The Railroad Comes to South Wellfleet

The arrival of the railroad on Cape Cod in the middle of the Nineteenth Century brought a new level of change. Now the Cape towns were connected to each other and to the rest of Massachusetts. Fishermen and those harvesting shellfish were able to bring their products to market more efficiently.

The Cape Cod branch railroad reached Sandwich from Middleboro in 1848, and by 1854 was extended to Yarmouthport and Hyannis.  The tracks went onto the Cape over the Monument River on the “Buzzards Bay Bridge.” It wasn’t until many years later that the Cape Cod Canal’s iconic railroad bridge handled the train service to the Cape. The Civil War delayed progress for a while, but by 1865 the Cape Cod Central Railroad was formed, and built their line to Orleans. Soon the Cape Cod Railroad absorbed the company, and the line was extended to Wellfleet on December 28, 1870. Shortly thereafter, the line merged into the Old Colony Railroad.

The telegraph was essential to train operations, providing the means by which messages could be transmitted ahead of the arrival of the trains. The telegraph sent timetable changes, cancelling, rescheduling, or adding train service, and making sure trains moved to sidetracks, where available, so other trains could pass by. Thus, the extension of the railroad to South Wellfleet also brought a telegraph line to the depot. And, as mentioned previously, the mail came in and went out on the trains, so the Post Office was receiving mail more often. One writer compared the increase over the early days of horseback when just one bag would be sufficient to the multiple bags of mail coming in and going out as the service became more frequent and dependable.

A Barnstable Patriot article describes the exciting day in Wellfleet when the first passenger cars arrived in the town: “Since the settlement of the place, no event has occurred so important to its bearing upon the material and social interests of its people.” Citizens gathered at the South Wellfleet station “…near the late Collins S. Cole’s house”

South Wellfleet Railroad Station

where a salute was fired. In Wellfleet, a large crowd gathered, and the Committee of Arrangements met the honored passenger-guests. They marched to the Methodist Church where a luncheon for three hundred was set up. Many speeches and recitations followed the lunch, including a poem:


                                              The great Atlantic Railroad for old Cape Cod! All Hail!

                Bring on the locomotive, lay down the iron rail,

                Across the Eastham prairies, by steam we are bound to go,

                The Railroad cars are coming, let’s take up and go.

Another speaker compared the Cape fisheries and their increased capacity to bring fish to market to the railroad’s impact on Chicago and its grain market.

When the railroad reached Provincetown on July 23, 1873, there was another big celebration, welcoming eight hundred to a luncheon program on “High Pole Hill”. A special train of thirteen cars was sent down Cape that day so that citizens of all the towns could mingle; it cost $1 to travel to the party from South Wellfleet. Later, in 1874, President Grant made the trip to the outer Cape, all the way to Provincetown; citizens probably gathered at the South Wellfleet station to wave him on.

There were two trains daily between Boston and Provincetown, a tradition that extended through the 1940s. Until 1883, Old Colony Railroad cars were painted bright yellow, with the names of the cars painted on the side of each car in fancy letters. Passenger conductors

Old Colony Railroad Map

wore frock coats with gold braid and monogrammed collars. Baggage masters and brakemen wore coats with silver monograms and buttons. The locomotives were sometimes given Cape names, including one called “Highland Light,” a 7500-pound American “iron horse” manufactured in Taunton.

The Barnstable County deeds database has a number of deeds and agreements with landowners that sold their land for the railroad and furthermore held the railroad company harmless from damages to their land. Asa N. Cole signed such a document that he would not hold the railroad company responsible if the flow of water along Fresh Brook should change. The railroad paid for the land of Stephen Hatch, John Cheever, Ephraim Stubbs, Whitfield Witherell, Richard Stubbs, John Wiley and Isaiah Hatch.

A railroad schedule in 1874 shows a train leaving Boston at 8 AM and arriving in South Wellfleet at 12:52 PM. The 4 PM train from Boston arrived at 8:24 PM in South Wellfleet.

South Wellfleet Station in 1910

The up-Cape train left South Wellfleet at 5:42 AM and arrived in Boston at 10:25 AM. A second train left South Wellfleet at 12:20 PM and arrived in Boston at 6:05 PM.

Based on newspaper reports, it appears that passenger discounts were offered on the train early on, perhaps to encourage train travel. An 1873 editorial in the Barnstable Patriot pleaded with Cape citizens to behave properly to their fellow passengers and the train workers in the months when the cars are especially crowded.  During the summer of 1885, the round trip fare from Boston to Wellfleet was $4.25.

In 1880, the Old Colony Railroad began posting the telegraphed weather reports from Washington in the railroad offices. Observing and then predicting the weather began early in the Nineteenth Century. The Weather Service was organized in 1848 when volunteers began transmitting weather information to the Secretary of the Smithsonian. By 1870, the Service was moved to the War Department and became the responsibility of the Signal Service Corps. Local officers posted “Farmer’s Bulletins” to rural American post offices. In 1894, the National Weather Service was moved to the Department of Agriculture. The telegraph helped communicate important information, making changes in the day-to-day lives of Cape Codders. One writer recalls the old sea captains who “hung out” at the South Wellfleet stores and post office, all predicting the weather based on their long years at sea — perhaps they made bets on their predictions vs. the official words posted there?

Starting in the 1880 Federal census, the pages for South Wellfleet list those whose occupation was serving the railroad. William Ward is listed as “depot master” in 1880; Arthur Newcomb is the “Railroad Station Superintendent” in 1900, 1910, and 1920. (In the 1920 listing, he is placed on “Dog Town Road, “ which puts him halfway between the two stations, so perhaps he may have been the Wellfleet Station manager.)

In 1894 the Old Colony Railroad leased its lines to the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. In 1921 the Barnstable Patriot reported that the railroad was considering closing thirty stations in Massachusetts, noting that the South Wellfleet station was already closed during the winter months of 1921. This was at a time when the year-round population of the town was severely reduced, so the decision to close down is understandable.

One of the problems created by the railroad was the fires that started along the tracks by engine sparks, particularly during drought seasons when the brush and grass could catch fire easily. Mary Stubbs Magenau, in a tape she created for the “Tales of Cape Cod’ series, speaks of the efforts of South Wellfleet citizens to stamp out the fires, even enlisting the help of a seven-year-old Mary Stubbs.

News items reported such fires regularly. In 1913 the Barnstable Patriot reported an official hearing with railroad management when they proposed acquiring 1000 feet on either side of the track, so they could clear it of underbrush and grass. In the Spring of1914 the paper reported that the railroad was clearing 65 feet along the tracks and having great success in fire reduction. A New York Times article reported that fires along the Cape tracks that year were reduced to two, compared to 106 the year before. This effort was not the end, however. In 1933 the Boston Herald reported on a 500-acre fire in South Wellfleet, started near the railroad tracks north of the station, and threatening the cottages at “Wellfleet by The Sea” for a while.

The Boston Herald reported in a banner headline on February 26, 1948, “Old Colony Service Ends October 1.” The New York New Haven and Hartford Railroad was in financial trouble and cutting service. I have not been able to determine if service at South Wellfleet had already been cut. My brother, born in 1937, remembers our mother picking up my father at the South Wellfleet station in the 1940s, but this may have been a summer-only service.  On the other hand, when the depot building was moved – quite close to our summer cottage — to become the garage of William Sexton’s home, the date given is “the 1930s.” Mr. Sexton built his house in 1926, so he may well have moved the depot in the

South Wellfleet Depot re-worked

1930s when travelers no longer needed it. Our neighbors have memorialized their home with a railroad sign, so the South Wellfleet train memories live on!


Deyo, Simon. History of Barnstable County, New York, 1898.   Chapter VIII by Charles F. Swift covers these topics.

Barnstable Patriot  online  archive:

Newspaper account on line at

Barnstable County Deeds available at

Holman H. Spence “Only Yesterday on Cape Cod” , multi-part article  in The Cape Codder, 1970’s.

Fisher, Charles E., with revisions by Frank Dubiel  The Story of the Old Colony Railroad  1974

The New York Times  Archive

David Sexton .





Family history researcher living in New York City.
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