August 2011

Preserving the Cape Cod Character

Cape Cod Life  /  August 2011 / ,

Writer: Susan Spencer / Photographer: Josh Shortsleeve, Luke Simpson, and Robert Manz 

The Cape Cod National Seashore Celebrates 50 Years

Cape Cod National Seashore

Cape Cod beaches are family friendly and draw people of all ages during the summer months. Photo by Luke Simpson

Gazing across the Fort Hill overlook in Eastham, the magnificence of Cape Cod’s natural beauty and rich cultural history comes into full view. The Nauset salt marsh and ocean that sustained native peoples and early European settlers spreads out below. Heathland and fields, still populated by migratory birds, butterflies, and rabbits, reflect the agricultural past of the site, the former Knowles farm. The 19th-century home of Captain Edward Penniman, framed in view by a whale’s jawbone for a garden gate, recalls the region’s maritime heritage. It is a scene of fleeting serenity that has been eons in the making.

“When I have the opportunity to introduce anyone to the National Seashore, this is the first stop,” Cape Cod National Seashore superintendent George Price, Jr. says of Fort Hill. “It’s not only my favorite spot—it’s absolutely significant to the Seashore.”

With an estimated four million visitors a year, the Cape Cod National Seashore draws visitors who want to experience nearly 45,000 acres of unspoiled beach and serenity along the Outer Cape towns of Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro, Chatham, Orleans and Provincetown. Ever since Henry David Thoreau first chronicled his walks along its shores in the 1800s, the Cape Cod National Seashore has sparked the imagination of guests who marvel at its beauty and solitude. And today, 50 years to the month after the seashore was created, its undisturbed splendor is an inseparable part of our region.

Cape Cod National Seashore

The world famous shores of Cape Cod are a favorite vacation spot for visitors around the world, and perfect for those who love “long walks on the beach”. Photo by Robert Manz

David Spang, a longtime park volunteer, says that besides preserving Cape Cod’s authentic landscape, the establishment of the national park has helped the Outer Cape towns maintain themselves against the perils of progress. “It stopped a lot of the development that would have destroyed the towns,” he says. “It’s kept an aspect of the Cape that people come here for.”

Cape Cod National Seashore

Scenic spots like these prove why the Cape and Islands are so popular. Photo by Luke Simpson

Yet this exquisite site’s well-being has not always been secure. Just a half century ago, Fort Hill came close to being subdivided into 33 house lots. The prospect was not unique: Open space was being devoured on the rapidly growing peninsula. The advent of the automobile, completion of the Cape Cod Canal bridges in the 1930s, and the extension of Route 6 to Provincetown in 1925 accelerated the growth of tourism and unfettered development on the Outer Cape. “As early as the 1930s, environmentalists were concerned about great stretches along the Atlantic Ocean that weren’t protected,” Price says. They recognized Cape Cod’s Outer Beach as one such jewel and feared it would be built up like Miami Beach or the Jersey Shore.

In 1939, a study of the land was conducted by the National Park Service Commission to develop a proposal for the creation of a national park unit to protect the beaches. This brought more attention to the area, but the process was put on hold during the war years and legislative proposals to create a national park were not drafted until the late 1950s. “Local people were concerned about what would happen with commercial businesses, and they didn’t like the idea of someone from Washington coming and telling them what’s important here,” Price says.

Fort Hill, however, proved to be a turning point. In April 1961—following years of debate about whether to establish a national seashore and whether to include the Nauset Marsh area—a delegation of federal, state, and local officials visited the Cape’s Outer Beach, stopping for a picnic at Fort Hill. Soon after the visit, Congress passed legislation to create the National Seashore by protecting thousands of acres along the Outer Cape, including Fort Hill.

Cape Cod National Seashore

The Cape Cod National Seashore, seen here, gets an estimated 4,000,000 visitors per year. Photo by Josh Shortsleeve

On August 7, 1961, just several months later, President John F. Kennedy signed the bill into law. Jessica Sylver, the president and CEO of the Hyannis Area Chamber of Commerce, which owns the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum, notes the late president’s ties to the Cape. “It’s because President Kennedy was here in Hyannis, and because of his love for the area, that he signed the legislation to preserve it,” she says.

But after the area became a national park, there was still much work to be done to ensure its success and appreciation. Rangers had to start from scratch by finding ways to draw in visitors while also guaranteeing the land remained protected. Spang was hired in 1963 as a naturalist ranger for the new park and spent part of his first year crawling on hands and knees through scrub oak in the Atlantic cedar swamp in South Wellfleet, cutting a trail that is now a favorite hiking destination. He produced slide shows and introduced people, from Chatham to Provincetown, to the Seashore.

Spang and Price believe the Cape Cod National Seashore has stayed true to its original vision. It continues to adapt to modern changes in recreation, with improved paths for the increasing number of bicyclists and adaptive equipment to allow those with mobility impairments to enjoy Coast Guard beach in Eastham and Herring Cove beach in Provincetown. Yet despite legislation to protect the seashore, it still faces a great deal of challenges. These problems stem from a variety of reasons including rising sea levels that erode the shoreline an average of three feet a year, local zoning guidelines that allow vehicles on endangered-species habitats, or hikes on fragile dunes; traffic congestion that threatens tranquility, and demographic changes that make the area increasingly unaffordable for families that work in the park.

Still, the seashore and its pristine landscapes remain a favorite spot for those who wish to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. “The Cape, to me, has had almost a spiritual connection,” Price says. “I’m certainly thankful they fought the fight to preserve it. Our job is to tee up for the next 50 years. In the National Parks, we’re in the forever business.”

Susan Spencer is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Brewster and Whitinsville, Masschusetts. She contributes frequently to Cape Cod Life Publications.

Susan Spencer