Unsupported Browser Detected

Internet Explorer lacks support for the features of this website. For the best experience, please use a modern browser such as Chrome, Firefox, or Edge.

Woods Hole: The Early Years

NOAA Fisheries started in 1871 in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. This quick history of Woods Hole and the early days of the Fisheries starts long before that, when in 1602 Bartholomew Gosnold first landed here.

Original lab building.

Part of the History of NOAA Fisheries in the Northeast

Adapted from The Story of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts (text) by Paul S. Galtsoff

The Beginning (1602-1815)

Woods Hole's beginning dates back to the early 17th century. Five years before the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia and 18 years before the Pilgrims landed at Provincetown and Plymouth, Bartholomew Gosnold coasted along Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard. On about May 31, 1602, he is believed to have landed at what is now known as Woods Hole. The Town of Falmouth, of which Woods Hole is now a part, was first settled in 1659-61 when several people were granted permission to purchase land. The date of the settlement of Woods Hole took place 17 years later.

The Town of Falmouth was incorporated on June 4, 1686, and called Succonessett, the name which later—probably in 1694—was changed to Falmouth. On July 23, 1677, the land around Woods Hole's Little Harbor was divided among the 13 settlers in "lots of 60 acres upland to a share." An "Indian deed" confirming the land title was signed by Job Notantico on July 15, 1679.

Fishing, hunting, and sheep breeding were the principal occupations of the early settlers and their descendants. Later, they built a grist mill and made salt by solar evaporation of sea water in pans built along the banks of Little Harbor.

Woods Hole and the Whaling Industry (1815-1860)

These quiet, rural conditions continued until about 1815, when the U.S. whaling industry became a very profitable business. In 1854, the total receipts for the American whaling fleet amounted to $10.8 million; most of this came from Massachusetts whaling activities. Woods Hole participated in these activities as an important whaling station and prospered.

Between 1815 and 1860, nine whaling ships made port at the Bar Neck wharf, where the U.S. Navy building of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution now stands. The wharf was busy processing oil and whalebone and outfitting ships. A bake house for making sea biscuits for long voyages stood next to the "Old Stone Building," which was built in 1829 as a candle factory. This conspicuous landmark on Water Street of Woods Hole, identified by an appropriate bronze plaque, has since served as a warehouse and more recently as executive and administrative offices for the Marine Biological Laboratory.

About 1860, whaling became less profitable and Woods Hole entered into the second phase of its economic life. This was dominated by the establishment and operation of a new commercial venture known as the Pacific Guano Works.

Pacific Guano Works (1863-1889)

Historic shot of Woods Hole guano works across water

Pacific Guano Works in Woods Hole, late 1800s.

From 1863 to 1889 the life of Woods Hole centered around the Pacific Guano Works plant. It was built at Long Neck near the entrance to what is known now as Penzance Point. Many large sailing vessels carried sulfur from Italy, nitrate of soda from Chile, and potash from Germany. Many schooners under the American flag loaded with guano and phosphorus from the Pacific Coast of South America anchored in Great Harbor waiting for their turn to unload their cargoes.

The number of laborers regularly employed by the guano company varied from 150 to 200 men. They were mostly Irishmen brought in under contract. Several local fishermen found additional employment as pilots for guano ships.

The company maintained a store where various goods such as leather, lead pipe, tin, coal, and wood were bought and sold. The store acted also as a labor housing agency.

Through efforts of the business manager of the guano company, the Old Colony Railroad was persuaded to extend its branch from Monument Beach to Woods Hole. The establishment of well-organized and reliable transportation to Boston was an important factor in the future life of the community.

Howland Island

The Pacific Guano Works was established by the shipping merchants of Boston who were seeking cargo for the return voyage of their ships. The guano deposits of one of the Pacific islands seemed to furnish this opportunity. The joint stock company was organized in 1859 with the capital of $1 million. Arrangements were quickly made for the newly formed concern to possess and control Howland Island, located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

At the same time appropriate plant and docking facilities were built at Woods Hole and 33 large sailing ships became available for hauling guano. Unlike the well-known guano islands off the coast of Peru, Howland Island is located in the zone of abundant rainfall. Consequently, the guano deposits of the island were leached of organic components and consisted of highly concentrated phosphate of lime.

A street map of Woods Hole from 1887

Woods Hole street map, 1887.

The company restored the lost phosphate rock to the fertilizer by adding the right proportion of organic constituents, obtained from menhaden, porgy, and other industrial fish from Cape Cod waters. The rock was pulverized and purified by washing. Fish brought in by local fishermen were first pressed to extract oil, and the residue digested with sulfuric acid, washed, and dried.

Acid was produced locally from sulfur imported from Sicily, and the digestion of fish flesh was carried out in large lead-lined vats. The plant was well equipped with machinery needed for the process and even had a chemical laboratory where chemists made the necessary analyses. Various sheds for storage and drying, barracks for laborers, and a business office completed the facilities.

Swan and Chisolm's Islands

When the deposits of phosphate rock on Howland Island were exhausted, the company acquired title to the Greater and Lesser Swan Islands from the U.S. government. These islands are located in the Caribbean Sea, 97 miles north of Honduras, 400 miles from Key West, Florida, and 500 miles from New Orleans. They contained good-quality phosphate rock and, being much closer to Woods Hole, greatly reduced the voyage time and cost of delivery.

Further expansion of the company consisted in the acquisition of Chisolm's Island near the coast of South Carolina, construction of a plant for cracking and washing phosphate rock on the Ball River side of the island, and establishment of a processing plant in Charleston. From the initial production (in 1865) of 7,540 sacks of fertilizer weighing 200 pounds each, the output reached 11,420 tons in 1871. It continued to grow until the combined annual production in 1879 of the works at Woods Hole and Charleston reached from 40,000 to 45,000 tons of guano fertilizer.

Spencer Baird Arrives

1893 photo of Spencer Baird with his wife and daughter on porch of residence

The Baird family: Spencer Fullerton Baird, wife Mary Churchill Baird (both seated); and daughter Lucy Hunter Baird (standing), on porch of residence building in Woods Hole, 1893.

Spencer Baird, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and first commissioner of the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries arrived in Woods Hole in 1871. Baird was greatly impressed by the idea of using menhaden and other fish for the production of guano fertilizer and considered it a worthwhile project.

In a letter dated October 18, 1875, to John M. Glidden, treasurer of the Pacific Guano Works Company, Baird urged him:

"...make a display of your wares at the centennial (in Philadelphia), as this is one of the most important interests in the United States...there is no species (of fish) worked up elsewhere comparable to the movement with the menhaden, or pogy, as to numbers and the percentage of oil. The combination, too, of the pogy scrap with the South Carolina phosphates and the guanos of the West Indies and of the Pacific are also quite novel, and as being especially an American industry, are eminently worthy of full appreciation." 

The End of the Guano Works

The scientists, agriculturalists, and stockholders of the company thought very highly of the guano works. However, the existence of a malodorous plant was not appreciated by the residents of Woods Hole who suffered from a strongly offensive odor whenever the wind was from the west.

Woods Hole might have continued to grow as one of the factory towns of Massachusetts. Fortunately for the progress of science and good fortune of its residents (except those who invested their savings in the shares of Pacific Guano Works), the company began to decline and became bankrupt in 1889.

Cessation of business and heavy monetary losses brought financial disaster to many residents of Woods Hole. The gloom prevailing in the village began to dissipate with the development of Woods Hole as a place of scientific research and with the increasing tourist trade.

The factory buildings were torn down and the chimney which dominated the Woods Hole landscape was dynamited. More than 100,000 pounds of lead lining the acid chambers were salvaged. Large cement vats and the remnants of the old wharf remained. In the following years the latter became a favored place for summer biologists to collect interesting marine animals and plants.

Woods Hole as a Scientific Center (1871-present)

View from water of first permanent lab in Woods Hole

In 1885 permanent Woods Hole facilities were completed, where the current facilities stand today.

The years from 1871 to the death of Baird in 1887 were the formative period of the new era of Woods Hole as a scientific center.

In historical documents and in old books, the present name Woods Hole is spelled in a different way. The old name "Woods Holl" is considered by some historians of Cape Cod to be a relic of when the Norse peoples visited the coast. "Holl," supposed to be the Norse word for "hill," is found in the old records.

The early settlers gave the name ''Hole" to inlets or to passages between the islands, such as "Robinson's Hole" between Naushon and Pasque Islands, or "Quick's Hole" between Pasque and Nashawena Islands, and Woods' Hole between the mainland and Nonamesset Island. In 1877 the Postmaster General ordered the restoration of the original spelling "Wood's Holl." This remained in force until 1896 when the United States Post Office changed it back to Woods Hole and eliminated the apostrophe in "Wood's." Old timers regretted the change, as did C.O. Whitman, who had given the specific name "hollensis" to some local animals he described.

The Arrival of Spencer Baird (1871)

At the time of his arrival at Woods Hole in 1871, Baird was well known to the scientific circles of this country and abroad. He was a naturalist, a student of classification and distribution of mammals and birds, and as a tireless collector of zoological specimens. He maintained voluminous correspondence with the scientists in the United States and Europe, and was Permanent Secretary of the recently organized American Association for the Advancement of Science.

To the general public he was known as a contributor to a science column in the New York Herald and author of many popular magazine articles. His newly acquired responsibilities as Commissioner of Fisheries greatly added to his duties as Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which was primarily responsible for the establishment of the National Museum in Washington.

As a scientist, Baird belonged to the time of Louis Agassiz, Thomas H. Huxley, and Charles Darwin. Like Agassiz he attended medical college but never completed his studies. The Philadelphia Medical College later conferred the degree of M.D. honoris causa upon him.

In the words of Charles F. Holder, "he was a typical American of the heroic type. A man of many parts, virtues, and intellectual graces, and of all the zoologists science has given the world... he was most prolific in works of practical value to man and humanity."

Woods Hole and the Fishing Industry

Commissioner Baird attended many Congressional hearings and conferences with state officials and fishermen. The attendees discussed the probable causes of the decline of fisheries and suggested corrective measures. From the lengthy and frequently heated discussions and evidence presented by the fishermen and other persons familiar with the fisheries problems, he became convinced that an alarmingly rapid decrease in the catches of fish had continued for the last 15 or 20 years. Such a decline was particularly noticeable in the case of scup, tautog, and sea bass in the waters of Vineyard Sound.

It was logical, therefore, that the new Commissioner of Fisheries would select for his initial activities the New England coastal area. The fishing industry there was of greatest importance as a politico-economical factor. Woods Hole, however, was not a significant fishing center.

In the Fisheries and Fishing Industry of the United States prepared and edited by Goode (1884-87) for the 1880 Census, the fishing activity at Woods Hole is described in the following words:

"Of the male inhabitants only seven are regularly engaged in fishing, the remainder being employed in the guano factory, in farming and other minor pursuits... There is one ship carpenter in Wood's Holl, but he finds employment in his legitimate business only at long intervals. Of sailmakers, riggers, caulkers, and other artisans there are none. Four men are employed by Mr. Spindel, during the height of the fishing season, in icing and boxing fish. The boat fishery is carried on by seven men from April until September, inclusive. Only three species of fish are usually taken, namely, scup, tautog, and sea bass. The total catch of each fisherman is about 15 barrels, or about 2400 pounds. In addition about 6,720 lobsters are annually taken."

Historical photo of Woods Hole lab and surrounding water

View from the fisheries lab along the Woods Hole waterfront, circa late 1930s. The building with the white cupola is the original laboratory of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Before selecting a location for permanent headquarters for the work on fishery management and conservation, Baird undertook extensive explorations of the fishing grounds off the entire New England coast. Section 2 of the Joint Resolution Number 8 of Congress gave the Commissioner full authority to carry out the necessary research. In part it reads as follows:

"...and further resolved, that it shall be the duty of the said Commissioner to prosecute investigations and inquiries on the subject, with the view of ascertaining whether any and what diminution in the number of the food-fishes of the coast and the lakes of the United States has taken place; and, if so, to what causes the same is due; and also, whether any and what protective, prohibitory, or precautionary measures should be adopted in the premises; and to report upon the same to Congress."

Section 4 of the same Resolution contains an important clause which authorizes the Commissioner of Fisheries

"...to take or cause to be taken, at all times, in the waters of the seacoast of the United States, where the tide ebbs and flows, and also in the waters of the lakes, such fish or specimens thereof as many in his judgment, from time to time, be needful or proper for the conduct of his duties as aforesaid, any law, custom, or usage of any State to the contrary notwithstanding."

The significant words "where the tide ebbs and flows" were interpreted by Baird in a very broad scientific sense which extended the authority for his investigations to the offshore areas of the open ocean.

Exploring Reasons for the Decline in Fish Populations

The public accused pounds and weirs as destructive methods of fishing responsible for the decline in the abundance of food fish along the coast. Baird gave very serious consideration to the possible destructiveness of fixed nets, traps, pounds, pots, fish weirs, and other stationary apparatus. He was also fully aware of the complexity of the factors which may cause the decline in fish populations.

He discussed this difficult problem in a paper entitled Report on the Condition of the Sea Fisheries of the South Coast of New England. The paper was published as the first section of the voluminous First Report of the Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries for 1871. Of the causes which may have contributed to the decrease of summer shore fisheries of the south side of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, a fact which he considered as well established by the testimonies of competent persons, he lists the following:

  1. Decrease or disappearance of the food of commercial fish.
  2. Migration of fishes to other localities.
  3. Epidemic diseases and "peculiar atmospheric agencies, such as heat, cold, etc."
  4. Destruction by other fish.
  5. Human activities resulting in the pollution of water, in overfishing, and the use of improper apparatus.

The biologist of today will recognize in this statement Baird's broad philosophical approach to the major problem of fishery biology. The outlined program combined oceanographical and meteorological investigations with the studies of biology, ecology, parasitology, and population dynamics of various fish species.

Baird's program of research is as comprehensive and valid today as it was 90 years ago.

The Development of a Research Program in Woods Hole

Portrait of Vinal Nye Edwards

Vinal Nye Edwards, naturalist/collector, US Fisheries, Woods Hole station, 1875-1919.

No time was lost in initiating Baird's program. Woods Hole was selected as the base of the sea coast operations during the first summer. Vinal N. Edwards became the first permanent federal employee of the fisheries service.

In spite of the insignificance of local fisheries, this location offered a number of advantages which were recognized by Baird. Communication with Boston, New York, and Washington was good and promised to be better with the expected opening of the railroad branch in 1872.

It was centrally located in relation to principal fishing grounds of New England and had good dock facilities. The water was of sufficient depth for sea going vessels, and Woods Hole was a suitable base for visiting the offshore grounds. Furthermore, it was believed that the alleged decrease in food fishes was most clearly manifested in the region around Vineyard Sound.

The small yacht Mazeppa of the New Bedford Custom House and the revenue-cutter Moccasin attached to the custom-house at Newport, Rhode Island, were placed Baird's disposal. The Light-House Board granted permission to occupy some vacant buildings and the wharf at the buoy-station on the west bank of Little Harbor.

The Secretary of the Navy came to Baird's assistance by placing at his command a small steam launch which belonged to the Boston Navy Yard. He gave many condemned powder tanks which could be used for the preservation of specimens. Nets, dredges, tanks, and other gear were provided by the Smithsonian Institution. Cooperation of the various governmental agencies was authorized by Congress which in Section 3 of the Resolution specified that:

"...the heads of the Executive Departments be, and they are hereby directed to cause to be rendered all necessary and practicable aid to the said Commissioner in the prosecution of the investigations and inquiries aforesaid."

This provision of the law was of great value. It is apparent, however, that the success in obtaining cooperation authorized by law depended a great deal on the personal characteristics of Baird, his great ability of getting along with people, and his remarkable power of persuasion. These qualifications played the major role in his success in organizing the Commission's work. They were also important in obtaining the cooperation of scientists as well as that of fishermen and businessmen.

Early Collaborations with Local Fishermen

The investigation during the first summer consisted primarily in collecting large numbers of fish. They studied their spawning, rate of growth, distribution, and food. In the course of this work nearly all the fish pounds and traps in the vicinity of Woods Hole, some 30 in number, were visited and their location recorded. There was no difficulty in obtaining the owners' permission to examine these installations and to collect the needed specimens. Altogether 106 species of fish were secured, photographed, and preserved for the National Museum. Of this number 20 or more species had not previously been known from Massachusetts waters.

Information gained in this manner was supplemented by the testimonies of various fishermen who presented their ideas either for or against the use of traps and pounds. Among them was Isaiah Spindel, who at Baird's request prepared a description of a pound net used at Woods Hole and explained its operation. In the following years Spindel became an influential member of the group of local citizens who supported Baird's plan of establishing a permanent marine station at Woods Hole.

The ship Moccasin under the command of J. G. Baker was engaged in taking samples of plankton animals, in determining the extent of beds of mussels, starfish, and other bottom invertebrates, and in making temperature observations.

Scientific Collaborations

Portrait of Addison E. Verrill

Addison E. Verrill

One of the principal collaborators in the studies conducted at Woods Hole in 1871 was A.E. Verrill of Yale University. He was a professor whom Baird appointed as his assistant and placed in charge of the investigations of marine invertebrates.

Dredging for bottom animals during the first summer was carried out on a relatively small scale. They used a chartered sailing yacht Mollie and a smaller vessel used in the immediate vicinity of Woods Hole. Extensive collections were made by wading on tidal flats exposed at low water.

Zoological work attracted considerable interest among the biologists of this country. Many of them stopped at Woods Hole for greater or lesser periods and were encouraged by Baird to use the facilities of the Fish Commission. The group included such well known men as L. Agassiz, A. Hyatt, W.G. Farlow, Theodore Gill, Gruyure Jeffries of England, and many others.

The Beginning of Fishery Science

The first year's work extended until the early part of October. Before returning to Washington, Baird commissioned Vinal N. Edwards of Woods Hole to continue the investigation as far as possible. By the end of the first year a general plan of study of the natural histories of the fishes and the effect of fishing on fish populations was prepared with the assistance of the well-known ichthyologist, Theodore N. Gill. His old Catalogue of the fishes of the Eastern Coast of North America from Greenland to Georgia was revised. The next text including the recently collected data concerning the Massachusetts fishes, appeared in the First Report of the U.S. Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries.

Baird adopted Gill's suggested plan of investigation suggested by Gill as a guide for the work of his associates for the purpose of "securing greater precision in the inquiries." The plan is composed of 15 sections, such as Geographical Distribution, Abundance, Reproduction, etc., with detailed subdivisions under each one.

A questionnaire containing 88 different items was included in order to facilitate the inquiries conducted among the fishermen. The scope of the highly comprehensive program is complete enough to be useful today; marine biologists of today would probably only rephrase it, using modern terminology.

During the first year of operations conducted at Woods Hole, Baird and his associates laid down the foundation of the new branch of science which we now call fishery biology or fishery science.

Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on September 01, 2023