Long Point’s Floater Houses
by Don Wilding
On a peninsula loaded with solitary stretches of sand, none may be more desolate than Long Point in Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod. But as the July 28, 1943, edition of the Provincetown Advocate described it, Long Point was a very different place two centuries ago.
“As one sat on the silent shore of Long Point, it was hard to believe that once 38 families had their permanent homes here,” the paper’s editorial said before describing the beach’s thriving salt works and fishing community. “It is even harder to believe that, house by house, every building was moved on scows across the harbor to Provincetown.”
Several of those structures, constructed between 1818 and the 1850s, are still standing today, many in the town’s West End. Twenty-eight houses, referred to as “floaters,” are marked by plaques created in the 1970s by Claude Jensen for the Provincetown Historical Association. The plaques depict the image of a houseboat with Long Point Light in the background. How many of these houses are legitimate “floaters” has been disputed over the years; it was said that Jensen didn’t require much in the way of proof from those requesting plaques.
In 1902, the Barnstable Patriot recalled how reporter Marjery Daw described the house-moving process during the 1850s: “Two scows were placed in position at high water opposite the house to be moved. At low water, the house was skidded on to the scows and on the rise of the tide was rowed over to a position opposite the new location and at low water was moved over ways, laid from the scows, to its new position.”
The houses were also occupied during this move. “The people were right in the houses and couldn’t care less,” recalled Grace Collinson for the “Living History” series for Provincetown City Spirit in 1975. “They would stir their soup and go on knitting while they rode across the harbor.”
One of those buildings was Long Point’s bake shop, which found a new home on Commercial Street in the West End. A 1954 article in the New Beacon newspaper noted that Saturday, the only off-day for the community’s fishermen, was also baking day. The baking process went on, with the smoke curling from the chimneys on the cross-harbor journey.
John Atwood built the first building on Long Point in November 1818, according to the 1890 book Provincetown by Herman A. Jennings, followed by Prince Freeman and Eldridge Smith. Prince Freeman Jr. was the first child born on Long Point in 1822. The first lighthouse was constructed in 1826.
Long Point was also a prime location for fishing in a town that was drawing fishermen from all over Cape Cod. By the 1850s, 32 homes, 20 stores, and 3 saltworks were located on the narrow three-mile stretch between Long Point and Wood End Lights.
It wasn’t until 1846 that a schoolhouse was constructed. Prior to that, classes were held in the lighthouse. After the schoolhouse was floated away, it became the Provincetown Post Office for a while.
“It was an exciting neighborhood to live in,” Josef Berger wrote in his book Cape Cod Pilot. “Children who might have been afraid of dogs elsewhere, here ran from the sharks.”
By the late 1850s, the Long Point community began to shift back to the center of Provincetown. Many reasons were given for this sudden exodus. As Provincetown Magazine recalled in 1988, provisions had to be carted in by wagon over four miles of beach or floated in by boat. A discovery of salt deposits in Syracuse, New York, cut down on Provincetown’s own salt business. Perhaps the ever-present problem of erosion and encroaching seas frightened some residents away.
It also could have been the arrival of bluefish in Cape Cod Bay. “The bluefish affected our fishery so much that the population was obliged to leave the place,” Nathaniel Atwood told a U.S./Canadian fisheries commission in 1877.
By the start of the Civil War, only the lighthouse and a few structures remained on the Point. The U.S. government, considering that Provincetown could be vulnerable to attack by Confederate ships, took over the four-mile stretch of beach and constructed two forts, which were never utilized in combat. This earned them the nicknames “Fort Useless” and “Fort Ridiculous.”
Today, Long Point stands alone in its solitude, but its story still lives on. “Perhaps the inhabitants grew tired of sharks sunning themselves on their front lawns; perhaps sea creatures carried off their pet dogs and cats,” the Cape Cod Standard Times quipped in its February 23, 1942, edition. “Whatever the reasons the citizens of Long Point staged a colossal moving day.”