July 2016 | Cape Cod Life

The Changing Shape of Esther’s Island, Tuckernuck, and Nantucket’s western shore

Cape Cod Life  /  July 2016 / ,

Writer: Christopher Setterlund / Photographer: Paul Rifkin 

Editor’s note: This is the 9th in a series of articles covering the region’s dramatically changing coastline. Click here to see all of the articles.

The Changing Shape of Esther’s Island, Tuckernuck, and Nantucket’s western shore | Cape Cod Life JULY 2016

On this 1835 map of Nantucket one can see how the Smith’s Point peninsula extends for quite a distance off the main island and even past Tuckernuck Island. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association

Anyone who has scanned a map of Nantucket, or sailed in the waters surrounding the island, understands that there is quite a bit of water between the Nantucket and nearby Tuckernuck. It’s roughly three quarters of a mile from shore to shore—but that was not always so. Did you know that during the mid-1800s it was possible to travel most of the distance from one island to the other by wagon? Like many other areas along the Cape Cod coast, Nantucket and the small islands off its western shore have undergone many changes over the centuries as a result of time, tide, and the shifting sands of erosion.

On September 26, 1961, Hurricane Esther, a Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 110 knots, passed over Nantucket and Madaket Harbor off the west coast. The powerful storm brought a surge of water through Broad Creek, a tidal inlet of Smith’s Point, a spit of land that extends to the west off of Nantucket. As a result, Smith’s Point was bisected, and about 120 acres of land was cut off from the mainland by a new channel. The area came to be called Esther’s Island.

For nearly three decades, Esther’s Island remained separated from Nantucket, but after gradual sand accretion over the years the two islands “got back together” in 1988. This pattern repeated in the past decade: During the Patriots’ Day storm in April of 2007, a small gash, which eventually reached a depth of 20-plus feet, was rent between the landmasses; in the fall of 2009, the gap was again filled in and the islands reattached. Since then, Esther’s Island and Nantucket have remained attached at Smith’s Point.

Sarah Oktay, who worked as the director of U-Mass Boston’s Nantucket Field Station during this time period, says this kind of change is always possible. Though the two islands have been connected for nearly seven years, Oktay says “it is always possible that tides could breach the neck of Smith’s Point.” Today, Smith’s Point’s narrowest width, nearest the mainland, measures about 370 feet from north to south—the length of just over a football field.

However, Oktay’s experience has taught her that even though large storms can speed up erosion’s effects, she views it as a natural process. She refers to another example of how time and tide dramatically altered this spot. “Smith’s Point,” Oktay says, “used to stretch out past Tuckernuck.” A small island of some 860 acres, Tuckernuck currently rests about three-quarters of a mile to the west of Smith’s Point. Maps of the area from 1838 to 1869 show the sand spit extending three or more miles from the mainland, to the south of Tuckernuck—and even stretching a short distance past and to the west of the island. According to Nantucket writer and historian Frances Karttunen, it was possible up until 1869 to travel out on Smith’s Point and then ford the final watery distance of the journey to Tuckernuck in a wagon.

“Like all spits, Smith’s Point grows and then gets wiped out in storms,” Oktay says. The portion of the point that once stretched out from Nantucket gradually migrated north, Oktay adds, “and adhered, like Play-Doh, to Tuckernuck.”

The Changing Shape of Esther’s Island, Tuckernuck, and Nantucket’s western shore | Cape Cod Life JULY 2016

In the eastward-looking color photo, the land in the foreground is Tuckernuck, and at right one can see the channel, Esther’s Island, and Nantucket. Photography by Paul Rifkin

Jim Lentowski, executive director of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, is also knowledgeable about the area. “Mother Nature can always pull another trick on us,” Lentkowski says. “The water going out with the tide from the north, between Madaket Harbor and Tuckernuck, flows through a limited area. Water will seek the path of least resistance, and if only a few low-lying dunes stand in its way it might simply flow right over Smith’s Point.”

James Taaffe works as the caretaker of one of the three homes located on Esther’s Island. Because of his work, he keeps a keen eye on the area. “My trip out there is based around the weather and erosion—almost every time,” Taafe says. “My path to get out to the house has changed a half a dozen times. The beach builds and the beach disappears depending on the winds and the time of year.”   

Taaffe, who looks after more than 20 Nantucket residences, observed Esther’s Island reattach in the last few years. “When I first started going out there, I was going out by boat,” he says. “This past winter I was walking out to the house.” 

Lentkowski says it’s likely the three homes on Esther’s will remain the only structures built there. “Stability of the area raises concerns,” he says. “Wetland regulations make the development of the area extremely unlikely. There could be some new work allowed on existing structures, but probably not any new structures. The septic installation alone would not work.”

According to Lentowski, Smith’s Point has remained relatively stable in the past five or six years. Though Mother Nature could intervene at any time, he says he thinks Nantucket and Esther’s will remain connected for the foreseeable future.

The same cannot be said for the Gravel (or Gravelly) Islands. Once located between Tuckernuck and Muskeget—an island of about 300 acres just a few miles west of Tuckernuck—the two Gravel Islands were part of a cluster known as Muskeget Island Group, which also included Trombolo Point and Adams, Skiff, and Little Gull islands.

In 1770, Dr. Samuel Geltson of Nantucket built a hospital for smallpox patients on the southernmost of the two rocky islands; the spot was chosen specifically for its remote location. The islands are mentioned in an encyclopedia volume as late as 1911, and are depicted on Nantucket maps as late as 1921. Since then the Gravel Islands have been overtaken by the sea. Today, all that remain are shoals, visible only at low tide. 

The coastline of Nantucket—like other areas on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard—is constantly in flux: often gradually, sometimes drastically. The island’s coastal outline will continue to change with time. Who knows? It’s possible that one day Nantucketers will once again be able to visit their neighbors on Tuckernuck . . . by wagon. Until then, we’ll just have to wait, and watch, and see.

Christopher Setterlund is a freelance writer from South Yarmouth.

Christopher Setterlund

A resident of South Yarmouth, and a 12th-generation Cape Codder, Christopher Setterlund is a man of many talents. He’s a certified personal trainer, a freelance writer, and a published author. His recent titles include “In My Footsteps: Martha’s Vineyard,” “In My Footsteps: Nantucket,” and "Historic Restaurants of Cape Cod."