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Poseidon’s fury is Liam’s fate

Nauset Beach

A storm during the winter of 2018 dealt the final blow to Cape Cod’s popular landmark. Photo courtesy of Mel Tulin

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.

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