"A Seafaring Heritage"

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

A.G. Ropes after being repaired by John Whitcomb

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;

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 

Compiled from:
The Bicentennial of King Hiram's Lodge A.F. & A.M. Provincetown
By Bro. James J. Theriault
Copyright 1995.

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

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