Last week I discussed a couple of recent examples of a forced or strategic retreat from our beaches due to accelerated erosion, namely the closing of the public parking lot at Wellfleet’s Cahoon Hollow Beach, and the closing of foot access to the beach at Eastham’s Nauset Light parking lot.
But few of us were prepared for what happened in March, when four northeasters assaulted the Outer Beach and created sights never seen there before. Perhaps the most extraordinary of these occurred at Nauset Beach in Orleans. In recent winters the dune line there had suffered considerable damage. Still, a town official said that Orleans had been operating on the premise that erosion at the beach would occur at about twelve feet per year and that a phased orderly withdrawal of the town washrooms and administrative offices would take place. But apparently “phased orderly withdrawal” is not in the ocean’s vocabulary. The fierce storm of March 3 removed an astounding amount of dune and beach sand in front of the large parking lot. The historic gazebo was carted off the beach and up the road to higher ground, like a portable carnival carousal. Liam’s Snack Shack (formerly Philbrick’s) which has been a fixture on the beach since the 1950s, was severely undercut and has been condemned.
But the most dramatic sign of the storm’s power and the ocean’s reach lay on the beach in front of these buildings. When I went there a week after the storm, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. There on the pristine beach stood three fully exposed concrete leaching pits, part of the septic systems that served the snack shack and the town buildings. They looked like abandoned gun turrets, and stood as mute but impressive testimony to the amount of sand that the storm must have removed.
Finally, I’d like to mention one other recent example of retreat and abandonment on the beach. This one doesn’t have the same impact on the public at large that these others do, but in its own way it says more about how we should live in such an environment. At Truro’s Ballston Beach, the dune line there has, in recent decades, been regularly breached by ocean storms. These overwashes have flooded the Head of the Pamet River and significantly altered its ecology. Sitting on the dune line just south of the break is a weathered cottage, one of the most historic buildings on the Outer Beach. According to historian Doug Sanders, the building was originally built in 1874 as the administration building for the Pamet Life Saving Station. At the turn of the last century it was purchased from the government by a Dr. George Thatcher and has been in the same family ever since.
The little house has experienced more vicissitudes of existence than most beach structures. At one point, some 40 years ago, it was about to be buried by the moving dunes, prompting the owners to raise the cottage some 13 feet. During the past several winters, however, the ocean has increasingly scoured the dunes around it, and the fierce storms of March have left the structure virtually hanging over the beach. The owners hope to get one more summer out of it, but the Town may condemn the building before that. Of course, the house was condemned from the start by its very location; only the date was in doubt.
Over the years I have talked to members of the family about their situation and, though they regret its loss, I’ve been impressed by the grace with which they have accepted the cottage’s eventual fate, and by the gratitude they feel for the time they were given there. As John Musnuff, the son of the current (and presumably last) owner put it, “It’s like a memory jar that held years and years of summer stories. Then you realize you have to put a cork in it.”