Walking the Line on the Outer Cape's Vanished Railroad
One of my regrets is that I came to the Cape too late to ride the passenger train along the Lower Cape to Provincetown. I missed it by many years, since passenger service to P-Town ceased in 1938. In 1964, when I first lived in Orleans, the freight train still ran as far as the old cement plant off Nauset Road in North Eastham. The train delivered coal at the old Snow’s hardware store, and my wife and I, living on a very short budget, used to go down and glean pieces of coal that had fallen off into the tracks for our stove.
The closest I ever got to experiencing such a train trip was in the spring of 1963, when I walked the New York-New Haven railroad bed from North Eastham to Provincetown. By then the steel rails had already been removed from this stretch, but the wooden sleepers were still there, as were the trestles and bridges that spanned Duck Creek in Wellfleet and Great Hollow and Pamet Harbor in Truro. When I made a similar attempt some thirty-five years later, all the wooden ties had been removed and the various bridges had collapsed or been taken down. The section of the railroad bed from South Wellfleet to Orleans had been transformed into the Rail Trail for bicyclists and walkers, and so had only limited historical interest for me. The stretch from Corn Hill to Beach Point in Truro – the most scenic part of the line - been wiped out in several places by blowing sand or development, but the bulk of the old railroad bed was still identifiable and accessible.
Last winter, however, when I made another attempt to walk this part of the old railroad bed, I found that, with a few exceptions, the entire four-mile stretch from Corn Hill to Beach Point had been virtually obliterated – by new roads, mega-housing developments, and an enormous recreational complex. I felt that the past – my past – was gone, and that what had occurred was no organic shift or evolution, but an abstract dream of profit, prestige and exclusivity imposed upon this delicate landscape and what had once been a magnificent thoroughfare accessible to the public.
But I’m giving way to sentimentality here. I know quite well that this vanished train I long for was just as disruptive and transformative to the landscape as any of these more recent developments that I decry – cutting through its dunes, bridging its estuaries, filling its marshes, and cutting off its tidal rivers. I know this, and still the dream persists, the dream of riding the passenger train along this stretch of coast, from Pamet Harbor in Truro out onto MacMillan Wharf in Provincetown. It must have been one of the most astonishingly lovely train trips anywhere, crossing as it did a string of marshes, harbors and dune lines, gradually climbing north of the Pamet River, rising up onto the bluffs overlooking the emerald waters of Cape Cod Bay, with the unmistakable outline of Provincetown rising in the distance like Oz.
Can we be nostalgic for something that we never experienced? Isn’t that what most nostalgia is: a longing for something we never actually experienced, something that had vanished before our own presence here, recreated and imagined in our memory?