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