The shifting sea reshapes a neighborhood on Nantucket
There is a neighborhood at the far eastern end of Nantucket called Codfish Park. Most of the cottages here are tiny — cozy, a realtor might say — shingles situated right in the sand. Codfish Park began its life as a public beach, a place that virtually washed away in the October Gale of 1841. By the 1880s, sand accreted, the beach built back up. I give tours of this area to visitors and it is hard for them to imagine that there was a time where there was no there there. You live along the shoreline long enough and you begin to understand that the sea isn’t always going to stay on its side of the line.
Almost as quickly as the beach built up, the fishermen did, too. They built fishing shacks, dory barns, drying racks for their salt cod. Later came bathhouses for people who visited the island to enjoy sea bathing. By the 1920s, this cluster of shacks was transformed into a tidy village. The Town of Nantucket held the land in public trust, but also put down sidewalks, street lights, and allowed folks in the Park to hook up to Town water.
The people who lived in waterfront Codfish Park were integral to the island’s burgeoning tourist industry. They were livery drivers, domestic workers, cooks, ice men, street sweepers, groundkeepers, nannies, and laundresses. The island needed them to function. They came from the Caribbean, Cape Verde Islands, Azores, Portugal, Ireland, the mainland, and even Edgartown.
Today, there is no undesirable place to live on Nantucket. Homes in Codfish Park easily go for over a million dollars. There were two rows of houses that have disappeared since the 1950s, some have been moved further and further back or to other parts of Nantucket, others have been foremoved by the ocean. There is a video that was taken of a house swept out to sea by the No Name Storm, it took only three minutes before the ocean split the house in two. Curtains billowed out the broken windows.
As the Codfish Park residents were squatters on what had been a public beach, they didn’t hold title to their land. This situation was not dissimilar to the Dune Shacks of the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District, over in Provincetown. The Town of Nantucket eventually dissolved the trust that held the Codfish Park beach cottages in 1993 by a vote of the town meeting body.
This legal limbo that many residents were in makes Codfish Park a challenge for anybody who wants to make sense of the past. The folks who lived here were not in the society pages. They rarely show up in the printed record at all. Even the buildings they lived in moved around, out of harm’s way as the tide inched ever closer.
But they mattered. They still matter.
It was on a recent tour that I was explaining all this to a visitor. They said, “Don’t you think the islanders need the tourists just as much as the tourists need you?”
I guess that’s the big question. All I know is, at the end of that tour, I needed a swim. Luckily, the ocean was right across the street.