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20 Things You Didn't Know About Provincetown

Student Work Insider Guides
by Sofia Neilsen Sep 30, 2015

1. You can keep whatever treasures you find from a shipwreck.

“Finders, keepers” is how Provincetown rules in the event of shipwreck booty. Often when a boat crashed in the harbor, sometimes infamously referred to as “the graveyard of the Atlantic,” people would stick around to hunt for treasures or find wood for building houses. The law still holds true today, even if the original owner or company is obvious.

2. Provincetown is the gayest town in the US per capita according to the US census.

Historically, Provincetown has been a haven for the LGBTQIA+ community for many decades. It is no wonder people make annual trips or buy homes in the place considered the “last gay resort.” The place radiates with palpable pride, community, and a deep appreciation for diversity. Provincetown holds a promise that people can be whatever they want to be here while giving individuals the space to find out exactly what that means.

3. Some claim Provincetown is haunted.

Locals whisper about a ghost train that howls through the town every so often. Like all old towns, Provincetown is home to many ghost stories involving the restless souls of pirates, Pilgrims, and more. You can learn more about these tales about serial killers to murder aboard the Mayflower through Provincetown Ghost Tours.

4. The Mayflower first came to Provincetown, not Plymouth.

Provincetown is referred to as “America’s First Destination.” Contrary to what you may have been told, the Mayflower did not first land in Plymouth. Only after signing the Mayflower Compact, the country’s first democratic document, did they move on to Plymouth five weeks after landing in search of better water and soil. In 2020, the town will celebrate the 400-year anniversary of the historic landing. According to the Executive Director at the Pilgrim Monument, only 10% of people who first come to Provincetown know about the Pilgrim’s history here.

5. Less than 3,000 residents stay through the winter season.

In the summer the town population can swell to as many as 90,000 people during popular weeks. Few, however, stay through the winter as full-time residents. Winter is a great time to go on an artist retreat or see the quieter side of the town.

6. Well-known for its dark whaling history, Provincetown was also the first to start whale watch tours.

Provincetown, along with New Bedford and Nantucket, was once one of the hubs for hunting whales. Now it has shifted its focus to research and conservation efforts. The Whale Watch Dolphin Fleet hosted New England’s first whale watch tour in 1975. They are the only whale watching company on the continent that funds their research entirely from ticket prices. The Dolphin Fleet still provides tours where you can catch glimpses of Humpback, Finback, Minke, and Long-Finned Pilot Whales.

7. Volunteers run the town’s fire department.

There are six firehouses to try and prevent major fires from burning down the entire town made up of 1800’s wood frame buildings. Fire fighters receive a small stipend for their efforts, collected from two yearly fundraises. To get by they must juggle other responsibilities and jobs in town. As one man told me, “I know a firefighter who is also my electrician.”

8. Despite the relaxing aura of the town, most locals work 2-4 jobs during the summer.

Many people report that the minute they step off the ferry they feel an overwhelming sense of relaxation. This experience is only possible because a handful of people run between shifts at the bars to cleaning guesthouses to operating Pedicabs to make it happen.

9. Bobby Wetherbee has played his piano for over 50 years.

One of the best parts of Provincetown is its commitment to tradition and preserving its unique culture. You can count on Bobby Wetherbee, a favorite entertainer, to play sing-along tunes for guests at the iconic Crown & Anchor Central House almost every night at 9:30.

10. The Pilgrim Monument is the tallest granite structure in the US.

The impressive Pilgrim Monument stands on what used to be the location of the first Town Hall before it burned down along with many historical records. In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt sailed into the harbor on his yacht called “the Mayflower” to place the cornerstone. The monument was completed in 1910 and dedicated by President William Howard Taft. Inside the 252-foot, 7.5-inch tower is a combination of 115 steps and 60 ramps to make climbing to the top easier so people can enjoy the panoramic view of Provincetown and Cape Cod Bay. Together with the Provincetown Museum next door, it is also Cape Cod’s oldest non-profit and cultural institution.

11. There is only one traffic light in town.

The only red light you’ll run into is at the intersection of Route 6 and Race Point Road. Route 6, also known as Grand Army of the Republic Highway, is one of the oldest and longest transcontinental highways. When Commercial Street gets busy, you’ll see people in yellow jackets manually directing traffic.

12. Many famous artists have lived in Provincetown, and it is the oldest continuing art colony in the US.

Lured in by the creative atmosphere, breathtaking colors and scenic landscapes, artists and writers from all over the world have come to work in Provincetown. The charm of Provincetown has drawn in Mary Oliver, Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz, Louise Bryant, Jack Kerouac, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Hawthorne, Jackson Pollock, Michael Cunningham, Norman Mailer, Max Bohm, and more. Provincetown is also the birthplace of modern American theater thanks to Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. You can still be an artist in residence in Provincetown through the Fine Arts Work Center or by staying in a dune shack with the Provincetown Community Compact.

13. Provincetown is covered in an Asian shrub called Rosa rugosa because of years of shipwrecks on the Cape.

Colloquially known as Rugosa rose, this perennial plant was once kept on ships because it was rich in vitamins for sailors to eat. Due to years of shipwrecks, the plant, often referred to as a noxious weed, has now invaded the shores with blooming red and white roses.

14. There’s a major obsession with gardens here.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a group of people more interested in being green or spending time in the garden than the residents of Provincetown. Locals show off the town’s beauty and appeal to senses like smell and sight by planting gardens plump with purple hydrangea and pink English roses. Don’t forget to check out the B-Street Garden open to the community.

15. A few houses known as “Floaters” were literally floated across the harbor to a new location in town.

If you spot a blue boat plaque on a few select buildings in the West End of Provincetown, you know you are looking at an original Floater. These fishermen’s homes were constructed starting in 1818 on Long Point until the fishing spot dried up. Rebuilding their homes was out of the question since wood was scarce and precious, so they floated their houses over on rafts into town where they still stand today.

16. Water disappears on Commercial Street after it rains.

Few people know that amidst all of the fun and chaos of Commercial Street that the actual road is pervious. The street absorbs the water to prevent erosion since Provincetown is built on sand.

17. The Cape was created when a two-mile tall glacier melted.

Around 25,000 years ago a massive continental ice sheet called Laurentide advanced and retreated to cause the sea level to rise and to push rock and drift deposits in the shape of the crooked arm we associate with Cape Cod. Erosion is a massive and continual threat to this iconic landmark.

18. The locals are into clamming.

While tourists soak up the sun on Herring Cove Beach or sit in fancy restaurants eating lobster rolls, the locals are out in the sand with rakes to hunt for clams. You have to be in the know and connected with the right people to pull this off well, and sometimes it requires a license.

19. One of the most recent controversial topics in the town was fought over a bit of green paint.

Everyone had an opinion about the green tourist walking line painted down Commercial Street linking the art galleries in east Provincetown. After extensive debate the town eventually ruled to paint over it due to aesthetic concerns and arguments about its unfair treatment to galleries on the west side of town. However, if you look close enough at the gravel in the art district, you’ll see they didn’t trouble themselves to cover it up too well.

20. Provincetown was once known as Hell Town.

It is unclear whether the name came from the hellish working conditions for fishermen or from the pirates and other unorthodox groups of people who lived here free from Puritan rules. Perhaps coincidently, Provincetown does have over 300 delightful varieties of Vodka according to Provincetown Trolley, Inc.

[This piece was produced in partnership with the Provincetown Tourism Office]

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