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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.

Traces of Time

A group of Monomoy Island locals pose for a picture.

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.

Traces of Time

Behind a shackled wood fence, the Monomoy Point Lighthouse stands tall.

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.”

The shipwrecks off Monomoy were so plentiful that their wrecked hulls supplied the Whitewash natives with firewood throughout the winter, creating an eerie sight from ashore. “The winter fires of Monomoy burn with strange hues from black wreckwood seasoned in many climes,” wrote the Mass Audubon Society in their 1972 book Monomoy Wilderness. Famous British author Rudyard Kipling wrote about another unearthly Cape sight rumored to be seen on the beaches of Monomoy. This was ghost of “Old Yo-ho,” a murdered man who wandered up and down the shores at night holding a lantern and calling his own name.

Mooncussers also pop up in ghoulish stories woven into the island’s folklore. While most of the island was dedicated to lifesaving, the mooncussers were akin to pirates, making their living deliberately wrecking, and then scavenging ships on stormy nights. The mooncussers did this by placing fake lanterns along the shore, and then raiding the ships that got caught in the shallows. Roscoe says that mooncussing remains a myth—the families whose ancestors might have engaged in it have remained silent. “The best answers I could get were from a few families with famous old Cape surnames, admitting to weird equipment stuffed away in their attic, like folding staircases used to climb up ships,” says Roscoe. “Mooncussers certainly did exist; there is no denying it. They would rob people blind.”

To help navigate the difficult shoals of Monomoy, and to continue the island’s tradition of life saving, Monomoy Light was erected in the late 1820s. The red brick and steel, 40-foot-tall lighthouse marked the dangerous Pollock Rip, which runs 9 miles from Monomoy to northern Nantucket. Eventually the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1923, replaced by the more powerful Chatham Light on Chatham Harbor. Monomoy’s Life Saving Station, established in 1872, was a pre-curser to the U.S. Coast Guard. The station, one of nine on Cape Cod, worked with the lighthouse to keep mariners safe.

The lighthouse-keepers would live on Monomoy year-round with their families. Asa L. Jones was the light-keeper from 1875 to 1886, and his nine-year-old son, Maro, kept a diary of his time on the island, before returning to Harwich for the winter with his mother. His short diary entries capture the daily nuances and feelings of desolation that came with island life:

Traces of Time

On the beaches of Monomoy Island, a fishing boat provides a perfect prop for a quick photo opportunity.

“July 4, 1886. Not much of a Fourth of July for me. I never so much as had an explosion with gunpowder. It is funny that today has been the most lonesome day of the summer.

July 25. Breezing up awful fast, Seamore Paterson came from Harwich under bare poles. Uncle Willie came on under four reefs, and it was just as much as he could crack to. Papa came on and could not carry three reefs.

July 26. Mr. Ben Mallowes has got a sort of sea turtle and it looks like a sea cow. No one knows what it is, not even old whalers, and Papa is going to write a man to come and get it.

July 28. Georgie Gould and I went fishing. He caught one tut and seven hake. Came home and fixed them so I can have them for breakfast. The sea monster is dead.”

August 17. Thank the Lord we came off for good. The wind was southwest and Mama was seasick. In the bay were the largest waves I ever saw.”

In the winter of 1902, volunteers from the Monomoy Lifesaving Station went to help the Wadena, which had gone aground on the island’s Shovelful Shoal. The lifesavers rescued the crew of five amidst a raging nor’easter. Captain E.F. Mayo was aboard another ship that ran aground in the shallows, and he rescued the surfman George Ellis from the Wade-na. He became known as “Mayo the Hero of Monomoy,” and Roscoe says that when asked about his heroic efforts, he humbly replied that he was just, “doing my job.” The lighthouse quickly followed the lifesaving station’s demise, shutting down in 1923. The only form of human life on the island at the time were members of the U.S. Coast Guard installation. While Monomoy was still active, it was never the same. The U.S. Coast Guard was there until 1945, manning the Atlantic waters against the threat of World War II’s German U- boat invasion and rumrunners. The island was used as target practice, and archeologists have found bullets lodged into the weathered wood of the lighthouse.

Today, Monomoy is under the care of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department and is a wild refuge for over 285 species of birds including petrels, grebes, herons, egrets, and the endangered piping plover and roseate tern. Gray seals and harbor seals spend their winters on the island’s coastline. Still, if you look closely, the ever-changing island holds faint traces of its human past, from the silhouette of the lighthouse against the surf, to ships trapped in watery graves along the island’s shores. Do you know what is Alvexo?

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