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The Changing Shape of the Cape & Islands: Wellfleet Harbor

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

Time and tide sentenced Billingsgate to its waterlogged fate several decades ago, but in modern day Wellfleet the process of erosion continues. Photo by Josh Shortsleeve

The harbor was last dredged in 2001 and 2002, but Flanagan says officials are working on permitting for a multi-million dollar dredging project that could get underway as early as 2017. “We need big-time dredging,” Flanagan says. “Hopefully after that we can have periodic maintenance dredging of the harbor, ideally once every 10 years.” He concedes that the effort is likely to take a good amount of time, as studies of the area would have to be conducted before any work begins. Until then, the harbormaster advises boaters to make note of the tides and plan accordingly.

The changes taking place in the harbor and along Wellfleet’s beaches are ongoing situations. The story of Billingsgate Island, though, is an end result of erosion’s effects on an area, even when attempts are made to stave it off.

Billingsgate has been called “Cape Cod’s Atlantis” because during the mid-to-late 19th century it was a bustling community—and today it’s no more. In addition to the homes and the lighthouse, during the mid-1800s the island, located about one-and-one-half miles south of Great Island’s Jeremy Point, had a plant where oil was rendered from the blackfish or pilot whales caught nearby.

Dating back to at least 1855, Billingsgate’s lighthouse—first built in 1822—was under threat from the sea. The whipping winds and waves routinely flooded the light tower in five feet of water. The original light was replaced in 1858, but the threat persisted. In 1888, in a massive effort to preserve the community, some 1,000 feet of jetties and bulkheads were installed and built around the island.

By 1915, however, the once thriving area had dwindled to just two residents: one lighthouse keeper and a watchman guarding the oyster beds. That same year, the lens and lamp were removed from the lighthouse, and the day after Christmas the structure toppled in a storm. The light shone on from a steel-framed tower for seven more years, but by 1922 only five acres of land remained above water, and the light was discontinued. By 1942 the island had been claimed by the sea, and today it’s only briefly visible at low tide.

In Wellfleet, Suzanne Thomas, the town’s beach administrator, says plans to deal with an ever-filling harbor, and crumbling dune faces and endangered parking lots along the Atlantic-facing beaches, are not attempts to “stop” erosion. “Erosion is a natural and ongoing process,” Thomas says, “and human attempts to ‘repair’ or ‘prevent’ it usually fail or even further damage the resource. We accommodate it; we don’t stop it. We always have to take the long view—20 to 30 years out—when dealing with the effects. We can’t stop the process, but we can plan for our reaction to it.”

Christopher Setterlund is a freelance writer from South Yarmouth.



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