Woods Hole was first used as a fishing grounds by the Wampanoag people. Then in 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold first set foot on land that would later bear his name. By the late 1600’s, Europeans began to firmly establish themselves with thirteen families each taking 60 acre plots around Little Harbor to raise mostly sheep and crops.
By the early 1800’s, Woods Hole had become a center of the booming whale trade. At the industry’s peak, nine whaling ships were docked at the Bar Neck wharf, in Great Harbor, supporting a thriving local economy of chandlers, outfitters, candlemakers and processors of oil and whale bone.
When the whaling business waned, Woods Hole became home to a fertilizer factory called the Pacific Guano Works (located on what is now exclusive Penzance Point). The company evolved from an importer of quality South American guano to a chemical processor. The need to transport thousands of tons of fertilizer brought the railroad — crucial to later development — all the way south from Boston to Woods Hole.
By the late 1800’s the Guano Works had closed, but a new industry had already begun to take root. The federal government realized that marine populations needed to be studied and managed to protect fishing stocks and the markets that depended on them, so they established the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, which came to Woods Hole in 1871.
Scientists were drawn to waters kept clean and clear by strong local currents, to the deep water anchorages perfect for research vessels, and to the central location, midway along the most heavily fished stretches of New England.
In 1889 the world renowned Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) was founded, since then providing a full or part-time home to well over 50 Nobel Prize laureates. A few decades later, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) was created.
Beginning in the mid 1800’s, people were venturing toward our harbors and dunes in search of recreation. This trend gathered speed on the wheels of America’s love affair with the road and continues today. Each year vacationers swell the population of Cape Cod from 22,000 in winter to well over 60,000 in summer!
History is still everywhere in Woods Hole for people to enjoy. Original captains’ houses line the main streets and most businesses operate in buildings erected in the 1800’s. The Marine Biological Laboratory is headquartered in the old stone building that once housed the candle works, and its surrounding campus provides an architectural history survey from vintage buildings of clapboard and red brick to ultra-modern steel and glass.
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Exhibit Center has state of the art, child-friendly displays allowing young hands to play over craft that once explored ocean floors. Strollers will find street signs with names that are legend in marine science: Agassiz, Baird and Hyatt, to name a few.
The NOAA Fisheries Service, a descendant of the original fisheries commission, operates the Woods Hole Science Aquarium which features touch tanks for children. Woods Hole’s own Historical Museum offers a vintage scale model of the village as well as rotating exhibits of photographs, maps and other artifacts.
Visitors can explore the village of Woods Hole on their own, or they can be guided by an audio tour created by the Historical Museum. You can navigate to the site on your smartphone and listen to the tour while you walk, following a map available at the museum.
Want to learn more ? Visit the Woods Hole Museum at 579 Woods Hole Road.