Making Fertilizer—from Bird Guano—in Woods Hole

May 15, 2017

Though barely a trace remains today, the Pacific Guano Company operated for 26 years on what is now Penzance Point in Woods Hole, transforming what was a sleepy farming village into a thriving community.

Credit Woods Hole Historical Museum

Cargo ships that had been idled by the Depression of 1857 began shipping in bird guano from the Pacific, where huge quantities had been discovered on islands off the coast of Peru. The guano, which was prized for its high concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, was combined with other ingredients to produce fertilizer most of which was sold to farmers in the Northeast

Over time, new apartments, houses and a Catholic church were built in Woods Hole to accommodate the mostly Irish immigrants who worked at the factory.

The smell was ever-present in the village during the years of the factory’s operation. Deborah Scanlon, Executive Director of the Woods Hole Historical Museum, recalls that her great-grandfather said of the factory: “With this plant in full blast and the wind blowing due east, it can be appreciated how offensive the odor must have been to villagers.”

Credit Woods Hole Historical Museum

The operation abruptly shut its doors in 1889. There was talk at the time that embezzlement may have played a role, but competition was the more likely cause.

Today, the only trace of the Pacific Guano Works are the remnants of its dock on the road to Penzance Point.