Tracing the Faint Outlines of the Outer Cape's Abandoned Communities
The Cape Cod National Seashore has given us many gifts. The most obvious of these are the preservation of significant areas of natural habitat and their wildlife communities. Another less obvious gift, at least in my town, has been the preservations of signs of previous human occupation.
Within the boundaries of the Seashore in Wellfleet are the sites of at least three abandoned communities: Bound Brook Island, Fresh Brook, and Paradise Hollow. I’ve talked about some of these sites on previous broadcasts, and I don’t intend to get into their detailed individual history here.
Bound Brook Island was Wellfleet’s first settlement, which was largely abandoned in the early 19th century when the town’s fishing and commercial industries became concentrated around Wellfleet Harbor, though a half dozen or so of the original houses still remain there. Fresh Brook was a small inland community in South Wellfleet, whose fate was sealed in 1872 when the Cape Cod Railroad was extended to Provincetown, blocking navigable access to the Fresh Brook settlement. Paradise Hollow, which sits on the Wellfleet-Truro line, was a thriving farming and fishing community with access to the Herring River. It, too, was adversely affected by the extension of the railroad across the upper Herring River, but its death blow was the building of the Herring River dike in 1908, cutting off access to the Bay, and it was totally abandoned by the 1930s.
Aside from the few remaining houses on Bound Brook, there is little obvious physical evidence of these previous settlements. You won’t find any abandoned houses or barns. There are no stone foundations, no rotting boats, no crumbling wharves. In all three cases, most of the abandoned post-and-beam houses were “flaked” – that is, disassembled – moved to new sites and reassembled. The signs of previous habitation that remain are subtle and oblique. I have found one or two old cellar holes, a concrete cistern, an old coal scuttle, lilac bushes, a linden tree or two, and a deep pit filled with water that once served as a watering hole for cattle. On Bound Brook Island there is still a fairly extensive network of old roads and footpaths, some of them showing evidence of cut-and-fill work where the land dipped or rose steeply. They are hardly as impressive as the old Roman roads still found in present-day Britain, but they express the same urge as those ancient thoroughfares for altering the landscape to fit human needs.
In Paradise Hollow there are several large semi-circular cuts in the sandy banks bordering the valley floor. These are “sand-barrows,” from which sand was excavated and spread over the cranberry bogs that once existed here, which have now returned to maple swamps. One of these sand-barrows is over a quarter-acre in extent, an impressive artifact for a society whose only digging tools were shovels and pick-axes.
One of the things I like best about these abandoned community sites is that they have not been formally identified. There are no signs or marked trails – as yet – that lead you to them, and no informative signs once you get there. You must know – or have been told –where they are, and even once there, you must be able to “read the landscape” to conjure up their ghosts. The signs these vanished settlement have left are not dramatic or obvious. They are small, humble, inferred rather than overwhelming, yet quietly persistent – like the lives that were once lived out in these now-deserted spaces.