When bird dung, aka guano, powered Falmouth’s economy
There is a common refrain among Cape Cod locals that (during the summer months at least) no one wants to have to drive “over the bridge.” So it is all the more impressive to realize that 160 years ago, local ship captains typically ventured to the far side of the globe. Sometimes their mission was, in retrospect, surprising, even bizarre --- for example, to mine bird dung and bring it back to Woods Hole.
The Quechuan word for bird dung is guano, and it is naturally high in nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, making it a very effective plant fertilizer. Given that Cape Cod in the nineteenth century was both an agricultural and a shipping powerhouse, these two industries melded into The Pacific Guano Company, founded in Woods Hole in 1859.
Located on the neck that is now tony Penzance Point, the guano processing and fertilizer production factory was the brainchild of the well-established Crowell and Shiverick families. Asa Shiverick and his three sons had been building brigs, schooners, and clipper ships at their Dennis shipyard since the 1820s, but by the late 1850s, international trade was becoming more challenging.
“The Shivericks came to Woods Hole at a time when they were searching for cargo for their ships,” says Susan Witzell, archivist for the Woods Hole Historical Museum. “That’s when they got into the guano business.”
The harbor had already been a bustling center of commerce, specifically the whaling industry, since the early part of the nineteenth century. Elijah Swift of Falmouth built a commercial wharf and shipyard and incorporated them as the Bar Neck Wharf Company (named for the era’s more common moniker for Woods Hole, “Bar Neck”). At the whaling industry’s height, nine whaling ships were making port at Woods Hole and the town prospered. Successful whaling supported port-side industries such as whale oil processing, ship supplying and outfitting. The stone “Candle House” (circa 1828) was built to make whale oil into spermaceti wax candles, and the structure is still in existence, currently housing administrative offices for the Marine Biological Laboratory.
“Woods Hole had many coopers, whaleboat makers, and other craftsmen,” says Witzell. And when the Civil War brought sea blockades to the Eastern shore, some entrepreneurial Woods Hole captains relocated.
“After Atlantic whaling ended, around the time of the Civil War, the industry moved to the Pacific,” she says. “A couple of local whaling captains, including Eliel Fish, worked out of the Pacific Northwest, keeping their ships in harbors like San Francisco’s, and when possible came home to visit their families here on Cape Cod.”
It was right around this time when the Crowells and the Shivericks, looking for any cargo to make the return voyages of their ships profitable, turned to some Boston businessmen to invest capital, and opened a company to import guano from Pacific islands and turn it into fertilizer. “The two industries overlapped in time but not space. They occupied two separate lobes of the harbor in Woods Hole,” says Witzell. While whaling was centered where Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is now located, the guano factory was erected on the far side of Great Harbor.
The newly formed company took full advantage of the remarkable language of the Guano Islands Act (passed in 1856 by Congress at the urging of American agriculture interests) that stated:
“Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other Government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other Government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.”
The Pacific Guano Company gained control of Howland Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about 1,800 miles southwest of Hawaii. While construction began on docks and processing facilities in Woods Hole, they sent up to 33 ships to Howland to bring back guano.
Around 200 men, mostly Irish immigrants, were employed to pulverize the harvested guano rock and enrich it with locally caught menhaden, from which the oil had been stripped. “Azariah Crowell was the chief chemist for the company,” says Witzell, “and he and Isiah Spindle also did a lot weir fishing, which was very popular around here in the late 1800s.”
The plant also included an acid works where they produced sulphuric acid made from sulphur imported from Sicily. This acid “digested” the fish and the resulting fish/phosphate mixture was washed, dried and packed as fertilizer into 200-pound bags. In addition to the laborers, the company employed local fishermen as harbor pilots, ran a general store, and convinced the Old Colony Railroad to extend a spur down to the harbor to transport their finished product to the rest of the country.
When they had drained Howland Island of its guano deposits, the Pacific Guano Company acquired titles to Chisholm’s Island near South Carolina and several small islands off the coast of Honduras to continue production.
In 1875 the company was invited to showcase at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, planned for the following year to celebrate 100 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Citing the combination of “pogy scrap with the South Carolina phosphates, guanos of the West Indies and of the Pacific … being especially an American industry, and eminently worthy of full appreciation,” Spencer Baird, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and first US Fisheries Commissioner, urged them to participate. The Pacific Guano Company’s opulent and Asian-influenced pavilion proved a big hit at what was the first official World’s Fair.
While the company’s owners were pleased with their success, most townspeople who didn’t have a financial interest in the plant disliked the factory’s offensive stench. The general populace was most likely relieved when, after the world’s guano eventually was mined out and large deposits of land-based nitrates were discovered to replace them, the Pacific Guano Company went bankrupt and closed in 1889.
The abandoned factory was eventually torn down and the area developed by (an unrelated) Crowell, Horace Crowell of Boston, into an exclusive residential area. This new development reflected the growing popularity of Cape Cod, and the peninsula remains to this day an enclave of beautiful homes with stunning ocean views.
History has also provided some of the residents with a surprising benefit.
“I’ve met one of the owners of a house that sits on the previous site of the factory,” says Witzell, “and she has the most beautiful gardens. Really they are best gardens on Penzance. She acknowledges she must be getting a lot of help from all that buried fertilizer.”