Cape Cod Massachusetts (“the Cape”) is known for it beautiful beaches, stunning coastline, and recreational activities. Having lived in Boston Massachusetts, we have spent a fair amount of time there, exploring its many towns. We like climbing the dunes, exploring the woodlands and marsh areas and exploring the small towns and the area’s rich history. Join us on a brief tour on the “Outer Cape”, from Woods Hole to Provincetown. The most notable of our stops in this area (from south to north) are:
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
The Institute is just one of the world-class research institutes in Woods Hole and is dedicated ocean research, technology and education. We stopped at its Discovery Center. Our visit began with a short film that provided an overview of key ocean environments and some of the work with of the institute. We then walked through a number of educational exhibits.
The Alvin manned submersible vehicle was first created in 1964 and has been continually enhanced and rebuilt into the current version which is cable of carrying three people on 8-10 hour voyages (to depths of up to 15,000 feet, a depth at which the pressure reaches 6,600 pounds per square inch (compared with 14.6 at sea level). The exhibit and docent explain the features of Alvin which enable it to safely reach such depths. A life-sized cutaway of the vehicle’s interior and describes some of its 5,100+ (and counting) missions. These include the first manned exploration and complete mosaic imaging of the Titanic (in 1986) and its exploration and incredible videos of undersea thermal vents whose magna-heated gases reach 700 degrees Fahrenheit and whose 30-foot chimneys support incredible ecosystem of many unique lifeforms.
Additional exhibits includes overviews of:
- The discovery, photographing, and exploration of the Titanic;
- A discussion of the Institute’s Atlantis Research Ship, its role in deploying Alvin and a range of other underwater exploration vehicles including remote controlled explorers and a rapidly growing number of autonomous explorers;
- The autonomous Sharkcam, samples of some of the amazing photos it has taken, and discoveries it has enabled;
- Arctic marine environments including seasonal variations in Arctic and Antarctic ice packs and the ecosystems of the polar seas (beginning with algae, salps and krill);
- Ocean’s Twilight zones (from about 200-1000 meters deep depending on clarity and visibility) which plays a critical role in storing and circulating carbon dioxide, most of which would otherwise go into the atmosphere and stratosphere;
- The role of coral reefs as a marine nursery and food source and the potential of ocean farming;
- The impacts of algae blooms and global warming; and
- The rapid decline in the population of Right Whales.
The center explains that a University of Chicago professor created the laboratory that is dedicated to scientific discover. MBL researches marine ecosystems, climate changes, biodiversity of the seas, the examinations of marine life from single-celled organisms to complex creature, and what humans can learn from these organisms. It provides a timeline of some of the lab’s most important discoveries and awards (including Nobel Prizes) and provides examples of how some of the laboratory’s discoveries have benefited humans, as with its:
- Discovery of a form of bacteria that led to the development of a device that tests for bio-contaminants;
- Leveraging of research into squid nervous systems to create treatments for diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s; and
- Determination as to how to use jellyfish glow proteins to light up human cells to diagnose conditions such as cancer and AIDS.
Hyannis, the largest of the Cape’s many towns and central transport hub is a Kennedy town—and especially a JFK town. The Kennedy’s began vacationing at Hyannis in 1928 and bought the house around which the Kennedy Compound would be built soon after. The town is filled with multiple John F. Kennedy memorials.
Don’t confuse this as the official John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston) which can take hours to explore. You can visit this condensed version on Kennedy’s life in a short time frame.
The Hyannis Museum shows pictures of and briefly discusses the Kennedy’s history as a child, summers in Hyannis, his school and Navy years, the entire family’s involvement in his campaign’s for the House (1946), the Senate (1952) and the Presidency (1960). It talks about his engagement and marriage to Jackie, as well as Jackie’s life from before they met to her death. His presidential years and legacy is briefly reviewed as his assassination and role of his brothers Bobby and Teddy in his life and their subsequent careers. The Museum also highlights several vignettes from his life including his love of swimming and sailing, his role in saving most of his PT 2109 crew (including one injured sailor whom he towed four miles to safety while grasping the lifejacket straps in his teeth), his two books (his thesis “As England Slept” and subsequent “Profiles in Courage”) and more. On display was a loan of one of his famous rocking chairs that he used due to his back issues.
And if the Museum wasn’t enough about JFK, take the ten-stop (1.6 mile) self-guided Kennedy Legacy Trail that includes stops at the church he attended, the spot where he gave his acceptance speech, the Peace Corps Monument, and so forth.
Hyannis Artist Shanties
While walking around the town, stop at the Hyannis Artist Shanties. These colorful and affordable rental spaces were created as a place for Cape Cod artists to work and sell their art. The artists change weekly so what you saw last week may be different from this week. Although they have multiple locations throughout the Cape, several of these brightly colored shanties are in Hyannis.
If you time it right, you might be in Hyannis during the town’s annual auto show that featured roughly 100 beautifully maintained and restored classic cars. The show had a lot of 1960s-era muscle cars, but also a number of cars from the ‘20s through the ‘50s, with a significant portion having been modified for high-performance, as with quad carbs and air-intakes that rose well above the hood.
The big hit of the show we saw was a 1939 Diamond-T Wrecker. A miniature (roughly four feet high and 10 foot long tow truck) whose body, when at the curb, sat barely an inch off the ground. But, as the owner assured us, once it is started, it is hydraulically lifted to about six inches. Driving, therefore, requires extreme care since the entire truck could disappear into a reasonable-sized city pothole!
The Harbor is almost a destination (in the loosest sense of the word) in its own right with its harborside raw bars and clam bars.
Our visit included a quick ride through to see some of the elegant, old, perfectly restored, 19th-century Captain’s Houses that lined the streets.
A lovely and very popular town at the elbow of the Cape is home to some of the Cape’s largest homes and one of the largest and prettiest downtowns. It has some very nice galleries including the Chatham Fine Arts, ArtNova and Yankee Ingenuity Galleries. During the summer season, the park displays art done by local artists.
The town is also home to the 48-foot Chatham Lighthouse, one of 16 that still operate on the Cape. Chatham Pier, meanwhile, has a viewing platform over the working harbor and a fish market with a great selection of ultra-fresh fish and a popular take-out restaurant at which we had a lunch.
The fascinating museum located in the original operations and receiving station that served as the hub for the world’s first wireless ship-to-shore communications network. Operating from its construction in 1914 through World War II, the museum explains Guglielmo Marconi’s initial work with wireless communications from his initial one-mile transmission through the construction of the Chatham station which managed maritime communications across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean. This station was followed by others in California (which handled the Pacific) and several smaller stations around the world. It, along with a very knowledgeable docent, explained the technology behind radio communications, showed how messages were sent to and from commercial ships (primarily regarding weather, arrival times, docking arrangements, plus occasional emergency messages and subsequent passenger messages).
The U.S. Naval Department took control of and used the station during World War I. After the war, it transferred control to General Electric in 1927 (via its newly created RCA subsidiary) rather than returning control of such a strategic asset to its Italian inventor. This reassumed its control during World War II where it was used, among other things, to intercept German communications with U-Boats, identify U-Boat locations and where possible, sink them.
The exhibits and docent also showed how the technology used Morse code to transmit telegraphed messages and how it worked with Western Union to decipher personal communications, type and tape them onto Western Union paper and deliver them to the recipient.
The museum’s temporary exhibit during our 2023 visit, The Golden Age of Transatlantic Ocean Liners, explained the luxury of mid-20th-century ocean liners and the competition among shipping companies (Cunard, White Star, etc,) and countries (especially England, France, Italy and the United States) to build the largest, safest, fastest and most luxurious ships. It portrayed the luxury that wealthy families and celebrities enjoyed in return for their $365 dollar ($3,700 in current dollars) first-class fares in 1957 and briefly, how immigrants travelled steerage in the lower decks and how the ships were converted into troop carriers during WWII.
Behind the operations center, the Antenna Trail that contains several of the many antennas that occupied the site, including the original mast that Marconi built in 1914.
This pretty town on Cape Cod Bay that has several interesting galleries including Dickerson, Maddocks, Stringe, and Struna. The Lemon Tree Village Shops are home to the Lemon Tree Pottery and of particular interest to us, the Cook Shop which contains a wide variety of interesting and unusual cookware, kitchen utensils, ingredients, condiments, spreads and much more.
The town is also home to the Mansion at Ocean Edge, a renovated version of the 1907 Nickerson Mansion on the foundations of a summer “cottage” built by Samuel Mayo Nickerson, a Chicago banker and railroad magnate and art collector.
Orleans has a small downtown area with some nice shops. The harbor, on the other side of town, is the Cape’s primary charter fishing port.
The Museum provides an interesting complement to Chatham’s Marconi/RCA Wireless Museum. While the Chatham museum explains the history, technology and importance of the first wireless telegraph communications link to ships at sea, the Orleans museum does the same for the first ongoing undersea communications cable that enabled telegraph communications link between the United States and Europe.
Although terrestrial cable-based telegraphy was already well established in the United States (with 23,000 miles of cable) and Europe (more than 20,000 miles) by 1875, underseas cables were limited, unreliable, and short-lived. The first cable between Britain and the US was laid in 1858. A French cable was laid between Europe and Newfoundland Canada in 1869 and extended to Eastham (about 7 miles north of Orleans) in 1879. The 3,000-mile, 1890 French Cable link to Orleans (plus and extension to New York) was the first to provide relatively reliable, long-term service.
This system operated almost continuously from 1900-1959, other than from 1940-1952 after the German Army invaded France. During this time it was used to send financial information, marine weather forecasts, diplomatic correspondence, news such as of Lindbergh’s landing in Paris and even communications between the Defense Department and U.S. commanders in France during World War I. The Germans thought the cable to be so important that they launched a submarine attack (unsuccessful) that was thought to target the cable.
The tour pointed out the challenges of creating and maintaining service became evident during a tour of the Orleans operations center, including those of:
- Creating a cable that was strong enough to withstand the unseen hazards of underseas terrain, pressures, and currents at depths of two to three miles beneath the surface;
- Compensating for the signal loss associated with transmitting electrical signals through salt water as by creating and extruding a new insulation material;
- Laying the cable, especially when the ships of the time could barely accommodate half the 35,000-ton weight of the 3,200-mile cable;
- Identifying the precise locations of inevitable breaks or damages and physically finding the underseas cable, raising it to the surface and repairing it while maintaining sufficient ship stability to avoid further damaging the cable;
- Developing a galvanometer to measure and convert the electrical pulses of dots and dashes into positive and negative charges that could be maintained over the length of the journey;
- Creating a physical siphon-based system to print received electrical signals directly to tape, and subsequently the Kleinschmidt perforator which directly perforated the tape; and
- Improving the efficiency and accuracy of transmissions by upgrading from a half-duplex to a duplex system (to permit the simultaneous transmission and receipt of signals) via a network of “artificial lines”.
Multiple teams of physicists and engineers, as well as large sums of money were required to solve these problems, often in real time. They become so successful that hair-width-sized glass-based fibers and high-speed optical, packet-switched networks now carry previously unimaginable volumes of data at the speed of light. Ninety-five percent of the world’s communications are now carried by cable.
The National Park Service museum at the visitor center outline’s the history of the sandy seashorfalmouthe. It was created by the retreat of a mile-tall glacier at the end of the last Ice Age about 75,000 years ago that left tons of boulders, silt, and sand in its wake. Since then the sand that covers most of the Cape has generally been shifting to the north, gradually eroding the shoreline.
The museum portrays the manned history of the Cape, beginning with the Wampanoag First People about 10,000 years ago. The huge number of whales in the region at the late 16th century initially attracted Europeans to come here. Then came commercial fishing around George’s Bank, an elevated section of the seafloor that separates the Atlantic from the Gulf of Maine that offered some of the most productive fishing grounds in the world.
The whalers were interested in the Cape’s seas rather than its land. They used the land primary to establish temporary camps for butchering the whales that they killed at sea. The bi-products of whales were:
- Whale oil which was used primarily for lamps and lubrication
- Spermaceti from the heads of sperm whales was used in ointments, creams, clean-burning lamps, and candles
- Ambergris was an even more valuable byproduct of undigested squid that was used in perfumes and medicines
- Baleen which was used to stiffen corsets, dress hoops, hat brims, cane handles, etc. and
- Bones for use in creating scrimshaw carvings and engravings during their sea voyages, leaving the remainder to rot on the beach.
Once they processed the whales, they would then return to the sea to catch more whales. In later days, the butchering and boiling was done at sea allowing the ships to remain at sea longer and catch more whales.
In contrast, commercial fishermen were more likely to establish permanent settlements, returning to the same nearby fishing grounds over and over, creating saltworks to preserve the fish and building villages. These villages, in turn, also needed food. Farms sprang up around settlements which grew into towns. Towns required homes, most of which took the form of one of three basic styles of inexpensive, easy-to-built and sturdy Cape Cod Style homes—homes that could be easily expanded as needed. More wealthy merchants and whaling captains and financiers built more substantial homes furnished with Victorian-era furniture and conveniences. Towns, meanwhile, built churches, meetinghouses, schools (establishing mandatory school taxes from the mid-17th-century to pay for free schools).
The museum also highlighted the evolution how they dealt with the area’s many shipwrecks. In the early days. Survivors were generally on their own, surviving by fending or themselves until they could find a neighboring family willing to feed them and provide shelter. By the 19th century towns had established rescue stations and teams to helping survivors and build networks of lighthouses and buoys to warn ships of dangerous waters.
We then explored a nearby salt pond and surrounding dunes before heading further up the Cape to the next town.
This well-to-do tourist town has a pretty harbor and is the home to ships that harvest the region’s eponymous oysters. Most interestingly, many of the town’s winding, tree-line streets wind their way around a number of pretty ponds and marshes, which makes it one of the most naturally pretty towns on the Cape.
This small summer resort community is set along the coast, surrounded by the picturesque dunes of the National Seashore. The National Park Service owns/manages more than half the town’s land. Truro became an artist community, popularized by Edward Hopper whose style of realistic buildings and isolated stretches of the region’s landscape, is in evidence at several of the region’s galleries and art museums.
We find P-town, as it is often called, to be the most interesting and fun town on the Cape. Located at the northern tip of the Cape, it is the Cape’s largest town (2,500 permanent residents), one of the country’s largest gay resorts. It is where the Pilgrim’s first stopped in 1640 and signed the Mayflower Compact which established the governing rules of their New World settlement (at present-day Plymouth, MA). Their stop is commemorated by the 252-foot tall Pilgrim Monument.
The Provincetown Museum portrays the lives of the Wampanoag, the Pilgrim’s arrival, the town’s role as a whaling base, and as a Portuguese fishing settlement.
The town may have died or stagnated after an 1898 gale devastated the nearby whaling and fishing grounds. But the area’s dramatic scenery began to attract artists, and P-town developed into an artist community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The natural attractions that appealed to artists, combined with the Cape’s moderate summer weather with miles of swimming beaches, opportunities for fishing and whale watching, and easy access from Boston (by ferry, plane, and land) established P-town as the largest base for upper Cape travel. It began attracting large number of gay visitors in mid-20th century. Although straight tourists are certainly in evidence, the city, its beaches, restaurants, inns, bars and cabarets etc. are overwhelmingly dominated by gays—especially gay men. The overly gay lifestyle, however, has not deterred either the artists or the tourists. It has, in fact, attracted more of them.
A number of shops, such as clothes stores, galleries and erotica shops focus largely on gay audiences. Toys of Eros, one of the town’s several erotica and sexual aid shops, doubled as something of a sex museum with interesting historic displays and panels explaining how many legitimate doctors, from Hippocrates (5th century BCE) the father of Modern Medicine, though the early 20th century, viewed a wide variety of women ailments as being attributable to the womb. The preferred treatment—stimulation of the clitoris (with streams of water, massage and later, electric vibrators) until the woman’s “convulsions” signaled that the infection had been expunged. Male masturbation, by contrast, had been labeled as a sin and a cause of everything from blindness to epilepsy and insanity. As recently as the 1950s it thought to be the cause of up to 60 percent of male insanity and “treated” by techniques such as embedding painful silver threads beneath the foreskin. “Medicine” can be so biased and unfair!
Much of the city’s entertainment is also influenced by gays and performed by gay singers and especially transvestite performance artists. The town is known for the dozens of drag shows which we visit each time we spend a night in the town. This trip’s show featured New York-based drag artist Paige Turner. (See our Cape Cod Restaurant and Entertainment post.)