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The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: Wellfleet Harbor

Editor’s note: This is the 12th in a series of articles covering the region’s dramatically changing coastline. Click here to see all of the articles. Click here to see all of the articles.

The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: Wellfleet Harbor, November/December Cape Cod Life |

Looking eastward, this recent aerial photo shows Great Island, Wellfleet Harbor, the Wellfleet mainland, and the Atlantic beyond. At left in the image, one can see Griffin Island, the Herring River, and the Chequessett Neck Road dike. Photo by Josh Shortsleeve

Did you know that just over a century ago there was an island off the bay side coast of Wellfleet? It’s true! At its peak in the mid-1800s, as many as 80 people lived on the island, which held a lighthouse, a school, and about 30 homes. Today, the island of Billingsgate is relegated to the pages of Cape Cod history, yet at low tide the Billingsgate Shoal reappears to boaters traveling in the area in the form of several acres of soggy, sandy land and occasionally a few bricks from the lighthouse’s foundation.

Time and tide sentenced Billingsgate to its waterlogged fate several decades ago, but in modern day Wellfleet the effect of the tides and the process of erosion continues, moving sand hither and yon, trimming back shorelines, and slightly but continually transforming the town’s coastal shape and footprint. Though several of Wellfleet’s Atlantic-facing beaches have experienced a good deal of beach loss as well as an undermining of the dunes in recent years, in this article we focus on Wellfleet Harbor, where coastal change has come in different forms.

To begin, Great Island, a peninsula that serves as Wellfleet Harbor’s western border, was once an island to itself—dating back as late as 1831. Over the years, currents in Cape Cod Bay moved sediment to the area from bayside beaches in Provincetown and Truro, eventually connecting Great Island—and two other islands, Beach and Griffin—by sand to the mainland. Today, the narrow strip of beach, dune, and marsh that connects Great Island to the mainland is known as The Gut, and it provides walkers (and cyclists with beach tires) access to trails in the woods and along the beach.

North of Great Island, the Herring River flows into Wellfleet Harbor, also bringing a fair share of sediment, which it dumps into the harbor. As a result, Wellfleet Harbormaster Michael Flanagan says the harbor is currently choking to the point of nonexistence at low tide. Making matters worse, according to a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute study conducted from 1989 to 1992, the harbor’s incoming tide is stronger than its ebb tide. This means that much of the sediment brought in from the ocean remains in the harbor.

Flanagan explains the situation Wellfleet boaters and fishermen are facing. “For four hours, twice per day—in the time around low tide—the harbor is unusable,” he says. “There is no water due to the silt coming in from multiple areas.” Flanagan says the harbor is basically unnavigable for eight hours, more or less, each day.

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