
Throughout the occupation Cape Cod's ships were being seized by the British. They were ransomed to their owners for large sums of money or used as tenders to the British frigates. Those found containing government stores were burned and their crews impressed into service on British war ships or sent to Nova Scotia to serve aboard British whaling vessels. Those seamen refusing to serve aboard a British ship were sent to Dartmoor Prison in England. Eldredge Smith, a member of King Hiram's Lodge was released from that prison in 1812 when his captors learned he was a Mason. He returned to Provincetown and died there in 1849.
Whether it was mariner, master mariner, sail maker, ship outfitter, boat builder, caulker, rigger, ship chandler, seaman or fisherman, these occupations tied to the sea far outnumber any others throughout the history of King Hiram's Lodge and are mentioned no less than 422 times in the chronology of members. Their ships were frozen in the Arctic where they went for bowhead or Polar whales; they were attacked by natives in the Pacific islands and were chased by Confederate cruisers during the Civil War and often had their ships burned. The masters of these whaling and fishing vessels were usually owner, captain, merchant, all in one except for the shares owned by members of his crew. To outfit his ship, take a catch, find a foreign market and return home generally required a year. A "Plum Pudding Voyage" was a name applied by New England whalemen to the shorter or between seasons voyages of Provincetown whalers, implying that a voyage on a Provincetown ship was a mere picnic.
Their experiences and recollections, some rewarding, some humorous, some tragic, are preserved in resolutions contained in the Lodge records, as well as personal correspondence, whaling logs, and written accounts in the Lodge archives. Included among them are;
Schooner E.H. HATFIELD November 28, 1872, member Benjamin Higgins 1'st mate; "Middle part (of the day) saw whales, Lowered. Struck. And the larboard boat got stove. The whale struck Mr. Freeman. He lived until he got on board ship, but died almost as soon as we got him on board. God knows what I am going to do now. We brought the whale alongside and cut him in." November 30, 1872." Latter part (of the day) put the remains of Mr. Freeman in a cask and filled it with whale oil. I want to carry it to the Islands and send him home if I can." Capt. Benjamin Freeman, another member, aged 49 was killed near Samarang, Java. His remains were returned to Provincetown and were interred in the Gifford Cemetery.
From member Joseph F. Baldwin Captain of the schooner ALCYONE November 14, 1870; "After testimony of all hands during the investigation it was presently demonstrated that these men was the guilty parties. These men was tied up and after a while they confessed that they threw the cooking utenseels over board. The men confessed they had some bad advice from a party, a furyner, (foreigner) who had ort to have none better. The men appeared to be truly penitente and asked forgiveness....taking all things into consideration and also for the future they have got to live on bread and water let them out of irons and put them on Duty." Capt. Joseph Baldwin was raised at a Special Communication on April 20, 1857 "As it is expected that he will leave town soon." He was the Secretary of the Lodge in 1866 when he left to command the maiden voyage of the Alcyone. His Master Mason Certificate is in the Lodge's Collection. The voyage of October 20, 1868 to June 8, 1871 was chronicled by David Barker in his book "Thrilling Adventures of the whaler Alcyone", published in 1916. While on a cruise off the African Gold Coast one of the boat's crew was swallowed by a sperm whale. After firing a bomb lance into the whale it spouted blood. The boat crew assumed the whale dead and the crewman struck with his hand lance. The sperm whale slapped its tail and crashed his lower jaw into the whale boat causing the crewman to fall forward into the whale's mouth and the whale closed its jaw, catching the crewman just below his knees. The whale sounded and the crewman's body came to the surface where he was recovered from the water and taken aboard the ALCYONE. During this voyage the ALCYONE was captured by Malay pirates and was used to rob and sink small trading vessels in the China Sea while captain and crew were imprisoned below. They abandoned the ALCYONE at Mauritius where Joseph Baldwin had to recruit eight crewmen before he could return to Provincetown. Baldwin's wife related the story of how her husband had taken her to visit a tribal chieftain on the coast of South Africa. She brought with her a gift of a pan of doughnuts she had baked. Apparently they were a success as the next day the chief and two other natives called on the ship, but instead of being dressed in the ceremonial robes of the day before they arrived entirely unclothed. Joseph Baldwin had his wife give him three dresses which the natives put on before he would allow her up on deck.
The 137 ton schooner ALCYONE was built and launched at Provincetown May 1866 by another member, John Whitcomb at his boat yard opposite his home on Commercial Street.
Carrie D. Knowles
The schooner CARRIE D. KNOWLES was owned by George O. Knowles and commanded by Colin Stevenson, both members of King Hiram's Lodge. It was outfitted at Knowles Wharf opposite Pearl Street in Provincetown and her American and Portuguese crew were recruited at Provincetown and New Bedford. She left Provincetown harbor in January 1904 and never returned. Five years later in 1909, George Knowles had died and Mrs. Colin Stevenson, the captains wife was about to be remarried when word was received from St. Vincent's in the British West Indies that Elisha Payne, a crewman aboard the Carrie D. Knowles had contacted authorities there. He told them that the schooner had been blown off course by a storm while on a run to Dominica. As they approached the coast of Venezuela they were boarded by pirates who took Capt. Stevenson and the rest of the crew prisoners. Payne managed to escape and made his way to Trinidad. Mrs. George Knowles and Mrs. Stevenson contacted authorities in Washington but before any further information could be obtained , Elisha Payne had disappeared. Mrs. Stevenson gave up her second marriage convinced her husband was still alive. George Knowles uncle Josiah Knowles, another member of the Lodge, was the captain of the clipper ship WILD WAVE when it struck a reef on a run from San Francisco to Valpariso and was lost in 1858. The crew of thirty men and ten passengers found refuge on Oeno Island. Josiah Knowles and six crewmen went to seek help at Pitcairn Island, twenty miles away in an open whaleboat. At Pitcairn they cut down trees with tools belonging to descendants of the BOUNTY building a thirty foot schooner which they named JOHN ADAMS. They set sail for Tahiti which was 1500 miles away and were picked up by a British Man-O-War who rescued the survivors on Oeno. They were transported to the Marquesas where Knowles sold the JOHN ADAMS for 250.00 allowing them to return home.
The schooner ELLEN A. SWIFT built in 1882 for Lodge member J. Emmons Dyer gained the distinction of being Provincetown's jinxed ship after its sale to another Lodge member John Dunham in 1915. His first voyage he returned to Provincetown with the schooners davits smashed off, the end of the main boom snapped out and a hole through the planking of her port quarter the result of being run down by the British steamer ELIZABETH. After repairs Dunham sailed again for the Hatteras whaling grounds and was caught in a two day storm forcing the schooners return to port with the stay sails blown out of the bolt ropes , her main trysail torn and leaking badly. The third voyage in 1918 guaranteed the ships reputation when they were confronted by a German U-Boat while trying out whale oil on the Hatteras grounds. Having difficulty recruiting a crew in Provincetown, the ELLEN A. SWIFT left on its final voyage from New Bedford. Dunham took his wife and daughter and hired Captain Manuel Santos to accompany him as an aide. The ELLEN A. SWIFT is said to have disappeared with fourteen persons on board during a raging storm on February 10, 1919.
Captain John A. Cook, a member of King Hiram's Lodge, returned to Provincetown in 1908 after concluding a disastrous forty four month whaling voyage in the Arctic Ocean. The voyage had included the mutiny of his crew, the mental collapse of his wife Viola and his being unofficially removed from command of his vessel the BOWHEAD. Following a year in Provincetown with no significant improvement to his wife's condition, Cook commissioned the building of the 125 foot long brigantine VIOLA in 1909. His wife was listed as assistant navigator on the maiden voyage of 1910. John Cook completed his last voyage on the VIOLA in 1916. A unique feature of this voyage was the taking of motion pictures. Cook arranged for John Waite of Boston a motion picture photographer to accompany him and document the voyage. The VIOLA returned after a four month cruise with 500 barrels of sperm oil and 5000 feet of film. In November of 1916 Cook showed his film "Sperm Whaling" in Tremont Temple in Boston. This rare footage of life on a whaling voyage now owned by the Cape Cod National Seashore Center for Coastal Studies was shown in King Hiram's Lodge in March of this year. In September of 1918 under the command of Capt. Joseph Luis, accompanied by his wife Laurette and five year old daughter the VIOLA sailed out of New Bedford with a crew of twenty-four men. It was never heard from again. John Cook was also the owner of the CHARLES W. MORGAN, probably the best known whaling vessel in New England. When the Morgan returned to New Bedford it was used in the silent film Down to the Sea in Ships which launched the career of Clara Bow in 1922. Cook was also a part owner of the WANDERER. The last square rigged bark to leave New England on a whaling voyage. The WANDERER was destroyed off Cuttyhunk Island in 1924. In 1925 the Provincetown schooner JOHN R. MANTA was the last vessel to complete a whaling voyage in New England. Captain John Cook's wife Viola was a tragic, tormented figure familiar on the streets of Provincetown. During his first winter in Provincetown in 1917, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Eugene O'Neill heard the story of the voyage in the Arctic where Cook punished his mutinous crew and isolated his wife refusing to leave without a ship full of whale oil or "Ile." O'Neill's one act play "ILE" takes place on board a whaling vessel locked in the ice and describes the tragic voyage that precipitated her madness.
Throughout its history the members of King Hiram's Lodge have played their part in the historical stage that Provincetown is. Their names appear on petitions to Presidents and they acted as toastmasters to others. They have been depicted in works of art and literature and they were part of a movement that changed American art sensibilities for the next hundred years.
On December 12th of 1995 the members of King Hiram's Lodge will assemble to celebrate in a fitting manner the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of its Lodge, to perpetuate the memory of the founders of a time honored institution and to offer up thanksgiving for the heritage that has been bequeathed to them.
Two views of the Charles W. Morgan, owned by lodge member John Atkins Cook, under full sail
"EVERY FIRST MONDAY"
The Bicentennial of King Hiram's Lodge A.F. & A.M. Provincetown
By Bro. James J. Theriault
All the historical content in these pages researched and compiled by Wor. James J. Theriault, curator of King Hiram's Museum and lodge historian. Any comments concerning content may be sent to James J. Theriault, 541A Main Street, Hyannis, MA 02601
Back to King Hiram's History Page.