Every day during the summer, hundreds of people step off ferries from Boston and onto the 1,450-foot MacMillan Pier in Provincetown Harbor. According to estimates by the Department of Public Works, about 100,000 people visit Provincetown via the MacMillan Pier every year. While many visitors only see the wharf in passing, it has a rich history and a culture all of its own.
The first ship to land in Provincetown Harbor was the Mayflower, which dropped anchor in the deep harbor in 1620. After exploring the coastal pine barrens of Cape Cod, the passengers on the Mayflower decided to establish Plymouth Colony on the other side of the Cape Cod Bay. Even so, the colonists continued to value Provincetown Harbor as a key fishing ground.
Since 1873, MacMillan Pier has been the heart of Provincetown’s fishing industry. On the east side of the wharf, closest to the bay, large fishing trawlers line two smaller finger piers. Closer to shore, small fishing vessels bob up and down on floating docks. While many fishing vessels still dock at MacMillan Pier, regulations have significantly reduced the number of boats involved in commercial fishing in Provincetown over the last few decades. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, fishing and maritime trade were the town’s most profitable industries.
In those days, whaling vessels from all over the world navigated the deep waters of Provincetown Harbor. The booming industry attracted sailors from, in particular, Portugal. Today, many old Provincetown families have Portuguese ancestry.
While commercial fishing vessels still use MacMillan Pier, the wharf is also lined with ferries and with boats (big and small) dedicated to sightseeing, whale watching, and sport fishing. These boats help visitors get a closer look at the natural beauty and the natural abundance that made Provincetown Harbor one of New England’s most important early seaports.
There are also plenty of things to do on the wharf. MacMillan Pier is home to art shacks, a harbormaster’s office, a pump-out station, and public restrooms. In the Whydah Pirate Museum at the end of the wharf, visitors can learn about Cape Cod’s most infamous shipwreck. And, on the Fourth of July and New Years, people gather on MacMillan Pier to watch fireworks.