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One more summer: Sandwich getting ready to replace its iconic boardwalk

Jennette Barnes
The Sandwich assistant town engineer, Sam Jensen, and the building commissioner, Brendan Brides, stand on the bridge at the Sandwich Boardwalk. Beyond the bridge, a skeleton of empty pilings is visible where the boardwalk was damaged in a January 2022 storm.

Stepping onto the Sandwich Boardwalk in 40 mph winds gives only a hint of what a storm is like here. The 1200-foot walk crosses a marsh that feels as wide as the horizon.

Right now, though, you can only go to the end of the bridge, not far from the parking lot.

That’s where assistant town engineer Sam Jensen stood by the caution tape, looking beyond the bridge at a skeleton of empty pilings.

“In the January storm, we lost over 200 feet of decking,” he said. Several hundred more feet were seriously damaged. “The posts and fasteners were heavily damaged, and there's all kinds of warping and racking.”

Jennette Barnes
The Sandwich Boardwalk on a gray and windy day, late winter 2022.

Some combination of water, ice and wind tore up whole sections of decking and tossed them across the marsh.

It was heartbreaking for people who were looking forward to one last season with the old boardwalk, which was already slated for replacement next year.

The Sandwich Boardwalk, an icon of local life, is being replaced in response to repeated storm damage and climate change. The latest round of damage in January made the boardwalk impassable for the upcoming summer season — the old boardwalk’s last.

The replacement plan has its critics, but the community is working to make the new boardwalk as beloved as the old.

The boardwalk is a big part of life here, said Candy Thomson, a member of the steering committee of the Friends of the Sandwich Boardwalk.

Jennette Barnes
The end of the bridge at the Sandwich Boardwalk is blocked to keep people away from the place where the planks were torn off in a January 2022 storm.

“People jump off the bridge as a rite of passage,” she said. “The high school senior class goes down there and jumps off together at the end of the school year.”

Others propose or get married there.

“People have had their ashes scattered off the boardwalk,” she said. “It is Sandwich.”

It’s a travel destination, too, often mentioned in boardwalk “top 10” lists.

Braving the wind, Pam Crowley Evans took a ride down from Plymouth recently to make sure she got to see the boardwalk again before the demolition.

“I said, ‘I have no idea what they will do to it, for tourist season, but I want to go see that, and be in that space,’” she said. “I wanted to see it before it might be gone. I hope they repair it.”

But town officials say repair is no longer an option.

The new bridge will be four to five feet higher to handle sea level rise. It will also be a foot wider and have railings on almost the entire span, instead of just the bridge and stairs.

Jennette Barnes
Sam Jensen, the assistant town engineer in Sandwich, looks through some of the engraved planks that were torn from the Sandwich Boardwalk in the January storm. The town and volunteers are working to return the planks to the people who donated money to pay for them.

That will make the boardwalk accessible to a broader segment of the population, said Sandwich Building Commissioner Brendan Brides.

“We've had a number of citizens who are elderly and who just don't cross the boardwalk, and that's just not right,” he said. “They should be entitled across the boardwalk like everybody else.”

Thomson, of the Friends group, said they’re realists about the need. But they do think a design can meet code and still look historic, especially at a price upwards of $2.5 million.

“What has always sort of stuck in our craw, is the fact that, you know, Disney can build things up to code that look like something old,” she said. “Disney does it, Williamsburg does it … and this thing doesn't look anything like that.”

Jennette Barnes
Stacks of decking from the Sandwich Boardwalk have been kept in a locked storage yard at the town-owned Sandwich Marina since they were torn off in a storm and then recovered with the help of local residents, who searched for the planks in the marsh. At right is Sandwich Building Commissioner Brendan Brides.

She said the town won its first real victory for design in late March, by getting a state variance to allow fewer boards on the railings, with steel mesh in between. That’s to help preserve the views when the boardwalk reopens in 2024.

In the meantime, there’s the matter of the planks.
When the boardwalk was last rebuilt, in 1992, some of the decking planks were personalized with engraved names. Now many of the donors who paid for them want them back.

“These are pretty — pretty worn out, but this is obviously ‘Luke Miller,’” the building commissioner said as he looked through a stack of decking in a locked storage yard at the Sandwich Marina.
The planks that washed away in the blizzard have been carefully recovered. Some names are so weathered they’re almost illegible.

“And this is ‘Mom, Dad’ and somebody else,” he said, wiping the plank in an effort to read the names. “As we said, we will do the best we can to get them back to their various owners.”

Jennette Barnes
More than 200 feet of decking was ripped from the Sandwich Boardwalk in the January 2022 storm.

The town and the Friends are separating the planks and cataloging them with help from other volunteers.

Brides said it’s a community project that honors the old boardwalk and prepares for the new.

“Change is always difficult,” he said. “Some folks just don't want change. But we're a fluid country, and we're changing all the time.”

And before the change, swimmers will have one more summer to jump from the old boardwalk bridge, which stood firm in the storm.