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Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: Chatham’s Monomoy Islands and Stage Harbor

The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: Chatham’s Monomoy Islands and Stage Harbor, Cape Cod Life, April 2017 | capecodlife.com

In this 1984 photo, one can observe that Nauset Beach (12) runs along the Cape Cod coastline, unbroken for miles, from near Monomoy to Orleans/Eastham. Fishermen and boaters regularly traveled through the Southway (13) to get from Chatham Harbor to the ocean. Photograph by Kelsey-Kennard Photographers

In this article, we look at the changes that have taken place around Monomoy, both in the last decade as well as the last century, including Monomoy’s transformation from a peninsula to an island—and then two islands.

Monomoy was created in the wake of the last ice age 18,000 years ago, upon the retreat of the glaciers. The size of North and South Monomoy—some 7,604 acres, combined—fluctuates due to the patterns of erosion and accretion. When waves come at Monomoy’s shores from different angles, longshore currents pick up sand and then deposit it further down the coast.

The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: Chatham’s Monomoy Islands and Stage Harbor, Cape Cod Life, April 2017 | capecodlife.com

This 1989 photo was taken two years after the 1987 barrier beach breach (14), just east of Chatham Light (4). The event made the southern part of Nauset Beach an island—to be called South Beach Island (3). In the years that followed, the island’s northern tip curled inwards, eventually stretching across to the mainland, forming Lighthouse Beach (5). Photograph by Kelsey-Kennard Photographers

In colonial America, Monomoy was an active settlement. In 1711 locals opened Stewarts Tavern in an area of South Monomoy known today as Inward Point (9). During the 1830s a small fishing community called Whitewash Village (10) thrived near the southern tip of the island; at its peak, the village was home to 200 residents, a schoolhouse, an inn, and two wharves where fishing boats could be supplied. A winter storm in 1860 effectively brought an end to year-round living on the island though. The harbor shoaled in the years that followed, and the village’s fishing business declined. Some houses were moved to the mainland, while others were left to the elements.   

The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: Chatham’s Monomoy Islands and Stage Harbor, Cape Cod Life, April 2017 | capecodlife.com

This 2007 photo was taken after South Beach Island (3) connected to South Monomoy (2) at point 16. For a few years, energetic walkers could make their way, by land, from Chatham Light (4) to Monomoy. However, the Southway’s (13) utility as a harbor-to-ocean route was all dried up. Photograph by Kelsey-Kennard Photographers

Ted Keon, Chatham’s director of coastal resources, describes what makes Monomoy’s landscape so unique. “Monomoy is considered the southern sediment sink of the Outer Cape beaches,” Keon says. “There is a very dominant transport of sediment from the ocean waves carrying it south toward Monomoy, which is why the southern end of the island looks like a drumstick.” Illustrating this phenomenon, Monomoy Point Light (6), which was first built in 1823 and at one point stood just 180 feet from the beach, sits a comfortable 1,000 feet inland today. The light has not been moved by man; sand has built up on the shoreline, “moving” the light, in effect, inland.

In 1902, as a result of time and tide, Monomoy Island attached to mainland Chatham at Morris Island (11), part of a cycle that likely commenced decades or centuries before—and one that continues today.

The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: Chatham’s Monomoy Islands and Stage Harbor, Cape Cod Life, April 2017 | capecodlife.com

Taken in 2016, this image shows where South Beach Island was breached in 2013 (7). Though the opening runs east to west, the considerable shoaling that has taken place around North Monomoy (1) has made the area a navigation challenge for boaters. Photograph by Kelsey-Kennard Photographers



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