Beginning on Cape Cod
Hello again, and welcome to Roadtrip-'62 ™ . I’m Don Milne, taking the steering wheel as we head out on the second Roadtrip-'62 ™ trip, along US-6. We’ll be traveling from Provincetown, Massachusetts to Long Beach, California, 3,517 miles from ocean to ocean. Highway US-6 was that long back in 1962, though today it’s been shortened to 3,205 miles because the California portion was almost eliminated. We won’t be on freeways very much. There weren’t many freeways in 1962, as the country had just begun building the Interstate system, so we’ll travel mostly the two-lanes through every little town on the way. To keep the trip focused, we’ll try to stay within 5 miles of US-6. And once again, we’ll be traveling in time in a beautiful 1962 Chevy Impala! At any time, click on an underlined word below to learn more about the places on the trip.
Let’s start in Provincetown and have a bite to eat before we wander around the interesting business area. The Portuguese Bakery has been here on Commercial Street since about 1900, though even locals can’t seem to pinpoint a date. I’m a sucker for nearly any baked good for breakfast, though donuts are my favorite. In 1962 you could have bought their Portuguese sweet bread, as you can today. But sometime in the mid-1970s they added a whole array of pastries, so you can really satisfy your sweet tooth today. They are still using a lot of recipes that have been handed down from previous owners. I think I’ll try the bolas de berlim, something that looks like a Bavarian cream doughnut and made from pastry dough filled with their homemade vanilla custard. If you want something for a picnic lunch later, grab a couple of the bolinhos de bacalhau (salted codfish cakes made with local fish) to go.
Now that we’re fed, it’s time to wander around the crowded business district. Provincetown is a great collection of mostly old buildings, housing art galleries, eateries, and tourist junk shops. There are eight buildings and an entire historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. One of my favorite shops is Marine Specialties, 235 Commercial Street. It was started in 1961 as a mail order business. By 1965 it opened here, in a 1940s trap-fishing shed on the harbor. The store is a most unusual collection of the items you expect at any tourist gift shop anywhere in the country, along with true marine specialties. You can find rigging ropes, ship's salvage, wooden buoys, lobster pots, fishnet, and name brand clothing, army-navy surplus, nautical décor, toys, sea sponges, starfish and seashells. All in an unusual interior complete with a diving suit hung from the rafters!
Another place I enjoy stopping at, and one we could have seen in 1962, is the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. The Museum was established in 1914 by several local artists and businessmen. Besides the interior exhibits, the Museum includes landscaped sculpture gardens. And they also offer chamber music, jazz, dance and spoken word performances. Even if you don’t have time to see some of the local galleries, this museum gives you a good sense of the art scene here. But you really should wander in and out of some galleries as you explore Commercial Street. You can find paintings, drawings, sculptures, clothing, pottery, and jewelry in a variety of vibrant and unexpected styles. Maybe you’ll find just the right piece of art for your home.
Provincetown’s reputation as the nation’s oldest art colony began when painter Charles Webster Hawthorne arrived in Provincetown in 1899, founding the Cape Cod School of Art. He taught painting there for the next 30 summers. Students and teachers came to Provincetown for the beautiful light, natural landscapes, and rustic scenes. Many established their own schools and this collection of artists eventually spawned a year-round arts community.
This short video captures the bustle of the street in tourist season.
People watching is also excellent in Provincetown: this place is packed with people. The narrow street feels designed for pedestrians, though a few cars try to meander through, waiting for people every few hundred feet. Some have compared Commercial Street to the shopping areas at amusement parks! Don’t forget to walk out to the harbor while you wander. Lopes Square is one easy way to see it, but there are many other easy paths out to the shore. In 1962, less of the shore was taken up by restaurants and tourist shops, because fishing was still a local industry. However, the Cape Cod Standard reported in May of 1962, that weir fishing was slowly dying out. Anchor dragging and ice harvesting had already nearly disappeared as fishing methods. Fishing no longer supported the town’s population during the winter months. To make matters worse, a fire on Monument Wharf (formerly Sklaroff's Wharf) on January 17, 1962 destroyed that building. Firefighting was difficult out in the harbor, with smoke limiting access from one side and only the narrow walkway available along one side of the building. Monument Fish Company’s drag fishing ships made arrangements to unload at the MacMillan Wharf after the fire. The MacMillan Wharf still exists.
Provincetown began promoting itself as a tourist destination after an earlier decline in the fishing industry. The Great Portland Gale of 1898 wiped out the fishing fleet and wharfs here. While some fishing came back and wharfs were rebuilt, the town lost most of its population and tourism caught on permanently. This is a pattern we’ll see all across the country, as we Americans tend to abandon things which have little immediate value, even whole towns. A strong gay and lesbian presence established itself in the 1920s and 1930s as the artists, writers, playwrights, and poets began to summer in Provincetown. The ability to experiment with art without fear of judgment attracted artists and their friends who enjoyed the intellectual freedom of Provincetown. Many were gay and it was not long before Provincetown became the place to spend the summer months for gay men and women. Eventually, many purchased homes and became permanent residents and part of the local community fabric. By the 1970s, Provincetown had become a gay and lesbian destination. Author Reed Woodhouse may have best summed up Provincetown’s allure when he wrote, "To such an extent that Provincetown is, for anything, known for us, known for being one of the two or three places on the continent where gay people can be seen in something like their native habitat. It is one of our hometowns." Illustrating how even our language changes in 50 years, "queer" would have been a more common word as a term for homosexuals in 1962. The word "gay" was still used primarily for happy and joyous gatherings in everyday speech and advertising. Even the theme from the cartoon "The Flinstones"”, in 1960, referred to a "gay old time."
Time to leave town and head out to the Cape Cod National Seashore. The park was declared a National Seashore in 1961, so it just barely exists for our purposes. Some of the lands were public property before that, such as the six swimming beaches. Some of these areas are still administered by various towns along the cape. It now includes a forty-mile long stretch of pristine sandy beach, a variety of historic structures, including lighthouses, lifesaving stations, and numerous Cape Cod style houses. The National Seashore also offers 11 self-guiding nature trails, and a variety of picnic and overlook areas. As we head out of town, we pass the Pilgrim Monument. It’s too tall for me to climb, at 252 feet, but the view is fantastic if you do. This granite monument was completed in 1910, to commemorate the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620. They sighted Cape Cod on November 11, 1620, and did land here before sailing across the bay to Plymouth Rock. They brought with them ideas that formed the foundations of this country. Of course, the land had to be taken from the natives, and defended against foreign powers and internal strife for several hundred years, but today we get to drive from sea to shining sea with no borders, no armies, and hopefully no roaming bandits in between.
I’m stopping instead at Grand View Tower, a smaller wooden tower on the way to Race Point. It affords a view of both the bay and ocean from the highest point around Provincetown. Standing here on the ridge down the middle of the cape, you can face one direction and see a sunrise, and then turn around and see the sunset! Also on the ridge is the Beech Forest Trail, a quiet nature trail away from town, and a picnic grounds in case you don’t want to have lunch at a restaurant. And come to think of it, most of the restaurants in Provincetown didn’t exist in 1962. And most restaurants that were here in 1962 are gone! Maybe a picnic is in order today.
We also pass the National Seashore Visitor Center on our way to Race Point Beach, a great place to get trail maps and other info on the park. Race Point is our first contact point on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Cape. You can cross some low dunes and see the Old Harbor Life-Saving Station Museum here. The building was moved here in 1977 from Chatham, but life-saving was an ongoing activity here ever since ships sailed past the point. Our year of 1962 was no exception, when Race Point Coast Guardsmen, using the breeches buoy, rescued all hands from aboard the Margaret Rose on January 16, 1962. The fishing ship carried a crew of seven and 10,000 pounds of haddock aboard. The Margaret Rose and a companion ship were close to shore to escape gale-force winds farther out. But the ship ran aground on a sandbar in the pre-dawn darkness and Coast Guard helicopters from Salem had to drop flares around the area to improve visibility for the rescue.
From Race Point, we drive through the National Park to Herring Cove Beach, the real beginning of our Roadtrip-'62 ™ journey across the country on US-6. As I noted in the US-6 introduction, we’ll be traveling 3,517 miles from here to Long Beach, California. In 1962, the highway came down nearly to the beach, and some of the old pavement is still here in a parking lot. But the road was re-routed slightly sometime between 1976 and 1994, as the National Park Service separated busy highways from activity areas. And the actual start of US-6 is now about a ½ mile east, at the park boundary. The only sign that marks the spot is a standard black-and-white "State Highway Begins" sign. Another mile farther east, at the first crossroad, stands the historic US-6 marker pictured above.
So, off we go from Provincetown. You could spend days there, but we’re trying to travel across the whole country. As I mentioned, the National Seashore was just barely established by 1962. The sand dunes were here for much longer, however, they didn’t always look like this. Cape Cod was wooded and had good soil on top of the sand when the Pilgrims arrived. For generations, they and later colonists cut down the forests and farmed the land. What we see today is actually an environmental disaster being slowly repaired. Cape Cod is formed of glacial deposits, about 18,000 years old, and the story of the land is told in the exhibits at one of the two Visitor Centers. It’s mostly sand, and moves around a lot due to both wind and ocean actions. The National Park Service has been reestablishing vegetation, especially the forest, to bring parts of the land back to their natural state. If it were left as just sand dunes, it would just keep blowing away in the wind.
Farther down the cape there are some beautiful nature trails, and we’ll hike along one of them. There also used to be a railroad to Provincetown, which was still there in 1962. Now it’s a hiking and bicycle trail, as so many old railroads across the country are. Just to get some distance in today, I’m passing by the trails at Pilgrim Heights and a number of town managed beaches on the harbor side of the cape. Our next stop is the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, where there is some natural area remaining. We’re going to walk through the marsh and woods for a ways. Some of these marshes are salt marshes, which are unique habitats where salt water plants and animals can live. If you want a peek under the water, the nature center even has two 700-gallon aquariums.
This is also a great place if you love bird watching, as it’s one of the Audubon Society’s sanctuaries. Some of their five miles of trails were here in 1962 when the sanctuary was much smaller. It was originally privately owned and known as the Austin Ornithological Research Station, which was founded in 1928. The site was purchased in 1958 by the Massachusetts Audubon Society and renamed, and expanded over the years. Let's cross the old bridge on Goose Pond Trail and head out to one of the beaches. I'm sure the bridge has been replaced since 1962, but this is what it looked like back then. We probably won’t see many animals; I seldom do when hiking. But if you come in the evening or morning you’ll increase your chances. Oh, be careful about tides on some trails because they could be under water during high tide!
Just south of the sanctuary is the Wellfleet Drive-In Theater. If we were staying near Wellfleet, we could stop in tonight. This drive-in has been here since 1957, so we could have seen a movie in 1962! Though the sound system has been updated, some of the parking spots still have the original Mono speakers for nostalgic listening pleasure. The business has grown over the years, with a four screen movie theater, restaurant, and mini-golf. I love miniature golf and even owned a portable mini-golf business once. That’s another story, but right now, let’s play a round. It’s a 1961 vintage 18-hole course with the original obstacles, so how could I resist!
After a our golf game and a soft-serve ice cream, let’s head across the cape to the Atlantic Ocean side. At the Marconi Station Site in the National Seashore is a building that was the US end of the first two-way transatlantic radio broadcasting link. The towers there were built in 1901 by radio pioneer Guglieimo Marconi and that first broadcast between the United States and England was made in 1903. Marconi chose this location because of the emptiness of this surrounding land overlooking the ocean. He made quite a media event out of the broadcast and radio was off and running! The impact of radio at a time when telegraph was the only long distance communication was as important as the first satellite television transmission, which occurred in 1962 using the Telstar satellite. Close by, Marconi Beach is a pleasant walk. The sand cliffs along the beach rise 40 feet, giving the beach a secluded feeling.
I’d like to make a short stop at the Salt Pond Visitor Center, which marks the end of Cape Cod National Seashore, but it wasn’t here in 1962. Instead, we’ll stop right across the street to see the Old Eastham Windmill, which has been in Eastham since 1793. This is probably the oldest building we’ll see on this trip. It was originally built by Thomas Paine in 1680, over in Plymouth, but moved twice to get here. It’s the oldest working windmill on Cape Cod. Wind power is a natural on the coast, just as it is in Holland, where we usually think of windmills. This was built on those Dutch models, after all, the Pilgrims spent several years in Holland before coming to America, and so brought ideas from there with them. It’s an operating grist mill and I’d buy a sack of pancake flour, but I won’t have anyplace to make pancakes for the next few weeks on the road!
As we approach Orleans, Massachusetts, we hit the beginning of the Mid-Cape Highway, our first freeway of the trip. This parkway out Cape Cod was built between 1950 and 1959, so by 1962 it was still mostly brand new. Part was only 2 lanes until 1971, but all the bridges and interchanges were constructed earlier. The farthest east section is still only 2 lanes, despite it having a high head-on accident rate. The Mid-Cape Highway is now US-6, but before it was completed, we would have driven through many small town along the north side of the cape. The old road is now known as MA-6A. Because the parkway runs about down the middle of the cape, all of the towns along the way fall within our 5 mile limit…very handy for sight-seeing! Today the parkway is hidden in a pitch pine forest, but that forest wasn’t as well grown back in 1962 and you could see the ocean from more places. Today, to get to the small towns and attractions in the area, we’ll be exiting off of this parkway occasionally, and even driving some of the old road.
One more piece of history to see before it’s too late today: the French Cable Station Museum. Just past the end of the National Seashore, in Orleans, is the building that was the American terminal for a telegraph cable from France. This station began operation in 1892 and the cable was almost 3200 miles long. Hmmm, that’s shorter than our trip on US-6 will be. Anyway, this telegraph line was in operation until 1959. Within a few years, satellite transmissions made such cables obsolete. We couldn’t have seen either an operating telegraph or the museum in 1962, because the museum didn’t open until 1972.
If you come early enough in the spring, you should drive a few miles west on old US-6 to Brewster, Massachusetts. The creek at the Stony Brook Grist Mill has a magnificent herring run as soon as the water gets warmer. Herring, a small fish, return to creeks all up and down the cape each spring to spawn, similar to the smelt in Lake Huron in Michigan. Since at least 2003, researchers have noted a steep decline in the number of herring. To rebuild the stock, Massachusetts has prohibited fishing for herring or alewives until further notice.
Well, night must come sometime, so it’s time to find a motel and dinner. There are several older motels that look good in the Chatham area, on the south side of the cape. Some, like the Surfside Motor Inn or the Chatham Motel, are near a public beach. For dinner, I think I’ll try Pate’s. They’ve been here since 1957, serving steaks, prime rib, lamb chops, and fresh local seafood. After dinner, a wonderful way to end the day is listening to the surf and watching a campfire on the beach. You’ll have to inquire as to which beaches allow fires, because only a few do. Regulations may change from time-to-time. But if you can find one, as I did, it’s a memorable experience. See you tomorrow for more of Cape Cod on Roadtrip-'62 ™ .
All photos by the author and Copyright © 2012, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne, except as noted.
All other content Copyright © 2012, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne.