Railroad Part One

On July 22,1873, the first train arrived in Provincetown. Image via Ben Kettlewell’s Provincetown Diaspora Facebook Page

I’ve been traipsing around Cape Cod for a long time now, and like any walker I have my haunts. Because of this project I’ve been on the outlook for new places and new trails. Eric Williams’s column in The Cape Cod Times has sent me in several great directions — including todays walk on the Old Colony Railway bed in Wellfleet from Bound Brook Island to Ryder Beach. I’ve been spending a lot of time at Bound Brook, but had no idea this magnificent trail ran along the edge of the island. 

The entrance to the Old Colony Rail Trail at Old County Road and Bound Brook Road in Wellfleet.

I’m fascinated by the Old Colony Railroad and by the ways it transformed Cape Cod from a rural, agrarian and maritime community to the place that we know today. This will be the first of a series of posts on the railroad, laying out some of its foundational history. But there’s a lot more to write about and see.

The 2:30 train leaving for Boston, 1930. Image via Ben Kettlewell’s Provincetown Diaspora Facebook Page.

On a winter morning shortly after I first arrived in Provincetown, I could swear I heard a train. When I asked around, someone laughed, “That’s the ghost train.” After a quick trip to the library, I found that although the tracks were pulled up in the 1960s the ‘ghost train’ is a thing in Provincetown and I’m not the only one who hears it. Experiencing this phenomenon started my fascination with the old railroad.

In practical sense, the railroad finally connected Provincetown with the mainland. Yes, there had been a beach road along the Atlantic, but it was dangerous, unreliable, and in the best of circumstances difficult. At least once, in the 1840s, the dune at High Head / East Harbor breached, too — effectively making Provincetown an island. The causeway built to accommodate the railroad solved those problems, and made travel by land a practical reality for Provincetown.

Removing railroad ties from the area near Snail Road, October, 1961. Image via Ben Kettlewell’s Provincetown Diaspora Facebook Page

Building the railroad wan’t easy. It was a massive infrastructure project, and it wasn’t equally supported by the people of Provincetown and Truro. For centuries the towns engaged in conflicts about borders, natural resources, and propriety. Truro, being more agrarian, had families with roots and civic stability. Provincetown, as a maritime town, was transient and, from its beginnings, liked to party. The difficulty in traveling from one town to another suited Truro fine. Truro opposed the causeway, and it was only some political shenanigans pulled by Provincetown Selectmen on Beacon Hill that got the causeway built in 1868. Rail service started in 1873, with the first passenger train arriving in Provincetown on July 22d. Passenger service ended in 1938 (with a brief revival in 1940). The last freight train left Provincetown in 1961 after the tracks in North Eastham were abandoned. This massive infrastructure project had a life of less than 90 years. Comparatively, US 6 was completed in 1955 and has already had a life of nearly 70 years — with no sign of closing anytime soon. 

And abundance of Winter Berry in the marsh adjacent to the Rail Trail from Bound Brook Island to Ryder Beach.

For Provincetown, the railroad made good business sense. It would increase productivity of the fishing industry, and provide relatively swank passenger service from New York to increase the nascent tourist business. Truro eventually came around to the train. There were three stations in town and the trains presence quickly spurred investment in tourism. Sheldon Ball’s cottages — the first to be exclusively marketed to New Yorkers — sprung up on the Atlantic beach near Truro Center. ‘Ball’s Town’ quickly became Ballston. The Cold Storage facility in Pond Village grew to the very edge of the tracks, allowing for easy loading of fish to departing trains. And the Beach Point station served the growing clusters of bayside cottages. 

Levee built to cross wetlands in Truro, near the Dauphinee House. Photo taken 13 October 2021.

Railroads connect, but they also divide. In my piece about Hopper’s depiction of the the Dauphinee House, it became easy for me to imagine how the railroad overnight put some homes on the wrong side of the tracks. In the 19th century, railroads also dramatically changed places. We talk a lot today about gentrification on Cape Cod — which is a very real force of change — but it’s not a new phenomenon. In a very real way, the convenience and luxury of train travel began the transformation of Cape Cod into a destination.

Pine Grove along the Old Colony Rail Trail between Bound Brook Island and Ryder Beach in Truro, MA.

Ghosts and ghost stories serve a sociological function. They remind us of what’s beneath the surface of our psyche, and provide a context for surfacing what’s difficult to articulate. The ghost train may serve this function. But in physical terms, it’s probably the just confluence of several large trucks and certain atmospheric conditions that create a folded sound mimicking a memory of trains. There are very few alive who remember passenger service to Cape Cod, slightly more who recall freight service. But an (imagined?) echo of the railroad is a layer of our collective past, connecting us to the many who traveled here before us.

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Field Guide: Walking & Painting on Cape Cod 
is a fundraiser to support Provincetown Commons’ artist studios, co-working facility, meeting spaces and exhibition gallery. Please donate at our website: https://www.provincetowncommons.org/fieldguide-walkingandpaintingcapecod

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