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The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: Great Point, Nantucket

Editor’s note: This is the 16th in a series of articles covering the region’s dramatically changing coastline. Click here to see all of the articles.

The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: Great Point, Nantucket, August 2017 Cape Cod LIFE |

A northeastern view of the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge on Nantucket, with Great Point at the tip. The first lighthouse was built at Great Point in 1784. Photo by Josh Shortsleeve. Inset, this map of the island was painted by artist Winthrop P. Moore. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association

In the 18th century, the passageway between the southeastern tip of Cape Cod and Nantucket’s Great Point (1) was one of the busiest on the East Coast due to the island’s booming whaling industry. The route was dangerous, though, with strong currents and notorious shoals, and in 1784 a lighthouse was built at Great Point to help mariners navigate the passage.

Naturally, the wind and waves that imperiled ships passing by have also done a number on the light, and several repairs and replacements have been made over the years. And Great Point itself—the northernmost tip of a long, narrow and curving peninsula that juts out like an arrow into Nantucket Sound—has also been impacted, with erosion and breach occurrences influencing its current shape and geography. In this article, we review some of the history of the lighthouse and examine how time and tide have shaped the area over the years.

Great Point is located at the northern tip of Nantucket, just north of the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, which is owned by the Trustees of Reservations. The 21-acre parcel on which the lighthouse sits is part of the Nantucket National Wildlife Refuge, but to get there by land, visitors must travel through Coskata-Coatue. In addition to stunning scenery, Great Point is home to seals, endangered birds such as Piping Plovers and great opportunities for fishing. The remoteness is part of the appeal. Fred Pollnac, the Trustees’ Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge superintendent, explains. “You really get a sense of the power of the ocean there,” he says. “It is very exposed to the elements, and even on a calm, clear day, you still get that sense of being ‘away at sea.’”

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