Fort Hill Harbors 400 Years of History, But Little of It Shows
Yesterday afternoon I went for a walk along the trails at Fort Hill in Eastham. Young milkweed plants are peeping up in the recently-mown meadows as if it were spring. Mixed in with them are the deep brick-reds of Virginia creeper and poison ivy vines, the yellow-dotted pale but intense lavenders of New England asters, the golden leaves and deep red berries of bittersweet, and, out in the marsh, the white feathery seed tufts of marsh elder. Along the shore a wide band of Phragmites reed, or Pampas grass, waves in all its soft brown and silver plumery. Though my mind tells me this is an “invasive species,” my eyes see only beauty. Out in the marsh a pair of colorful kayaks, paddled by two older women, has stopped in mid-current, as if they are posing for an L.L. Bean catalog cover.
Once again, looking out over the light-brown masses of salt marsh separated by veins of intense blue, I think of all the people and events that transpired here of which almost no physical trace remains:
In 1605, when Nauset Marsh was a shallow bay, Bartholomew Gosnell’s ships and crews entered Nauset Harbor, mapping Indian villages, brooks, springs, fields of corn, and, after the murder of one of his ship’s officers by the Nauset Indians, building the short-lived fort that gave Fort Hill its name.
In 1891 the third French transatlantic cable came in through Nauset Inlet and across Nauset Harbor, terminating at the Town Cove at the French Cable Station in Orleans, now a museum.
During the 1920’s golf legend Bobby Jones, among many others, played on the fairways and greens of the short-lived Nauset Links bordering the north side of Nauset Marsh.
In the fall of 1926 Henry Beston began his year of glorious solitude in a small cottage on Coast Guard Beach, the fruit of which was his lyric prose-poem, The Outermost House. Curiously, Beston never mentions the nearby golf links, though they were built the year he spent on the beach.
A few decades later, Dr. Wyman Richardson, a Quincy doctor with deep family roots in the Fort Hill area, wrote his own book, The House on Nauset Marsh, a lovely and loving tribute to the times he spent over the years at the 18th century Farmhouse his family still owns today.
And finally, there was the memorable event that took place in the spring of 1961, when the fate of the bill that would create the Cape Cod National Seashore still hung in the balance. In April of that year the staff of Massachusetts Senators Leverett Saltonstall and Benjamin Smith came up with a brilliant strategic idea. They brought key swing-vote Congressmen out to Fort Hill by helicopter. They flew over the marsh and then landed on the site of the present parking area. The expansive beauty in front of them blew the Congressional visitors’ minds, and then one of the Senators’ staff pointed to lines of red-tipped stakes in the mown field a few yards in front of them and said, “See those stakes? They mark an approved subdivision.” As one of the Congressman said, “That decided it for me!” – and on August 7, President John F. Kennedy signed the bill creating the Cape Cod National Seashore.
So many memorable things have happened in this spot over the centuries, yet so little material evidence of it remains, except for the words of those who have loved it and the natural beauty that we chose, as a people, to protect.