November - December 2015

The Changing Shape of Siasconset, Nantucket

Cape Cod Life  /  November/December 2015 / ,

Writer: Christopher Setterlund / Photographer: George Riethof and Jennifer Dow 

Editor’s note: This is the 6th in a series of articles covering the region’s dramatically changing coastline. Click here to see all of the articles.

Photography by Jen Dow

Photography by Jen Dow

The village of Siasconset sits on the east coast of Nantucket. A distance from downtown, the area offers stunning scenery and a unique culture and history. Due to its location, though, Siasconset (or “Sconset”) also regularly feels the wrath of the Atlantic’s rough waters beating along its shoreline. Sankaty Head Lighthouse, perhaps the village’s best known attraction—it’s a white light with one red stripe—has felt these affects over the years as the light, of course, overlooks the coast.

When the lighthouse was built in 1849, a distance of 280 feet stood between the light and the edge of the bluff. As a result of water, wind, and time, by 2007 that distance had dwindled to a mere 76 feet.

That year, in an effort to save Sankaty Light, The ‘Sconset Trust, a non-profit organization focused on land and historic preservation in the region, purchased the lighthouse from the United States Coast Guard, then raised about $4.5 million to move it from harm’s way. In October of 2007, the light was moved 400 feet back from the eroding bluff, and today, it stands near the fifth hole of the Sankaty Head Golf Club. A marker at the spot where the light once stood reveals the direness of the area’s erosion problem: today, that marker is just over 50 feet from the bluff’s edge.

Robert Felch, who served as ‘Sconset Trust’s executive director for six years before he retired in July, has witnessed the erosion firsthand. “The recent developments go back to significant storms like Hurricane Bob in [August of] 1991,” Felch says. “It went right over Sconset. Then, the Perfect Storm [in October of 1991] came a few months after and stuck around for three or four days. Those two storms, in less than three months’ time, caused an estimated 18 to 22 feet of the bluff to be lost.” Since then, Felch says the bluff has lost an average of three feet per year, and recent years have been even more devastating. In the winter of 2012-2013, the Siasconset Beach Preservation Fund (SBPF), an organization of Sconset homeowners concerned about the erosion of their neighborhood, reports the bluff lost up to 30 feet. The winter of 2013-2014 was tough too; some areas of the bluff lost another 20 feet or more.


In 2007, the Sankaty Head Lighthouse was moved 400 feet from its original location. Photo by Jen Dow

The effect of the erosion has varied along the length of the bluff. Felch says Codfish Park, a residential community at sea level, has eroded and accreted in a continuous cycle over the past 50 years. “[Since 1991] there have been eight to ten homes lost to erosion there,” he says. “However, further north on the bluff, which [stands] 70 to 90 feet in height, there [has been] more warning time. Many homes in danger were moved on their land footprint back closer to Baxter Road.” Regarding Baxter Road, which runs parallel to the shore, some locals are concerned because the neighborhood’s utilities and sewer system are built underground, next to the road. If the road erodes, these would have to be moved.

Josh Posner, president of the SPDF, has also seen the erosion worsen over time. “My family first started vacationing on the Sconset Bluff in 1960 when I was a child,” he says. “At that time, there was no erosion problem. The bluff in front of our house, which is now a steep cliff of sand, was a gently sloping fully vegetated bank with 200 feet of dune in front of it.”

In the early 1990s, Posner says homeowners in the area formed the ‘Sconset Trust with the simple goal of finding effective methods to protect their homes and their community from erosion.

In recent years, the SBPF and the Town of Nantucket together introduced a plan to install a series of geotubes along the toe of the bluff, where the erosion is worst. Though the project was at first rejected by Nantucket’s Conservation Commission, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection approved it, and the work began in 2013.

Now installed, these ‘tubes’ are made from a geotextile fabric that is filled with sand. The tubes are 200 feet long, seven feet high and 20 feet wide, and are arranged along the base or “toe” of the bluff in four overlapping steps. The longer the tubes remain in place, the general consensus is the sturdier they become. As of October of 2015, a total of 900 feet of tubes had been installed along the mid-portion of the bluff.

Sankaty Head Light_George Riethof

Photography by George Riethof

So far, Felch says the tubes have done their job. “I am not a scientist,” he says, “but there is definitely evidence that the tubes have slowed or stopped the erosion at the toe of the bluff.” According to the SBPF’s 2015 summer newsletter, no new erosion has been measured at the toe of the bluff since the tubes were installed, and the organization hopes to install additional tubes all the way north along the coast, from mid-Baxter Road to the lighthouse.

Posner says the tubes represent an environmentally sensitive solution to erosion, and they are installed in an attempt to mimic natural erosion and to prevent harm to local beaches.

Another measure being conducted with the hope of slowing erosion in the area is more of a “grassroots” effort. “There has been an effort to re-vegetate the middle section of the bluff, atop the geotubes,” Felch says. “The hope is that [the vegetation] will hold the sand firmly in place, much like it did back in the 1940s and 1950s when vegetation was strong.”

When it comes to Sconset and Nantucket as a whole, Felch says the best remedy for dealing with the issue of erosion is for island residents to work together. “Erosion is an ever-present issue,” he says. “It will have a big impact on the future of Nantucket. The entire island needs to come together to address the issue. In addition to Sconset, there are other areas on the island, like the downtown harbor, where erosion issues will become a problem someday.”

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."