The Town of Provincetown was incorporated in 1727, but its history begins much earlier since its well protected harbor offered excellent protection from storms. The European explorer Gosnold recorded a stop in Provincetown as early as 1602 and the harbor was the site of the first landing of the Mayflower. The Pilgrims signed the Mayflower compact in the harbor, to codify the way in which they were going to administer the new colony they intended to establish.
Although rich fishing grounds resulted in the seasonal leasing of fisheries with licenses granted for bass, mackerel and cod fishing, the first permanent settlement didn't take place until 1700. Provincetown grew very slowly during the 18th century and its population fluctuated with the price of fish. Farming was of secondary importance and aside from the fishing industry, there were only some salt works and one mill. After the American Revolution, the town boomed and its population rose 276.6% between 1790 and 1830.
Despite its relative lack of good farmland, by the middle of the 19th century, Provincetown had developed as the prime maritime, fishing and commercial center of the Cape. The Civil War, which destroyed so much New England business, only provided more markets for Provincetown's fish. Portuguese sailors, picked up by American ships in the Azores and Cape Verde Islands to fill out their crews, came to Provincetown to live, and additional Portuguese immigrants had moved to town by the 19th century to work on the whaling boats and coastal fishing vessels. In 1875, there were 25 coastwise and 36 ocean vessels operating in town, more than any community in the state including Boston.
Provincetown was a bustling place with all of the ancillary maritime businesses operating, such as ship chandlers, shipwrights, sail makers, caulkers, riggers, and blacksmiths. Today, the wealth of preserved historic buildings combines with the lure of the sea to support a huge tourist and summer home industry.
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Provincetown Beach Information
Provincetown is unique in that it has no real town beaches--and thus, there is no such thing as a Provincetown beach sticker. The two main beaches here are part of the National Seashore: Herring Cove and Race Point. The waters are warmer and calmer at Herring Cove, but sun worshipers often prefer Race Point since it faces north and gets sun all day long. Still, everyone agrees that the sunsets at Herring Cove are unparalleled on the entire Cape since the sun actually seems to set into the ocean, unusual for the east coast. National Seashore beaches have lifeguards, full restrooms, and outdoor showers.
The Harbor Beach, running parallel to Commercial Street alongside the bay, is ideal for those more interested in a walk at water's edge than a swim. There's no beach lot per se, but the closest parking is the town lot at MacMillan Wharf, which has hourly rates. There are also various town landings along the length of Commercial Street that give beach access.
If you really want to get away from it all, head for the very tip of Cape Cod: Long Point, where Long Point Lighthouse signals the entrance to Provincetown's busy harbor. You can get there by two routes, one by land, the other by sea. Walk across the breakwater at the western end of Commercial Street adjacent to the Provincetown Inn. It's a delightful walk, about two hours--but it seems like the walk back is longer. Or, hop aboard a water shuttle from Flyer's Boat Yard at 131 A Commercial Street, (508) 487-0898. The shuttle leaves every hour or so, with the last return around 5 PM, and costs $7 one way, $10 round trip.
Hatches Harbor, off Herring Cove, is a natural harbor reachable only two ways: either by a long walk along Herring Cove Beach or by a short drive with a four-wheel-drive vehicle over the sand. Its remoteness makes Hatches a perfect spot for those seeking solitude. On any given day, there's usually just a handful of visitors, most of them townies picnicking or fishing from their four-wheel-drive vehicles. The area surrounding Hatches Harbor was once home to early fishing settlements. Race Point Lighthouse is nearby, adjacent to the newly renovated light-keepers house, which is now reserved as a retreat for ecologists, scientists, and artists.