With an estimated four million visitors a year, the Cape Cod National Seashore draws visitors who want to experience nearly 45,000 acres of unspoiled beach and serenity along the Outer Cape towns of Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro, Chatham, Orleans and Provincetown. Ever since Henry David Thoreau first chronicled his walks along its shores in the 1800s, the Cape Cod National Seashore has sparked the imagination of guests who marvel at its beauty and solitude. And today, 50 years to the month after the seashore was created, its undisturbed splendor is an inseparable part of our region.
David Spang, a longtime park volunteer, says that besides preserving Cape Cod’s authentic landscape, the establishment of the national park has helped the Outer Cape towns maintain themselves against the perils of progress. “It stopped a lot of the development that would have destroyed the towns,” he says. “It’s kept an aspect of the Cape that people come here for.”
Yet this exquisite site’s well-being has not always been secure. Just a half century ago, Fort Hill came close to being subdivided into 33 house lots. The prospect was not unique: Open space was being devoured on the rapidly growing peninsula. The advent of the automobile, completion of the Cape Cod Canal bridges in the 1930s, and the extension of Route 6 to Provincetown in 1925 accelerated the growth of tourism and unfettered development on the Outer Cape. “As early as the 1930s, environmentalists were concerned about great stretches along the Atlantic Ocean that weren’t protected,” Price says. They recognized Cape Cod’s Outer Beach as one such jewel and feared it would be built up like Miami Beach or the Jersey Shore.
In 1939, a study of the land was conducted by the National Park Service Commission to develop a proposal for the creation of a national park unit to protect the beaches. This brought more attention to the area, but the process was put on hold during the war years and legislative proposals to create a national park were not drafted until the late 1950s. “Local people were concerned about what would happen with commercial businesses, and they didn’t like the idea of someone from Washington coming and telling them what’s important here,” Price says.
Fort Hill, however, proved to be a turning point. In April 1961—following years of debate about whether to establish a national seashore and whether to include the Nauset Marsh area—a delegation of federal, state, and local officials visited the Cape’s Outer Beach, stopping for a picnic at Fort Hill. Soon after the visit, Congress passed legislation to create the National Seashore by protecting thousands of acres along the Outer Cape, including Fort Hill.