Woods Hole The Early Years

The beginning of Woods Hole dates back to the early 17th century. Five years before the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, and 18 years before the Pilgrims landed at Provincetown and Plymouth, Bartholomew Gosnold coasted along Cape Cod and Marthas Vineyard, and about May 31, 1602, he is believed to have landed at what is now known as Woods Hole. The Town of Falmouth, of which Woods Hole is presently a part, was first settled in 1659-61 when several persons were granted permission to purchase land. The date of the settlement of Woods Hole took place 17 years later. The town (Falmouth) was incorporated on June 4, 1686, and called Succonessett, the name which later, probably in 1694, was changed to Falmouth. On July 23, 1677, the land around Little Harbor of Woods Hole was divided among the 13 settlers in "lots of 60 acres upland to a share" and an "Indian deed" confirming the land title was signed by Job Notantico on July 15, 1679 (Deyo, 1890). Fishing, hunting, and sheep breeding were the principal occupations of the early settlers and their descendents. Later on a grist mill was built and salt was made by solar evaporation of sea water in pans built along the banks of Little Harbor.

These quiet, rural conditions, devoid of adventure, persisted until about 1815, when Woods Hole became an important whaling station from which ships operated on the high seas. The whaling industry in the United States became a very profitable business, and Woods Hole was a part of it. In 1854, the total receipts for the American whaling fleet amounted to $10.8 million, the largest part of this amount resulted from whaling carried out by Massachus tts captains. Woods Hole participated in these activities and prospered. It is known that between 1815 and 1860, not less than nine whaling ships were making port at the Bar Neck wharf, which was located where the U. S. Navy building of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution now stands. The place was busy processing oil and whalebone and outfitting ships. A bake house for making sea biscuits for long voyages stood next to the present "Old Stone Building" built in 1829 as a candle factory. This conspicuous old landmark on Water Street of Woods Hole, identified by an appropriate bronze plaque, has since served as a warehouse and more recently as excutive and administrative offices for the MBL. About 1860, whaling became less profitable and Woods Hole entered into the second phase of its economic life which was dominated by the establishment and operation of a new commercial venture known as the Pacific Guano Works.

early photo of Woods Hole guano works

During the years from 1863 to 1889, when the Pacific Guano Works was in operation the life of Woods Hole centered around the plant which was built at Long Neck near the entrance to what is known now as Penzance Point. Many large sailing vessels carrying sulphur from Italy, nitrate of soda from Chile, potash from Germany, and many schooners under the American flag loaded with guano and phosphorus from the Pacific Coast of South America were anchored in Great Harbor waiting for their turn to unload their cargoes. The number of laborers regularly employed by the Guano Company varied from 150 to 200 men, mostly Irishmen brought in under contract. Several local fishermen found additional employment as pilots for guano ships. The company maintained a store where various goods such as leather, lead pipe, tin, coal, wood, and other items were bought and sold. The store acted also as a labor housing agency. Through efforts of the business manager of the Guano Company, the Old Colony Railroad was persuaded to extend its branch from Monument Beach to Woods Hoie. The establishment of well-organized and reliable transportation to Boston was an important factor in the future life of the community.

The Pacific Guano Works was established by the shipping merchants of Boston who were seeking cargo for the return voyage of their ships (Pacific Guano Company, 1876). The guano deposits of one of the Pacific islands seemed to furnish this opportunity. As soon as the joint stock company was organized in 1859 with the capital of $1 million, arrangements were made almost immediately by which the newly formed concern came into possession and control of Howland Island. This island is located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean at longitude 177 deg. W., a short distance north of the Equator, about 1, 500 miles true south from Midway Island of the Hawaiian archipelago. At the same time appropriate plant and docking facilities were built at Woods Hole and 33 large sailing ships became available for hauling guano. Unlike the well-known guano islands off the coast of Peru, Howland Island is located in the zone of abundant rainfall. Consequently, the guano deposits of the island were leached of organic components and consisted of highly concentrated phosphate of lime.

early Woods Hole map

1887 Map of Woods Holl (Fisheries is bottom left)

Fertilizer produced by the company was made by restoring the lost organic matter of the phosphate rock by adding the right proportion of organic constituents which were obtained from menhaden, pogy, and other industrial fish which abound in Cape Cod waters. The rock was pulverized and purified by washing; fish brought in by local fishermen were first pressed to extract oil, and the residue digested with sulphuric acid, washed, and dried. Acid was produced locally from sulphur imported from Sicily, and the digestion of fish flesh was carried out in large lead-lined vats. The plant was well equipped with machinery needed for the process and even had a chemical laboratory where chemists made the necessary analyses. Various sheds for storage and drying, barracks for laborers, and a business office completed the facilities.

When the deposits of phosphate rock on Howland Island were exhausted, the company acquired title to the Greater and Lesser Swan Islands from the U. S. Government. These islands are located in the Caribbean Sea at latitude 17 deg. N. and longitude 83 deg. W. off the coast of Honduras. The islands are only 400 miles from Key West, Florida, and 500 miles from New Orleans. They contained good-quality phosphate rock and being much closer to Woods Hole greatly reduced the voyage time and cost of delivery. Further expansion of the company consisted in the acquisition of Chisolm's Island near the coast of South Carolina, construction of a plant for cracking and washing phosphate rock on the Ball River side of the island, and establishment of a processing plant in Charleston, S. C. From the initial production (in 1865) of 7, 540 sacks of fertilizer weighing 200 pounds each, the output reached 11, 420 tons in 1871 and continued to grow until the combined annual production in 1879 of the works at Woods Hole and Charleston reached from 40, 000 to 45, 000 tons of guano fertilizer.

Historical photo Baird family on porch

Spencer Baird, Secretary of the Smithsonian Instution and first commissioner of the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries arrived in Woods Hole in 1871. Baird was greatly impressed by the idea of utilizing menhaden and other fishes for the production of guano fertilizer and considered it a worthwhile project. In a letter dated October 18,1875, to John M. Glidden, treasurer of the Pacific Guano Works Company, Baird urged him "to make a display of your wares at the centennial (in Philadelphia), as this is one of the most important interests in the United States. " He writes further that "there is no species (of fish) worked up elsewhere comparable to the movement with the menhaden, or pogy, as to numbers and the percentage of oil. The combination, too, of the pogy scrap with the South Carolina phosphates and the guanos of the West Indies and of the PacificA are also quite novel, and as being especially an American industry, are eminently worthy of full appreciation. "

While the scientists, agriculturalists, and stockholders of the company thought very highly of the guano works, the existence of a malodorous plant was not appreciated by the residents of Woods Hole who suffered from a strongly offensive odor whenever the wind was from the west. Woods Hole might have continued to grow as one of the factory towns of Massachusetts but, fortunately for the progress of science and good fortune of its residents (except those who invested their savings in the shares of Pacific Guano Works), the company began to decline and became bankrupt in 1889.

Cessation of business and heavy monetary losses brought financial disaster to many residents of Woods Hole. The gloom prevailing in the village after the closing of the guano works began to dissipate, however, with the development of Woods Hole as a place of scientific research and with the increasing tourist trade. The factory buildings were torn down, the chimney which dominated the Woods Hole landscape was dynamited, and over 100,000 pounds of lead lining the acid chambers were salvaged. Large cement vats and the remnants of the old wharf remained; in the following years the latter became a favored place for summer biologists to collect interesting marine animals and plants.

historical photo Woods Hole Lab

The years from 1871 to the death of Baird in 1887 were the formative period of the new era of Woods Hole as a scientific center. In historical documents and in old books the present name Woods Hole is spelled in a different way. The old name "Woods Holl" is considered by some historians of Cape Cod (Conklin, 1944) to be a relic of the times prior to the 17th century when the Norsemen visited the coast. The "Holl", supposed to be the Norse word for "hill", is found in the old records. The early settlers gave the name ''Hole" to inlets or to passages between the islands, such as "Robinson's Hole" between Naushon and Pasque Islands, or "Quick's Hole" between Pasque and Nashawena Islands, and Woods' Hole between the mainland and Nonamesset Island. In 1877 the Postmaster General ordered the restoration of the original spelling "Wood's Holl", which remained in force until 1896 when the United States Post Office changed it back to Woods Hole and eliminated the apostrophe in Wood's. The change was regretted by the old timers and by C. O. Whitman who had given the specific name "hollensis" to some local animals he described.

At the time of his arrival at Woods Hole in 1871, Baird was well known to the scientific circles of this country and abroad as a naturalist, student of classification and distribution of mammals and birds, and as a tireless collector of zoological specimens. He maintained voluminous correspondence with the scientists in the United States and Europe, and was Permanent Secretary of the recently organized American Association for the Advancement of Science. To the general public he was known as a contributor to a science column in the New York Herald and author of many popular magazine articles. His newly acquired responsibilities as Commissioner of Fisheries greatly added to his primary duties as Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution which was primarily responsible for the establishment of the National Museum in Washington. As a scientist, Baird belonged to the time of Louis Agassiz, Th. H. Huxley, and Charles Darwin. Like Agassiz he attended medical college but never completed his studies, although the degree of M. D. honoris causa was later conferred upon him by the Philadelphia Medical College.

In the words of Charles F. Holder (Holder, 1910), "he was a typical American of the heroic type. A man of many parts, virtues, and intellectual graces, and of all the zoologists science has given the world .... he was most prolific in works of practical value to man and humanity. "

Commissioner Baird attended many Congressional hearings and conferences with state officials and fishermen at which the probable causes of the decline of fisheries were discussed and various corrective measures suggested. From the lengthy and frequently heated discussions and evidence presented by the fishermen and other persons familiar with the fisheries problems, he became convinced that an alarmingly rapid decrease in the catches of fish had continued for the last 15 or 20 years. Such a decline was particularly noticeable in the case of scup, tautog, and sea bass in the waters of Vineyard Sound. It was logical, therefore, that the new Commissioner of Fisheries would select for his initial activities the New England coastal area where the fishing industry was of greatest importance as a politico-economical factor. Woods Hole, however, was not a significant fishing center.

In the "Fisheries and Fishlng Industry of the United States" prepared and edited by Goode (1884-87) for the 1880 Census, the fishing activity at Woods Hole is described in the following words: "Of the male inhabitants only seven are regularly engaged in fishing, the remainder being employed in the guano factory, in farming and other minor pursuits .... There is one ship carpenter in Wood's Holl, but he finds employment in his legitimate business only at long intervals. Of sailmakers, riggers, caulkers, and other artisans there are none. Four men are employed by Mr. Spindel, during the height of the fishing season, in icing and boxing fish. The boat fishery is carried on by seven men from April until September, inclusive. Only three species of fish are usually taken, namely, scup, tautog, and sea bass. The total catch of each fisherman is about 15 barrels, or about 2400 pounds. In addition about 6,720 lobsters are annually taken. "

early photo of researchers collecting samples in Woods Hole

Before selecting a location for permanent headquarters for the work on fishery management and conservation, Baird undertook extensive explorations of the fishing grounds off the entire New England Coast. Section 2 of the Joint Resolution Number 8 of Congress gave the Commissioner full authority to carry out the necessary research. In part it reads as follows "and further resolved, That it shall be the duty of the said Commissioner to prosecute investigations and inquiries on the subject, with the view of ascertaining whether any and what diminution in the number of the food-fishes of the coast and the lakes of the United States has taken place; and, if so, to what causes the same is due; and also, whether any and what protective, prohibitory, or precautionary measures should be adopted in the premises; and to report upon the same to Congress. " Section 4 of the same Resolution contains an important clause which authorizes the Commissioner of Fisheries "to take or cause to be taken, at all times, in the waters of the seacoast of the United States, where the tide ebbs and flows, and also in the waters of the lakes, such fish or specimens thereof as many in his judgement, from time to time, be needful or proper for the conduct of his duties as aforesaid, any law, custom, or useage of any State to the contrary notwithstanding."

The significant words "where the tide ebbs and flows" were interpreted by Baird in a very broad scientific sense which extended the authority for his investigations to the offshore areas of the open ocean.

Pounds and weirs were most frequently accused by the public as destructive methods of fishing responsible for the decline in the abundance of food fishes along the coast. Although Baird gave very serious consideration to the possible destructiveness of fixed nets, traps, pounds, pots, fish weirs, and other stationary apparatus, he was fully aware of the complexity of the factors which may cause the decline in fish populations. He discusses this difficult problem in a paper entitled "Report on the condition of the sea fisheries of the south coast of New England" and published as the first section of the voluminous First Report of the Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries for 1871. Of the causes which may have contributed to the decrease of summer shore fisheries of the south side of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, a fact which he considered as well established by the testimonies of competent persons, he lists the following: (1) decrease or disappearance of the food of commercial fishes; (2) migration of fishes to other localities; (3) epidemic diseases and "peculiar atmospheric agencies, such as heat, cold, etc. "; (4) destruction by other fishes; (5) man's activities resulting in the pollution of water, in overfishing, and the use of improper apparatus .

The biologist of today will recognize in this statement Baird's broad philosophical approach to the major problem of fishery biology. The outlined program combined oceanographical and meteorological investigations with the studies of biology, ecology, parasitology, and population dynamics of various fish species. Baird's program of research is as comprehensive and valid today as it was 90 years ago.

vinal edwards photo

No time was lost in initiating this program. Woods Hole was selected as the base of the sea coast operations during the first summer and Vinal N. Edwards became the first permanent federal employee of the fisheries service. In spite of the insignificance of local fisheries, this locality offered a number of advantages which were recognized by Baird. Communication with Boston, New York, and Washington was good and promised to be better with the expected opening of the railroad branch in 1872. Being centrally located in relation to principal fishing grounds of New England and having good dock facilities and water of sufficient depth for sea going vessels, Woods Hole was a suitable base for visiting the offshore grounds. Furthermore, it was believed that the alleged decrease in food fishes was most clearly manifested in the region around Vineyard Sound. The small yacht Mazeppa of the New Bedford Custom House and the revenue-cutter Moccasin attached to the custom-house at Newport, R.I., were placed at the disposal of Baird; and the Light-House Board granted permission to occupy some vacant buildings and the wharf at the buoy-station on the west bank of Little Harbor. The Secretary of the Navy came to Baird's assistance by placing at his command a small steam launch which belonged to the Boston Navy Yard and by giving many condemned powder tanks which could be used for the preservation of specimens. Nets, dredges, tanks, and other gear were provided by the Smithsonian Institution. Cooperation of the various governmental agencies was authorized by Congress which in Section 3 of the Resolution specified that "the heads of the Executive Departments be, and they are hereby directed to cause to be rendered all necessary and practicable aid to the said Commissioner in the prosecution of the investigations and inquiries aforesaid. "

This provision of the law was of great value. It is apparent, however, that the success in obtaining cooperation authorized by law depended a great deal on the personal characteristics of Baird, his great ability of getting along with people, and his remarkable power of persuasion, These qualifications played the major role in his success in organizing the Commission's work and also in obtaining the cooperation of scientists as well as that of fishermen and businessmen.

The investigation during the first summer consisted primarily in collecting large numbers of fishes and studying their spawning, rate of growth, distribution, and food. In the course of this work nearly all the fish pounds and traps, some 30 in number, in the vicinity of Woods Hole, were visited and their location recorded. There was no difficulty in obtaining the owners' permission to examine these installations and to collect the needed specimens. Altogether 106 species of fish were secured, photographed, and preserved for the National Museum. Of this number 20 or more species had not previously been known from Massachusetts waters (Baird, 1873). Information gained in this manner was supplemented by the testimonies of various fishermen who presented their ideas either for or against the use of traps and pounds. Among them was Isaiah Spindel, who at the request of Baird, prepared a description of a pound net used at Woods Hole and explained its operation. In the following years Spindel became an influential member of the group of local citizens who supported Baird's plan of establishing a permanent marine station at Woods Hole.

The ship Moccasin under the command of J. G. Baker was engaged in taking samples of plankton animals, in determining the extent of beds of mussels, starfish, and other bottom invertebrates, and in making temperature observations.

One of the principal collaborators in the studies conducted at Woods Hole in 1871 was A. E. Verrill of Yale University, a professor whom Baird appointed as his assistant and placed in charge of the investigations of marine invertebrates. Dredging for bottom animals during the first summer was carried out on a relatively small scale from a chartered sailing yacht Mollie and a smaller vessel used in the immediate vicinity of Woods Hole. Extensive collections were made by wading on tidal flats exposed at low water.

L. Agassiz photo

Zoological work attracted considerable interest among the biologists of this country. Many of them stopped at Woods Hole for greater or lesser periods and were encouraged by Baird to use the facilities of the Fish Commission. The group included such well known men as L. Agassiz, A. Hyatt, W. G. Farlow, Theodore Gill, Gruyure Jeffries of England, and many others. The first year's work extended until the early part of October. Before returning to Washington, Baird commissioned Vinal N. Edwards of Woods Hole to continue the investigation as far as possible. By the end of the first year a general plan of study of the natural histories of the fishes and the effect of fishing on fish populations was prepared with the assistance of the well-known ichthyologist, Theodore N. Gill. His old "Catalogue of the fishes of the Eastern Coast of North America from Greenland to Georgia", (Gill, 1861) was revised and the next text including the recently collected data concerning the Massachusetts fishes, appeared in the First Report of the U. S. Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries (Gill, 1873). The plan of investigation suggested by Gill was adopted by Baird (Baird, 1873) as a guide for the work of his associates for the purpose of "securing greater precision in the inquiries. " The plan is composed of 15 sections, such as Geographical distribution, Abundiance, Reproduction, etc., with detailed subdivisions under each one. A questionnaire containing 88 different items was inciuded in order to facilitate the inquiries conducted among the fishermen. The scope of the highly comprehensive program is complete enough to be useful today; marine biologists of today would probably only rephrase it, using modern terminology. During the first year of operations conducted at Woods Hole, Baird and his associates laid down the foundation of the new branch of science which we now call fishery biology or fishery science.

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(File Modified Jun. 16 2011)