There’s history — and mystery — beneath the waters off Wellfleet
By 1850, Billingsgate held 30 homes, a school, a lighthouse, and a part-time population near 80. The lighthouse was the third to be built on Cape Cod at that time and served as a beacon for boaters traveling in Cape Cod Bay. In an article for Cape Cod Compass magazine in 1964, Wellfleet writer Clarence Daniels wrote that Billingsgate even had its own baseball team, and its members would row to the mainland to compete with other Outer Cape teams.
Billingsgate also acquired a reputation as rich territory for whaling, even sparking the pen of Henry David Thoreau to write stories about the island. In his writings about the Cape, Thoreau tells the true story of the lighthouse keeper of Billingsgate who stepped outside one day to find hundreds of blackfish—a smaller species of whale hunted in the 19th century—amassed on the island’s shores. Before anyone else realized what had happened, Herman Dill, the keeper, had initialed his name—a common practice of the time—on each of the washashores. Later that month, Dill sold the blackfish for a total of $1,000, earning more in that one day than he had ever made in a full year of work.
While Billingsgate residents continued to build and expand, an unexpected storm devoured the island in 1855, cutting it nearly in half. With the lighthouse in harm’s way of the encroaching ocean, islanders built a new light on higher ground. In 1888, when wave patterns began to inspire frightening flashbacks of 1855, a seawall, 1,000 feet in length, was constructed to surround and protect the light. By that time, though, little could be done to prevent the island’s rapid erosion.
With a seemingly predestined end, legends began to form among locals as to why Billingsgate was eroding so quickly. One legend comes from a Billingsgate man who had committed a capital crime on the island. As the executioner directed the man to the gallows in Wellfleet, legend has it the condemned man turned his head to the excited onlookers and proclaimed a curse on the village. “If I am hanged,” the man is alleged to have yelled, “the island of Billingsgate will be swallowed by the sea.”
And sure enough, it was. Recurring instances of the island’s engulfment by the waves led most Billingsgate inhabitants to depart for drier shores by 1905, often carrying or floating house structures to the mainland in hundreds of small pieces in a process known as “flaking.” Dwight Estey, a member of the Wellfleet Historical Society’s board of directors, described how this worked. “In this process, houses were cut in half—one was even cut in a zigzag pattern—and floated to the mainland to be reassembled after arriving on shore,” Estey says.
“The Billingsgate natives were thrifty people,” adds Joan Coughlin, the society’s curator. “They sold old brick and repurposed old house structures onto new homes built on the mainland. They believed that the island would rise back again someday.” Little did those islanders know that Billingsgate would indeed lose its battle with the ocean; in 1915, the lighthouse was washed away during a massive storm, and in 30 years’ time it was completely submerged beneath the waves.
Due to the initiative many islanders showed in recycling their homes on the mainland, many remains from island houses can be found throughout Wellfleet today; the materials literally piece together historic homes and walkways and help to preserve the island’s heritage and legacy.
Wellfleet business owners also proudly display the Billingsgate name around town. With an overnight stay at the Billingsgate Motel, or a freshly made Billingsgate Margarita at the Wellfleet Bookstore and Restaurant, the spirit of the island lingers. Also in Wellfleet, the Billingsgate Condominiums overlook Mayo Beach, and a collection of lovely cottages in nearby Dennis can be found on Billingsgate Way.
You might also like:
In 1954 my mother received a small inheritance and decided to spend the money on a vacation rental. After waiting…Read More
In this issue of Cape Cod Life my younger brother, Kevin, has written a fine article about our family’s memorable…Read More