Poseidon’s fury is Liam’s fate
Though battered and bruised, Nauset Beach remains an iconic presence on Cape Cod
In Homer’s “Odyssey,” Poseidon, god of the sea, is a divine antagonist who hampered Odysseus’s journey home. Today, among the living, a shared truth emerges from the cold currents and shifting shoals: A visit to Nauset Beach on outer Cape Cod is a kind of journey home, too. But the fury of Poseidon’s ghost this past winter darkened the destination. A series of ferocious nor’easters reshaped the contours of the glorious shoreline and has taken a piece of its heart—a fabled 64-year old shack, called Liam’s—to a seaside grave. A place once deemed magical is now rendered mythological. What is the adequate penance when the gods sin against the people?
With no shield from the buffets and spits of an angry Atlantic, the shack, known to old-timers for decades as Philbrick’s, was demolished on the Vernal Equinox. Symbolically, yet ironically, a day of renewal. Not burial.
The wicked winter did more to alter Nauset Beach as a physical and spiritual place than 70 previous winters combined. Nearly 10 days before Liam’s met its fate, a century-old gazebo—where, for decades, concerts were staged, vows were exchanged, and families were photographed (with the ocean then an invited guest)—was moved off the beach before it could be claimed by the gods. What remains is a weathered bath house and administration building, exposed on its sides, and with only a few feet of temporary bluff for protection.
Orleans Selectman David Currier recently said, “The reason Nauset Beach is Nauset Beach is that shack.” For many, though, Liam’s was more than just a shack. And Nauset more than just a beach.
The endless rolling white dunes and yielding green beachgrass, with a backdrop of blue sea and gray gables, are indeed this region’s amber waves of grain. A quintessentially New England portrait. Iconic and romantic.
But there is something still more fundamental about the sea that draws us to it.
President John F. Kennedy understood this basic instinct. “All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea—whether it is to sail or to watch it—we are going back from whence we came,” he said at a dinner before the 1962 America’s Cup Races in Newport, RI.
Humans have been tied to Nauset’s seacoast for millennia. Likely longer.
Local Native Americans were called The Nauset. They were the first people the Pilgrims encountered when they came ashore in Provincetown in 1620. Nauset Indians were part of the southern New England Algonquin and occupied the Cape with The Wampanoag, with whom they shared a similar dialect and similar customs. Today, Nauset is commonly associated with the Massachusetts shoreline of Eastham, Orleans and Chatham, with the eponymous name regularly used under local auspices.
Nauset Beach in Orleans was the scene of the earliest known shipwreck on Cape Cod. On December 17, 1626, the ketch Sparrow-Hawk fell victim to the wrath and waves of the mighty Atlantic. Ever since 1808, a lighthouse in Chatham guarded Nauset’s southernmost shoreline. And by 1838, the “Three Sisters” lighthouses were installed in Eastham to aid navigation on its northern flank.
Henry David Thoreau began the first of his historic walks on the northern side of Nauset Harbor, on the outer beach, in October 1849. As he wrote in “Cape Cod,” “A storm in the fall or winter is the time to visit it; a lighthouse or a fisherman’s hut, the true hotel. A man may stand there and put all America behind him.” Thoreau rested at Higgins Tavern in Orleans, a popular stategcoach stop at the time.
In her marvelously engaging book, “Drifting Memories: The Nauset Beach Camps on Cape Cod,” Frances L. Higgins recalls that this area was particularly fertile for fishing and hunting. Beach camps were built in the early 1800s to facilitate seaside commerce. In 1905, Orleans became one of the pioneers in developing summer camps for children. (Virtually all the camps are gone now, and the last summer camp closed in 1988.)
A direct cable was installed in Nauset Harbor in 1898, linking Orleans and Brest, France. During World War I, General Pershing communicated with the U.S. government through the French Cable Station via the 3,200-mile undersea cable. And Americans first learned of Charles Lindbergh’s successful trans-Atlantic solo flight in 1927 by a message transmitted to the station, now a museum. This September 18 marks its 120-year anniversary.
One hundred years ago, on a hazy, hot July morning, with WWI raging, Nauset Beach was shelled by the German super submarine U-156, in what became known as “The Attack on Orleans.” Lost as a footnote to history, Orleans was the only landmass in America to receive enemy fire during the entire war.
Spiritually shaken by his own experiences in WWI, Henry Beston sought the sanctuary and tranquility of Nauset Marsh and the nearby coast guard station in Eastham for nearly two years. His search yielded “The Outermost House: A Year of the Life on the Great Beach,” published in 1928. Considered one of the founders of the modern environmental movement, Beston understood that “nature is part of our humanity, and without some awareness of that divine mystery man ceases to be man.” His 20-by-16-foot house, dubbed “the Fo’castle,” was carried away by high tides during the February 1978 blizzard.
Two presidential actions became the most consequential factors in fostering the popularity of Nauset Beach—while simultaneously keeping its mystique intact—after WWII: The Interstate Highway System was authorized in 1956, after being championed by President Dwight Eisenhower; and the Cape Cod National Seashore was created in 1961, after President Kennedy was inspired by Beston’s words and work.
It also helped when, in 1957, singer Patti Page became the unofficial ambassador to the region when she recorded “Old Cape Cod,” a ballad that extols the virtues of the Cape as a leisure destination.
America increasingly valued recreation during the post-war years. And newly prosperous families were able to afford this desired lifestyle by the 1950s and 1960s. Modern roads allowed mobile Americans to finally visit and vacation the places they had heard about and read about. Like Cape Cod.
The National Seashore preserved nearly 40 miles of the Atlantic-facing coastline from Provincetown to Chatham, including Nauset Beach. For over 50 years it has offered a glimpse of the peninsula’s past and continuing ways of life. Its formation ushered a then-new model for a national park unit, too: private property purchased by the federal government for inclusion into a seashore boundary.
The preservation efforts largely halted commercialization and development that had plagued other parts of the American coast. So, the Outer Cape never became the Miami of glass high rises, the Jersey Shore of boardwalks and cigarette boats, or the Long Island of unruly city crowds. The Outer Cape retained its natural grace.
A local entrepreneur likewise imagined the future. James Philbrick was a Boston caterer and a WWII veteran (as a master welder, he also helped build the battleship USS Massachusetts in Quincy). After summering at Nickerson State Park, he saw the potential for concessions at Nauset Beach. He built “Philbrick’s Snack Shack” in 1954, when a walk to the water was the length of a football field and the parking lot was a third of its current size.
By the 1960s, fried food became ubiquitous at juke joints, drive-ins and beach shacks. (2018 marks the centennial of the invention of the Pitco Frialator.) It was at Nauset that Philbrick perfected a distinctive formula for fried onion rings. An instant sensation, legend has it that Howard Johnson’s—then a national titan modernizing food services—sought Philbrick’s prized recipe. But it was never sold or divulged to anyone outside his immediate family.
The normally reserved writer Gladys Tabor marveled about Philbrick’s famous delight. She wrote that, “they have an almost lacy texture, translucent when you pick up a savory circle,” yet “so crisp, nongreasy, sweet.”
As The Cape Codder so eloquently reasoned over 40 years ago, “To many thousands of sunbathers who return each summer to Nauset Beach in Orleans, the first vivid scent of Philbrick’s Snack Shack onion rings borne over the sands on a gentle sou’west wind is perhaps the most articulate and sublime essence of the sunny season.” Jackie Kennedy was one of the thousands, many summers ago, who had to push her way to the front of the line to place an order for those onion rings—with young John and Caroline in tow, as Secret Service lingered around nearby picnic tables.
The tasty treat was so popular, in fact, that throughout the peak months of July and August it wouldn’t be unusual to sell over 425 pounds of rings every single day.
During this period, Nauset Beach embodied 1965’s “Summer Wind,” like painted kites, golden sand and blue umbrella sky (casual and carefree). That same year, “Beach Blanket Bingo” was released, the most popular of the beach-genre movies showcasing youthful exuberance and newfound freedoms (safe but suggestive). Nauset was always—and continues to be—alluring to both the Sinatra and surf demographic.
Things were mostly serene during the 1970s and 1980s. The Orleans Recreation Department actually hosted its own overnight camp-outs, two miles south of the main beach. Twice a summer kids became little Thoreaus and Bestons.
But on August 21, 1973, attention turned away from frolic and fun.
Several dozen people nearly lost their lives in the water off Orleans, as a violent rip current had materialized suddenly, without warning. With human chains failing, rescuers were summoned from neighboring towns along with Coast Guard amphibious rescue craft and helicopters. The massive effort went on for hours. Of the 50 to 60 swimmers caught in the current, only one died, later at Cape Cod Hospital. The incident was the catalyst to bolster summer lifeguard skill sets and for what became the Cape Cod Lifesaving Competition, an annual event still in existence today.
The Coast Guard was also called when the Maltese freighter Eldia ran aground on Nauset Beach in March 1984. The late William P. Quinn, local nautical historian and photographer, wryly observed in “Cape Cod Maritime Disasters,” “Today, a wreck on the beach brings an avalanche of sightseers. As a result, local cash registers ring loud with tourist dollars.”
The ship was featured on television newscasts all over New England. Conveniently, the freighter lay in the sand about a mile from the beach parking lot. So, Eldia was readily accessible to the large crowds until she was pulled from the shore 49 days after the forced landing. “Local entrepreneurs made a killing selling souvenirs to the tourists; post cards, t-shirts and coffee mugs were among the many different items on the market,” recalled Quinn.
For the last 30 years, much conversation regarding the Great Beach has been about environmental fears. Many cite the arrival of more frequent and ferocious storms as evidence—despite the fact that the last hurricane to hit Cape Cod was Bob in 1991. Others point to the appearance of great whites and gray seals, a relatively new phenomenon. Still, more believe that global climate disruption has manifested itself in tangible and powerful ways here and now. Not next century.
But nature—like the gods—arrives on its own cue and operates on its own cycles.
In his fascinating 1988 geological study, “Cape Cod Field Trips,” Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman’s scholarship about the cyclical changes at Nauset Spit is especially compelling in light of current debates. He noted that in the 1840s Chatham Light was protected by an elongated spit. Later, due to naturally recurring shifts in sands and winds and ebbs and flows of tides, an onshore migration of the spit began, eventually exposing the Light to the ocean. By the 1900s, a new strip of outer beach formed. He called this “the evolution of the barrier system,” where a complete cycle—from breach to regeneration to breach—can take “between 100 and 175 years.” Quite possibly, then, the Nauset coastline might be in the midst of a new breach phase in 2018.
Recent erosion has revealed old spirits and new skeletons from a century ago. This past November, timbered remains of what is believed to be the schooner Montclair became visible on Nauset Beach in Orleans. She broke apart “on the bars” during a vicious gale in March 1927. And her broken bones are said to have appeared and reappeared in 1957 and 2010, respectively. (The wreck was chronicled by Henry Beston; the Orleans Historical Society maintains several recovered artifacts at its museum.)
Three March 2018 nor’easters also exposed ancient peat bogs (compacted mud, grass and clay), long forgotten and buried under the beach. The bogs reveal near-fossilized tracks and hooves from horse-drawn carriages. These turn-of-the-century beach buggies traversed on makeshift peat roads, supported by cobblestones, to transport provisions to the Orleans Coast Guard Station (long gone) and harvested sea hay. After one spring tide cycle this year, remnants thought to be utility poles that carried telegraph and telephone lines to the coast guard station poked through the sand.
Liam’s was torn down on March 20, a rare sunny and placid day in an unusually stormy month, just as locals were preparing for the fourth nor’easter to hit the Cape that month.
Downtrodden onlookers did not hear the crackling of fried food on that first day of spring. Rather, they heard the cracking of wood by a Deere excavator as it tore through the weary shack. Just inside of what were once ordering windows that welcomed past patrons, an old ice cream menu was ripped from its post. To witnesses, that crushing image will be frozen in time.
James Philbrick created what few ever do: He converted a vision that became a tradition which transformed into an institution. It continued with John Ohman, who bought the business and renamed it Liam’s in 1990. For 63 years, the smell of fried food competed with the salt air on Nauset Beach. The Cape Codder said this experience was “a unique gustatory aura that attracts hordes of beach people made ravenous by sun and salty sea air.”
In the summer of 1976, Philbrick was asked how long he intended to continue his “special brand of hospitality.” He responded with a Yankee matter-of-factness: “As long as I breathe.” He passed away in 2004. The shack he built breathed its last breath for business in 2017.
The journey home will be paradoxical for many returning to Nauset this season. The annual ritual of seasonal pilgrimage was a link to intergenerational continuity, connecting past with present; one of life’s precious constants, when everything is constantly changing. It was a refuge where vulnerable souls were rejuvenated and where daily burdens were carried away—not the beach itself.
Summer of 2018 is all about change. The familiar sights, sounds and smells of endless summers past will cease temporarily. Maybe permanently.
It’s all a bit disorienting now. The mind doesn’t want to believe what the eyes see. It displays a seaside error message. But there is no reboot.
The landmarks were part of the landscape. For which soon there will be no land nor mark upon which to return. And what is particularly jarring to the psyche is that there will only be snapshots, faded postcards and failing memories to recall those joyful, fulfilling experiences at the one place thought to defy time. And the gods.
As the warm wind turns southerly and the summer season looks favorably upon the beach, nature is slowly repairing itself. But successive storms unraveled the grand tapestry of Nauset Beach. At low tide you can still see salt water trickling off a layer of peat. And patches of dune still resemble a scarred lunar surface.
A final insult, the rocks have returned. The sea surely and unsparingly throws jagged rocks together against a forgiving shore, lashed by sawtooth sands driven by winter winds. But as anyone knows, time still spent on Nauset Beach makes its visitors polished stones. No matter the season.
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