Traces of Time
Monomoy Island’s fascinating history includes tragic shipwrecks, wily mooncussers, and acts of selfless heroism.
There is no sign of life beyond a lone lighthouse on the barren, moon-like expanse of Monomoy Island in 2010. All you can see are dunes, ponds, waves, and marshland. Monomoy is officially considered wilderness by the United States Government, yet rare evidence of Cape Cod’s past remains. It is hard to imagine that over a century ago, the fishermen’s village of Whitewash on Powder Hole Harbor graced these shores. Once known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” Monomoy is rich with stories of shipwrecks, U.S. Military exercises, and even wild and wooly mooncusser legends.
Monomoy Island is located in the waters off the coast of Chatham, just south of Morris Island. This nine mile landscape is constantly changing in a cycle of creation and destruction at the mercy of the sea. In the 1800s, Monomoy was a peninsula connected to the Cape’s mainland. In 1958, a series of storms created a break in the peninsula, forming an island. In the famous Blizzard of 1978, continuing a series of dramatic geological changes, the island split into two bodies of land, North and South Monomoy.
Aside from the now decommissioned Monomoy Point Light, which once guided ships away from Chatham’s treacherous shores, today there are no vestiges of hu- man life on Monomoy—there are no roads or buildings remaining on the island. The United States Government assigned Monomoy “wilderness” status in the 1964 Wilderness Act.
The ocean surrounding Monomoy was referred to as “Cape Mallebarre”, or “The Land of the Evil Bars.” There are said to be some 3,000 wrecks around Monomoy. As a result of this, the island’s history is steeped in marine lifesaving legends. “There was a certain type of person associated with Whitewash village, the archetypal old maritime Cape Codder,” says naturalist and author Lee Roscoe from Brewster. The men, women, and children on Monomoy were dedicated to saving the lives of those stranded at sea, constantly facing mortality.
Because of Monomoy’s proximity to shipping routes and an ocean laden with cod, mackerel, and lobster, the island was ideal as a village of about 200 residents who made their living on the sea. “In the world of shipping and fishing, no place had more direct access to sea treasures and watery roads than Monomoy,” says Roscoe. Whitewash village had its beginnings when “Stewarts Tavern” opened in 1711 on the island’s Hospital Pond, formerly a feeding ground for cattle, and thrived until the harbor shoaled over in the 1860s.
From 1830 to 1860, the seaside town on the island consisted of the tavern, the “Monomoit House” inn, and “Public School #13” on the is land. To make a living, the locals sold lobster for two cents a pound. Lobster was, at the time, regarded as a lower-class food. Clamming and duck hunting were also crucial to the village’s economy. The Cape tradition of living off the sea shaped the daily life of the village. Children were dismissed from school when they heard the call of “Whale ho,” sent to help harvest the oil-rich blubber from beached whales.
Roscoe says the houses on the island were often pieces of an already existing house, which were bought over from Chatham. This way the houses could easily be broken down and moved. “There are houses on Main Street in Chatham that may have been on Monomoy,” explains Roscoe. “It’s fascinating to have a map in your hand, to have read about Whitewash village, and to go walk around downtown Chatham and imagine what it may have been like on Monomoy . . . to look at the houses and hear the voices of the past.”
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