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

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

A recent aerial view of Great Point, looking southeast. Photo by Terry Pommett                 Nantucket map courtesy of The Trustees of Reservations

Built in 1784, the original lighthouse—officially named Nantucket Light—was made of wood. It was destroyed by fire in 1816. A second light was built on the same spot in 1818, this one of stone. As years passed, erosion nipped away at the surrounding coastline, and the stone lighthouse kept “moving” closer to shore. By the early 1980s, the light was just 40 feet from shore, and many were clamoring for it to be moved inland. According to a 1981 article from The Inquirer & Mirror, The U.S. Coast Guard, which maintains the light with the Trustees, estimated that such a project could cost as much as $1.5 million, and that Mother Nature should be allowed to take its course. This conversation was made moot on March 29, 1984, when a hurricane-force storm toppled the 70-foot lighthouse. According to Pollnac, the storm surge undercut the light’s shallow foundation, causing it to collapse. On the same day, about one mile south, storm waters also tore through a narrow area of Nantucket’s barrier beach known as The Galls (3), making Great Point, at least temporarily, an island.

With the help of the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, $2 million was raised to build a replica of the lighthouse, and on September 7, 1986, the new tower—made with reinforced concrete and a rubblestone exterior—was dedicated at a spot several hundred feet further inland. The new light was built with a deeper foundation to better protect it during storms.

Another breach took place at The Galls during the “No Name Storm” of October 30, 1991, again making Great Point, briefly, an island. Pollnac explains why neither of the breaches became lasting features. “Though that region is overwashed during big storms there is a lot of sediment transport in the area,” Pollnac says, “making it likely that any breach won’t become permanent.” Since 1991, though, Pollnac says no more breaches have taken place. In February of 2016, winter storm Olympia caused storm tides to overwash the area, though vehicles could traverse it at low tide. Today, The Galls measures 200 feet across, and Pollnac says it’s a top concern for the Trustees, partly because the light is still active and requires regular Coast Guard visits.

Like other coastal areas, the peninsula follows a natural ebb and flow, Pollnac says. “Great Point goes through a cycle of erosion,” he says. “The shape of the tip shrinks and expands. The beach gets reduced in winter and by late spring it’s built back up. It’s cyclical.”

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