Forgotten History: The Story of Hyannis Port’s Railroad Wharf

Courtesy of Sturgis Library

For much of the last century Hyannis Harbor located inside Lewis Bay has been one of the most important ports on Cape Cod.  It is where countless fishing and pleasure boats dock and is also home to ports of both HyLine and Steamship Authority ferries to the islands.  However did you know that in the decades before Hyannis Harbor’s ascension there was another hub for travel in Hyannis located only a few short miles away on Nantucket Sound?  This is the story of Hyannis Port’s Railroad Wharf.

This area had been seen of importance in the years prior as the diminutive Hyannis Harbor Lighthouse had been built on the shore in May 1849.  It was to aid ships heading toward Lewis Bay and to help them avoid dangerous shoals just offshore.  However in 1854 the Old Colony Railroad line made its way to Hyannis having previously ended in Sandwich.  In September of that year a wharf was constructed just east of present-day Keyes Beach and Old Colony extended its tracks to the water in order to connect the railroad with passenger and shipping vessels.  It made Hyannis Port Harbor among the most important on the Cape.

The new port was particularly good news for Nantucket as previously the island had been sending ships to New Bedford and many islanders had been lobbying for a closer shipping route for years.  The new wharf in Hyannis shortened the distance traveled from nearly eighty nautical miles when sailing to New Bedford to roughly twenty-five miles.  The first vessel to make the journey was the steamer ‘Telegraph’ run by the Nantucket Steamboat Company which docked at Railroad Wharf on September 26, 1854.           

More and more vessels would begin to use the wharf with passenger vessels arriving from both Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and it became a busy port in short order.

An increase in activity at the wharf led to a general store being built in 1867 by Allen Bearse selling corn, flour, and oats among other necessities while also advertising a direct line of shipping to New York City.  The next few years were quite prosperous for the railroad station and businesses surrounding it.  However things changed dramatically in 1871.  It was on September 8, 1871 that a plan was announced to create a new rail line from the Buzzards Bay end of the Cape Cod Canal down to Woods Hole.  The new railroad station in Woods Hole opened in July 1872 with the first train arriving on July 18.  What this meant was that there was another option for ferries arriving from the islands, specifically Martha’s Vineyard which lay less than four miles from Woods Hole.  The new railroad station siphoned off a good amount of the passenger ferry business from the Hyannis Port station.

Still the railroad wharf at Hyannis Port would see a continued stream of shipping vessels throughout the remainder of the 19th century mainly delivering coal, lumber, and fish.  The general store would change hands in 1882, being run by Timothy Crocker and his sons until ultimately closing in October 1904.  In August 1884 a request for a lighthouse at the end of the wharf was put into motion.  The wooden tower was erected in 1885 although it had to be almost entirely rebuilt the following year due to the fact that its exposure to storms frequently left its beacon extinguished.  Another problem came from the fact that empty railroad cars would be parked at the end of the wharf, effectively blocking the lighthouse from view.  This was an issue that lighthouse keepers Alonzo Lothrop and later John Peak had to battle with railway personnel repeatedly about until said cars would be moved.

A closeup of one of the old wharf pylons – Chris Setterlund Photo

In 1893 the Old Colony Railroad became a part of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad.  By the turn of the 20th century things were being planned to try to revamp the declining railroad wharf.  These included the possibility of reopening a line of passenger vessels to Nantucket, the opening of a cold storage plant on the premises, and erecting a 1,000 gallon fuel storage tank.  In October 1925, in conjunction with a new railroad station being built in downtown Hyannis, the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad Co. made plans to rebuild the deteriorating Hyannis Port wharf and deepen the channel around it, making it possible for larger steamships to dock there.  The potential of big New York passenger vessels landing gave hope that the wharf could maintain its usefulness.

Unfortunately all of the grand plans did not happen.  Though it was purportedly a hot spot for illegal alcohol smuggling during Prohibition, and saw a brief period of a few weeks where a whaling ship docked at the wharf and was run as a nightclub in 1928.  The burgeoning popularity of the inner harbor of Lewis Bay at Hyannis made the Hyannis Port wharf increasingly obsolete.  In 1931 the railroad wharf was officially decommissioned.  The wharf would continue to deteriorate, with any remaining buildings on the premises being used for storage.  Hopes for a second life for the wharf were dashed when the 1.2-mile rail line between downtown Hyannis and the wharf was abandoned in 1937.

The remains of the Hyannis Port railroad wharf today – Chris Setterlund Photo

In September 1936 David McCargo, a summer resident of Hyannis, purchased the home where Hyannis Harbor Lighthouse resided.  He would purchase the abandoned railroad wharf as well as the former railroad right-of-way in August 1938.  The wharf was disassembled.  By the early 1960’s the increase in overall population and the popularity of Hyannis as a destination led to a new traffic plan being devised by the newly created Hyannis Traffic Committee, led by Roland Pihl.  One recommendation involved the former rail line which had led to the wharf.  In early 1965 the Town of Barnstable purchased the short spur of land for $34,000 ($276,000 in 2019) and construction began on what would become Old Colony Road.

Today Hyannis’ inner harbor is one of the most important on Cape Cod.  Though it has been more than a century since its peak as a viable port the wharf at Hyannis Port is still a visible piece of the Cape’s history.  It only take a short walk east from Keyes Beach where one can see some of the stumps of the deteriorated pylons of a once proud wharf which stretched out into Nantucket Sound.  Turn around and there is the diminutive Hyannis Harbor Lighthouse standing on the bluff.  The Front Range Light which stood on the wharf is long since gone yet its smaller brother maintains its watch.  It is possible to close one’s eyes and imagine the time when that spot used to be one of the bustling ports of a bygone generation.  

By Christopher Setterlund
737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
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