A report upon the public holdings of the shore towns of Massachusetts – 1891

The Trustees of Public Reservations was created by an act of the Massachusetts state legislature in 1891 in response to a campaign by landscape architect Charles Eliot and others to preserve historic buildings and vistas in the state which were threatened by development.

The organization, known today as the Trustees of Reservations, commissioned Jonathan Baxter Harrison to survey the towns along the coast of the state from the New Hampshire border to Rhode Island and report on the public access situation in nearly 50 seaside cities and towns.

Here is Harrison’s report, extracted from the Trustees’ first annual report published in 1891.

Piers, landings, and oyster grants: the story of Cotuit’s Town Dock

A brief history of how Cotuit replaced a private pier with a public one.

Cotuit's town dock in the 1920s or 1930s
Photograph by Hugh Knight
Cotuit’s new town dock in the 1920s, taken shortly after its construction c.1925

Man marks the earth with ruin-his control
Stops with the shore;-upon the watery plain
– Lord Byron “The Dark, Blue Sea”


At the foot of Oyster Place Road, on the western shore of Cotuit Bay, stands Cotuit’s only public pier. Nearly 100 years old, the town dock is  a  commercial-grade pier sturdy enough for a car or small truck to drive onto for the stepping of masts, servicing of moorings or hauling away fish and totes full of whelks.

Inland of the two narrow strips of beach that flank the timber pier there are fifty parking spaces,  two security cameras,  a solar-powered trash compactor, a rain garden  that filters road run-off before it reaches the harbor, a bulletin board displaying shellfish regulations and maps of open and closed relay zones, and a wide-mouthed piece of PVC pipe with a sign inviting anglers to dispose their old monofilament fishing line into its maw. The timber approach to the pier is wide enough for a vehicle and widens to a large square section set atop a cluster of pilings permanently pounded into the black mud. The original section of the old dock is flanked on its east and west sides by two sets of seasonal dinghy floats reached via aluminum gangways. Two wooden park benches sit on either side of the pier. The planks are littered with broken shells scattered by seagulls who’ve learned to drop quahogs from a height to crack them open.

Cotuit Town Dock today

To the south, or right side of the dock, is a chain-link fence and a low concrete wall fronted by a row of boulders half-submerged at high tide.  It was there in 1875 that Captain Jarvis R, Nickerson and his son-in-law, Captain Washington Robbins, dumped wagons filled with rocks and sand into the shallows to build the foundation of a stone-fill pier for loading and unloading the cargo carried to and from Cotuit aboard the coastal schooners that once were the mainstay of the village’s maritime industry. Now there is nothing left to indicate there was once a busy commercial wharf there until the early 1920s. The square foundation of sand and rubble is overgrown with salt-stunted bushes and weeds, the faded traces of what was once the working center of Cotuit Port at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In 2020, the current owner of the property where the old wharf once stood  filed an application to demolish the remains of the old Jarvis Nickerson pier and replace it with a new dock for his own use. That application is still pending at the time this was written in February of 2021  but it has focused community attention on the history of Cotuit’s waterfront and its gradual evolution from a commercial port to a summer resort.  Buried in the past history of the town dock is a story of Cotuit’s waterfront spiced up with a whiff of greed marking the end of Cotuit’s identity as the home port of a society of sea captains and watermen to its present reputation as a  summer resort trying to hang onto what’s left of its traditions.

update 2021.03.04: the current application by 33 Oyster Place has been withdrawn by the applicant.


Landings

Today’s town dock was built nearly a century ago in the mid-1920s.  Before there was a dock, there was simply the town landing, a narrow strip of empty beach at the end of a road that  curves up a hill to the former commercial  center of Cotuit.

Oyster Place Road first connected the town landing to Main Street in 1867. In the center is a hay scale, used to weigh cargoes arriving and departing Cotuit Port. The shack on the shore is a boathouse belonging to the Lowell estate.

There were other places  like the Oyster Place landing in the village –   places where one could “land” passengers or cargo from a small boat.  There was a landing on  the shore of the inner harbor at Cordwood Landing  and another inside of Handy’s Point at the end of Little River Road adjacent to the old Handy shipyard. The foot of Old Shore Road, where Braddock Crocker built the first dock on the harbor in 1787, is  called Hooper’s Landing, after Samuel Hooper, the village’s first summer resident who came to town in 1849 seeking a Cotuit captain to sail one of his ships to China and who ended up buying that captain’s farm with the promise to look after it while the sailor was at sea. The village also had a landing at  Riley’s Beach at the bottom of Cross Street in the High Ground near the harbor entrance, as well as other  landings at Rushy Marsh, Crocker Neck, and Shoestring Bay. In the 19th century most Cotuit residents knew where the landings were,  but were unsure about the actual boundaries, unaware the town only owned the land  as far as the high water mark in some cases, meaning any person landing on such a land locked landing would technically be trespassing except at high tide.

Round Cove c. 1910 – Nelson Nickerson’s oyster shanty on the beach beside Winthrop Sturge’s houseboat.

There were no “beaches” in the village before the 1920s.  Few people, if any, went to the beach in the mid-19th century with the intention of swimming and basking in the sun. There were bathhouses scattered along the shore where people would change into their “bathing costumes” before wading into the bay to cool off during a summer heatwave, but there were no public beaches set aside for recreation.  The waterfront was a working place, the domain of sailors, shipwrights, oystermen, and fishermen who used the beaches to build, launch and repair their boats.  The shore was  cluttered with skiffs moored to cedar posts set in the mud, flanked by heaps of oyster shells (in the early days of Cotuit’s oyster business the clams were shucked and brined in barrels before being shipped off-Cape)   used to pave the village’s  sandy roads and paths down to the waterfront.  While the colonial ordinances from the 1640s granted ownership of the beach down to the low water mark, the owners of the shoreside lots in the mid-19th century were mainly sailors themselves who shared the beaches with the local watermen who worked the oyster grants  and fished in Nantucket Sound. Some of the watermen built shacks along the shore, small sheds tucked under the foot of the bluffs that circle the bay, set atop cedar pilings to spare them from flooding on high tide: weathered shanties used to store nets,  traps and cedar planked skiffs.  The paths down to the waterfront crossed private property but no owners seemed to mind, given that most of the village was dominated by the names of a few old families such as Nickerson, Fish, Hallett, Coleman, Bearse, and Handy and more often than not the man walking down the path with a pair of oars over his shoulder was a cousin, nephew or son-in-law.


 Captain Nickerson builds a wharf

The Nickerson family came to Cotuit in 1810 from Harwich when Seth Nickerson, a fisherman  looking for a protected anchorage to moor his fishing boat (Harwichport had no harbors then), sailed west seeking a safe harbor and a place to settle.  He came upon a small salt pond with a channel into Nantucket Sound at Cotuit’s Rushy Marsh.  The pond (now closed off from the sea) was protected by Sampson and Gull Islands, with a deep water anchorage behind them where a small ship could lay protected at anchor. A hurricane in the early 1800s washed the first Nickerson settlement  out of Rushy Marsh  (leading local historian James Gould to speculate that the area became known as “Oregon” because an early map noted Rushy Marsh was the “original” Nickerson settlement). Nickerson moved his family north to the bluffs overlooking Sampson’s Island giving that neighborhood it’s present name as the “High Ground.”

The Nickerson’s prospered,  multiplied and spread throughout Cotuit Port to such an extent thag by 1880 more than a quarter of the homes in the village along Main Street were occupied by one  Nickerson or another  as noted on the edition of Walker’s Street Atlas published that year.   

Jarvis Nickerson was born in 1817 in  Cotuit Port to Seth Nickerson’s son Shubael  and daughter-in-law Rebecca Phillips Nickerson.  Like most Nickerson men, he went to sea in his teens and learned the ropes aboard a whaler. In 1840 he married Deliliah Ellis of Harwich and a year later their first child, Rebecca was born. Rebecca married Captain Washington Robbins in 1861.   Robbins was master of the Mary B. Wellington and set a record sailing from Boston to New York, returning in a few hours less than five days.  He was an excellent mariner and had a reputation as a “driver”, which meant that he sailed his ship hard and with as much sail as she could carry. The Wellington was lost in a collision in Boston Harbor with a vessel owned by Capt. Benjamin Crosby of Cotuit.

Jarvis and his son-in-law owned the schooner Hattie M. Howes — along with shares in other Cotuit coasters – a practice the local captains employed to spread the risk of a shipwreck across several ships rather than stake all of their financial security in a single ship of their own.  The town built a road from Main Street down to the town landing in 1867 and a few years later, in 1873, the two men applied to the state Board of Harbors Commissioners for a license to build a solid fill-wharf on the foot of the Jarvis’ property beside the landing’s beach, described by Cotuit historian James Gould as “merely a side landing for fishermen.” In January 1874, the legislature passed House Bill No. 12, “An Act to authorize Jarvis R. Nickerson and Associates to construct a wharf in Barnstable.”

Solid-fill wharves were the sturdiest and easiest method of constructing a waterfront structure in the 18th and 19th centuries. Wagon loads of boulders, stones and land fill were hauled down to the  beach and dumped to create a raised piece of land that jutted into the waters past the low water mark and beyond until enough depth could be assured to permit a boat or ship to tied up alongside. Also known as “quays” or “moles, solid-fill wharves were the basis of most early wharfs. Timber docks were favored for seasonal use, their posts pounded into the bottom with mallets because the heavy equipment needed to drive a substantial and permanent wooden piling into the mud didn’t exist in the late 1890s.

Painting by Edward Darley Boit, c. 1910 — the remains of the first wharf in Cotuit, built by Braddock Crocker in 1797 at the foot of Hooper’s Landing on the site where the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club’s seasonal pier stands today. The method Crocker used — dumping land fill into the harbor and surrounding it with wooden pilings, was the same Jarvis Nickerson would use

Nickerson and Robbins  encased the 40’ x 60’ rectangle of  landfill with a wooden bulkhead, then decked over the pile of  sand and rocks with heavy planks. In 1881 a derrick was erected on the wharf “which will be a great convenience to boats landing cargoes.” The following year the  Barnstable Patriot reported: “We hear Capt. Jarvis Nickerson is going to enlarge his wharf, and the schooner H. Cole will load and discharge there in the future.” Evidently neither the addition of  derrick, nor the expansion of the wharf, required new liceses from the state’s harbor commissioners, as there are no mentions of  any additional  petitions by Nickerson in the commission’s annual reports.

The pier was leased to  the Sears lumber company of Hyannis beginning in 1887  for the storage of lumber and coal. Other tenants over the half-century the pier was in existence included a plumber, carpenter, boat builder, fishmonger and oyster company . Several shanties were build inland to house those tenants. The wharf became the busiest part of the Cotuit waterfront as soon as it was completed, and it shifted the commercial center of Cotuit Port south from the cove at Hooper’s Landing where the waterfront was undergoing a transition from a depot for island packets and cordwood schooners, to a summer resort at the Santuit House.

Capt. Bennett Dottridge’s yard on Jarvis Nickerson’s wharf, c. 1895. Cordwood was in high demand on Nantucket, and was loaded by hand from the stacks piled on the wharf onto the schooners that plied the route between Cotuit Port and the island every day. After losing his son in his third shipwreck, Dottridge managed the Sear’s lumberyard and coal yard

Cotuit Bay was (and remains) too shallow to serve large schooners and ships such as whaling barks. Local knowledge of the channels and shifting shoals was mandatory for any vessel of any size to enter and exit the bay. But because Cotuit Port was situated on the middle of the coastal route used by schooners hauling freight between Boston and New York (before the opening of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914)  Cotuit was a popular layover for schooners that needed to make repairs , wait for a favorable tide to carry them through Vineyard Sound, or in the case of the three dozen schooners that called Cotuit their homeport, a place to stop to check in with the family, pick up some clean clothes, and re provision the schooner’s galley. Few of those schooners could enter the shallow bay, anchoring instead outside of Dead Neck in Nantucket Sound at an anchorage called “Deep Hole” , a spot marked as the “Cotuit Anchorage” on old nautical charts. In early December, before winter’s ice closed the harbor,  most of Cotuit’s fleet of  schooners would be brought inside of the bay and moored in Round Cove off of Jarvis Nickerson’s wharf. Only the smaller, two-masted “tern” class of schooners with centerboards regularly entered the bay to load and unload their cargoes at the wharf. Jarvis Nickerson permitted schooners other than the one belonging to him and his son-in-law – the Hattie M. Howes — to use his private wharf, Old photographs from the 1890s show several schooners rafted up alongside the end of the wharf . Two large coal sheds were erected close to the town landing for the storage of coal delivered to the village by schooners (coal can spontaneously combust when wet, so storing it under a roof was important).

Schooners rafted up on the wharf, c. 1890. The shanty on pilings to the right is the Lowell boathouse. The town landing is the narrow band of sand behind it between the coal sheds.

In the mid-1880s  Jarvis Nickerson suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right of his body. His sailing days at an end, in 1884, less than a decade after its construction, Jarvis Nickerson’s wife Delilah sold the wharf to Freeman Ballard Shedd of Lowell, Massachusetts.


The Shedd Pier Years

Freeman B. Shedd was a former pharmacist born in the mill city founded and named for the same Lowell family that had made Cotuit their summer home since the 1870s. Shedd served in the Civil War as a medic and saw several battles during his enlistment in the Union Army. After the war Shedd returned to his former job at a drug store in Lowell where he and a co-worker invented a men’s cologne called “Hoyt’s German Cologne.” Shedd ran the company and amassed a fortune that enabled him to bequeath a 200 -acre park to the city of Lowell which bears his name today.

Freeman B. Shedd: the “Cologne King” of Lowell and former owner of the Jarvis Nickerson pier .

Shedd expanded the pier and continued to run it as a depot for cargo entering and leaving the port. During his three decades of ownership, he added a boat shop on pilings to the southwest side of the landfill, and erected the coal sheeds on the property beside (perhaps even encroaching on) the beach belonging to the town landing.

Jarvis Nickerson died in 1892, finally succumbing to the stroke that had crippled him. His widow Delilah continued to live in their home atop the bluff overlooking the bay.

The Oyster Place wharf, c. 19o4. The original 60′ x 40′ landfill is between Capt. Carleton Nickerson’s fish shack and the Sears Co. coal shed on the left, indicating a considerable (and unlicensed) expansion of the wharf on either side by the construction of two annexes built on pilings. The derrick added to the wharf in 1885 is in the center of the photograph.

In 1904 an unknown incident occurred at the town landing that was enough to motivate Cotuit’s voters to place two articles on the warrant for discussion at the 1904 town meeting . The first article was to: “…see if the Town will vote to instruct and impower the Selectmen to employ a competent surveyor and have the present Town Landing (below the estate of the late Jarvis Nickerson) in the Village of Cotuit resurveyed and permanently bounded and appropriate a sum of money therefore, and to act fully thereon.”

The Oyster Place Wharf, c. 1910 – Capt. Carleton Nickerson’s fish market sits on pilings alongside the original pier, flanked by a mound of oyster shells, or “culch” used to pave lanes or provide baby seed oysters with a foundation to attach themselves to. Note the bath houses on the beach under the bluff below Freedom Hall.

Had Shedd or one of his tenants on the wharf encroached on the town’s strip of sand? We may never know unless some forgotten document or plot plan emerges from the archives.

Update 2021.03.03:

Thanks to Mark Walter and his persistence, a librarian at the Massachusetts archives was able to locate the plan for Shedd’s 1906 application to the state’s harbor commissioners for a license to expand the pier.

The 1906 expansion plan indicates in red ink a new set of pilings for an “oyster house” which would sit against the lot line between the wharf and the town landing.

Time is a cruel eraser of history and the deeds and newspaper clippings from that period lack any back stories that might explain why Cotuit requested a survey of the town landing’s boundaries. Histories and reminiscences of life in Cotuit often omitted the “bad” side of recent events because their authors were sensitive not to offend the parties involved or their extended families. A historian must infer, from the limited amount of primary source material available, that all issues brought before the town meeting at the voters’ request had their origins in some issue or conflict, especially an issue as specific as that 1904 warrant article calling for a survey of the property specifically adjacent to Jarvis Nickerson’s commercial wharf, and not the other side of property adjacent to the boathouses belonging to Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell. One can speculate that Shedd had done something (or announced plans to do something) that irked the old sea captains who tacitly ran the town from the Mariner’s Lodge in Thomas Chatfield’s sail loft and Freedom Hall’s attic.

The addition of the second article for the 1904 town meeting was about another town landing in Cotuit: “To see if the Town will vote to appoint a committee to look up the records of the Town’s Landing at Little River and report at the next Annual Meeting.” Seeking official clarification of the legal status of the village’s waterfront holdings was to be expected given the memory of an alarming dispute between the town and two Cotuit property owners that occurred eight years before. There was an urgent need across the entire Cape after the turn of the century to nail down what public access points existed as the old captains and watermen in other Barnstable villages and Cape towns realized the informal paths and ancient custom of sharing the beach was insufficient against the plans of an off-Cape real estate speculator determined to exercise or even nullify the public’s traditional but informal rights on their land.

Thomas Fisher, grandson of Capt. Thomas Chatfield, was voted the “strongest man” in his class at MIT. Here he applies himself to a lever while launching a catboat on the public landing at Ropes Beach in the 1930s or 40. Before boat ramps and a town dock, locals launched and hauled their boats over the sand of the town landings.

The natives grow restless

The two town meeting articles of 1904 concerning the status of Cotuit’s landings were intended to determine the precise boundaries of the two most important pieces of public property on the shores of Cotuit Bay. Perhaps the articles were forced by some unrecorded expansion and encroachment of the old Sears Co. pier’s operations onto the public landing. The need to a fix the property lines of the public’s landings wasn’t just Cotuit’s problem. It was a familiar issue from one end of the peninsula to the other in the first decade of the 20th century, as one Cape Cod town after another formed committees and hired surveyors and title examiners to determine which, if any town landings a town thought it owned, were actually owned. Droves of off-Cape developers and syndicates of investors were buying large tracts of property held for generations by the descendants of the Cape’s colonial settlers. The land boom had already transformed the working waterfront from a few scattered homes and beach shanties, into summer estates owned by summer people from Boston who became alarmed by the sight of an oysterman walking over their land to get to his skiff and posted no trespassing signs to stop the practice.

Cotuit first confronted the ambiguity surrounding its landings in 1896,  almost ten years before the rest of the  Cape realized they were facing a huge problem and the risk of losing public access to the shoreline. The real estate boom arrived early in Cotuit, fueled by the early influx of guests introduced to the village’s many charms while visiting the Thorndyke, Hooper, Lowell and Codman estates, and by wealthy vacationers who lodged at the Cape’s first hotel: the Santuit House overlooking Hooper’s Landing. In 1890 Grand Island (known today as Oyster Harbors) was purchased by a “company of New York and Boston men” who intended to develop the former woodlot and Wampanoag summer camp with a golf course and shoreside mansions. Their plans depended on the legislature’s approval of their request to construct a draw bridge from Osterville to the islandin 1891. Cotuit’s carpenters were busy across the bay building the first summer homes on Grand Island, and the scenery around the shoreline was changing from undeveloped bluffs and saltmarshes to rows of new houses on land that for over 100 years had been only used for cutting cordwood needed on Nantucket.

Loading cordwood for Nantucket, c. 1880

“Wherever the summer people have bought places on the seashore…”

In 1891, the legislature, at the urging of Frederic Law Olmstead’s protégé Charles Eliot, passed a bill to create The Trustees of Public Reservations, a non-profit organization devoted to preserving the state’s remaining historical structures, vistas and open space vanishing under the pressure of development. Among the Trustee’s founders was Cotuit’s Colonel Charles R. Codman, owner of the three-story mansion atop Bluff Point. In the first annual report of the Trustees, an extensive (and sad elegy to an old way of life) was published as an appendix: J.B. Harrison’s “Report upon the public holdings of the shore towns of Massachusetts.”

Jonathan Baxter Harrison, was a prominent New Hampshire minister and crusading journalist who devoted his career to advance the emerging cause of conservation and preservation through his writing and eloquent letters to the editors of New England’s newspapers and magazines. Those letters are credited with making the general public aware of the urgent need to preserve open space and guarantee their access to the shoreline.  Harrison surveyed the coastline of Massachusetts from Salisbury on the New Hampshire state line to Westport on Rhode Island’s.  His report as published in the first appendix of the Trustee’s first annual report is a sad obituary to a way of life along the state’s coastline, one vanishing under the pressure of wealth and greed.

Jonathan Baxter Harrison was one of the first conservationists to warn about the closing of the coastline and the displacement of the traditional watermen who depended on access to the sea to make their livings.

“I found everywhere recent changes in the ownership of land, and a movement of people of means from the cities and the interior of the country to the shore regions of the State . I found leagues and leagues together of the shore line to be all private holdings, without the intervention, in these long reaches, of a road of space on the shore to which the public has a right to go. I walked across the domain of one man who owns about six miles of shore line. I found a great population inland hedged away from the beach , and all conditions pointing to a time, not remote, when nobody can walk by the ocean in Massachusetts without payment of a fee.”

J.B. Harrison, author of the Trustees of Public Reservations’ “Report upon the public holdings of the shore towns of Massachusetts.”

Harrison was alarmed and saddened by the impact the new money was having on the remote sea-side towns and villages, and his report warned about the threat those places faced to their ancient paths and town landings as outsiders bought the land and posted no trespassing signs.

“Except in a few instances, the public holdings in these towns have not been measures, and their area is unknown. It would be well to have them accurately surveyed, the bounds marked, and their area made a matter of public and authoritative record.

“In a large proportion of the shore towns the public holdings have diminished in extent. Not only have all the old common lands, town pastures, and woodlands and extensive shore holdings been parcelled out to individual possession, but many of the towns have permitted serious encroachments upon the smaller public holdings which were intended by the founders and early inhabitants to be permanent. In many instances it is evident that the first settlers had a pretty clear idea of the value and need of open spaces for public use in town and villages, and they showed commendable foresight and public spirit in providing for them.

“Wherever the summer people have bought places on the seashore, they show a disposition to exercise the right of exclusive domain, and to repel as trespasser all who enter upon their grounds for any purpose whatever. In some instances, people are thus excluded from places where rights of public resort and passage have been exercised for generations. Even where the ancient legal rights of the people are clear, they are being generally relinquished because it costs too much to maintain them against such aggression.”

Harrison

Harrison’s report predicted  “The problem of title to the shore, and the use and enjoyment of it by the people of the State, will in time be a most vital and important public question here.”  Regarding the situation in Cotuit, Harrison was prescient. A year after he wrote his report for the Trustees of Public Reservations, its next annual report of 1893 found in  Barnstable  “There are believed to be five public landings; but of these only two – one at Cotuit and one at East Bay, Osterville – are known to belong to the town.”


The landing with no beach

When Cotuit petitioned the selectmen in 1904 to send a surveyor to mark out its town landings, the village’s elderly sea captains backed the request. They had already confronted the issue of  who owned the traditional ways to the shoreline eight years before in 1896, when two property owners in the High Grounds – Capt. Oliver C. Lumbert and Alexander C. Adams – applied to the state Board of Harbor and Land Commissioners for licenses to build two wharfs on the small beach behind Sampson’s Island that is known today as Riley’s Beach.

The Barnstable Patriot, February 3, 1896
The situation at Riley’s Beach at the foot of Cross Street in the High Ground sounded the first alarm over Cotuit’s ways to water and town landings.

When the Harbor Commissioners published two legal notices in December 1895 announcing the date and time of hearings for the Lumbert and Adams’ piers, the people of Cotuit took immediate notice, enough that the following month, on January 27, 1896, the Barnstable Patriot reported:

“Cotuit is interested in a matter before the legislature to provide for a public landing in the westerly part of the village. For years one of the public roads has led down to the shore, at which there was a boat landing. On one side of this road the land is owned by Alexander C. Adams and on the other by Oliver C. Lumbert. The town only owns to the high water mark, and the stretch between this and the low water line belongs to the two abutters. These parties have forbidden trespassing on their property, and the townspeople are shut out from the landing except at high tide. To remedy this, they have petitioned the legislature for the right to purchase or take by right of eminent domain the strip of land in question.”

Barnstable Patriot, January 27, 1896

The contingent from Cotuit filed an article for the town meeting “To see if the town will raise and appropriate a sum of money for the purpose of purchasing a town landing in the village of Cotuit.”  At the town meeting in early March of 1896 “Captain U.A. Hull, T.C. Day, Thos. Chatfield and Capt. Walton Hinckley spoke in favor. Their arguments persuaded the other town meeting members from the town’s other six village to appropriate $200 to buy the beach rights from Lumbert and Alexander. At the request of the board of selectmen, the state legislature approved House Bill No. 171 to authorize the town of Barnstable “to take certain lands in the Village of Cotuit, between low and high water mark, for a public landing place. To take by purchase or otherwise, so much of the flats and lands between high and low water mark, adjoining a town road, which road leads from the Country Road (Main Street) .”


The Shedd Pier expands

Bruised and perhaps on high alert after the surprise that the town didn’t own the beach rights, Cotuit’s contingent of old sea captains remained on high alert and served as a warning to Osterville, Centerville, Hyannisport and Hyannis that they too might not own the shorefront they believed they owned. The newspapers from the era note other villages in Barnstable asked the selectmen to do the same surveys and title searches in the othervillages. In Eastham, and Wellfleet the towns’ selectmen were asked to “ascertain the cost of a town landing.” In Centerville the matter was so urgent that some concerned citizens bought an ad in the newspaper to urge the County Commissioner “to view the Town Landing in the Village of Centerville on Long Beach, for the purpose of locating same; and erecting necessary bounds.”

In1898, two of Cotuit’s captains — Carleton Nickerson and Thomas Chatfield — fought Osterville’s long-standing desire to cut through Dead Neck and create a channel directly from West Bay to Nantucket Sound. The two sailors argued any man-made alterations to the natural coast line would lead to shoaling and changes to Cotuit Bay – arguments the state ignored  when it approved the construction of the Osterville Cut after two raucous public hearing by the state Board of Harbor Commissioners at Freedom Hall in Cotuit and a day later in Osterville. Yet, besides settling the location of the town landings and keeping Cotuit Bay open, the Cotuit captains had another pressing issue on their list of concernhs: the town’s shellfish regulations, or lack thereof.

At the same town meeting in 1904 where Cotuit asked for an official survey of the town landings at Little River and Oyster Place, the village also proposed article 27 “to make all possible effort to prevent the destruction of shellfish in the water of the Town or do anything in relation to the same.”

There are no published reports of shellfish being destroyed in Cotuit, but elsewhere in town, at Barnstable Harbor on the northside, locals were furious that out-of-town fishermen were trapping eels in traps called “fykes.” Without providing any context for the issue or publishing any reports about shellfish being destroyed, the Patriot reported: “Capt. Chatfield advocated that something be done to prevent the wholesale destruction of shellfish. Capt. C.H. Allyn. Lorenzo Lewis, A.S. Childs, and Dr. W.H. Row spokes on the article. A motion to indefinitely postpone was voted down. John S. Nicholson advocated that the Selectmen enforce the present laws and prescribe regulations for taking shellfish. It was later so ordered.”

A year after Cotuit asked to clarify the boundaries of the town landing, in 1905 Shedd  filed an application with the state for a license to “maintain a wharf, partly solid and partly on piles, and to widen a portion of the same, on piles in Cotuit Harbor.” Whether this was an “after-the-fact” attempt to get permission for something he had already built, or because the pier needed repairs and modifications, Shedd received approvals from the town and the state to go ahead with the work, with the proviso that “….no part, however of the proposed widening to extend easterly of the line E-F on said plan, extended southerly.”

It is unknown if Shedd ever made the improvements, but the wharf had definitely expanded far beyond the footprint of the original 1875 pier.


A stranger comes to town

In 1912, Harry D. Haight — a summer resident of Wakeby Pond in Sandwich and a wealthy executive at the Eastman Kodak Company of Rochester, New York —  became a big fan of Cotuit’s oysters.  So big a fan that he decided he should own all of of them. Oyster harvesting began in Cotuit in the mid-19th century, and ever since about a dozen Cotuit  independent oystermen had tended the oyster grants given to them by the town.  Those early oystermen had shucked, brined, and shipped the oyster meat off the Cape in barrels, but the extension  of the Old Colony railroad from Sandwich  to Provincetown  in 1874 opened up a lucrative  opportunity to ship live oysters off of the Cape packed in barrels, unopened and still in their shells to the restaurants of Boston and New York.

Harry D. Haight, Oyster Entrepreneur

In 1912 Haight founded the Cotuit Oyster Company and incorporated it and its trademarks with the Commonwealth’s Secretary of State. Haight, emboldened by the backing of his silent partners and investors, stunned Cotuit when his intentions to consolidate and dominate the local oyster business became known as he bought up nearly all the independent  oyster grants in Cotuit; grants that had been worked since the mid-19th century by a dozen or more local oystermen. The May 13, 1912 edition of the Barnstable Patriot contained three separate items announcing Haight’s sudden arrival in the village.

  • “The Cotuit Oyster Company has rented the building formerly occupied by A.C. Savery and C. H. Stubbs and is fitting up office there.”4
  • “We understand H.D. Haight of Boston, who is treasurer of the Oyster Company has bought the house of Mr. W.B. (William) Crosby at Little River and will live there.”
  • “We understand that H.D. Haight for Boston, a summer resident of Wakeby, has incorporated an oyster company with a capitalization of $150,000 and is manager of the same. The company has taken over the oyster grants of nearly all the growers of Cotuit.”

Haight was busy in the spring of 1912. On May 12, 1912 the Cotuit Oyster Company purchased William Crosby’s land in Little River, including a license Crosby had received from the state in 1910 “to build a sea-wall and pile wharf and to fill solid and maintain a building on piles in Cotuit Bay.”

The oyster shanties at Little River on the shores of the Inner Harbor. The Cotuit Oyster Company is located there today, but most of the shanties were destroyed by the Hurricane of 1938

In June of 1912, Freeman B. Shedd filed an agreement at the Barnstable County Registry of Deeds  made between himself and Haight’s Cotuit Oyster Company to sell the wharf and land around it to the Oyster Company for $4,000 to be paid in four installments over the next year. In August the Oyster Company purchased the “house of Delilah Nickerson [Jarvis Nickerson’s widow) over looking the wharf and coal sheds they have lately purchased.”

Before Haight’s company could finish paying off the promised $4,000 to Shedd, the Lowell cologne king died in March of 1913.  Two months later Shedd’s daughter and the executors of his estate filed a new agreement reached with Haight at the registry of deeds, extending the deadline for the remaining payments to the end of the year.

In early 1914, the Cotuit Oyster Company petitioned the state for “a license to build a bulkhead, fill solid and extend a wharf in Cotuit Harbor.” The license was granted that spring and and the plan submitted with the application notes the land was the property of the “Estate of Freeman B. Shedd” with, in parenthesis — “(Cotuit Oyster Co.) — appended below it. It would take another four years until 1918 for the Cotuit Oyster Company to officially take possession of the deed to the wharf and surrounding land from Shedd’s daughter Mary , when a final payment of $1,018 was made on the property.

The Cotuit Oyster Company’s plot plan to expand the wharf from 1914

Haight’s expansion plans for the wharf didn’t especially concern the Cotuit sea captains. But his private-equity tactic of consolidating the independent oyster grants under one roof did.

The hottest article on the 1914 town meeting warrant was number 30, but the moderator moved it for discussion after the rest of the warrant had been discussed and voted on:

“To see if the Town will appoint or cause to be appointed a committee of not less than three to investigate the conditions governing the leasing of grants for the cultivation of oysters and other shellfish in, and adjacent to the water of Cotuit Bay; to ascertain the conditions under which the Cotuit Oyster Company is cultivating oysters and other shellfish, if any, in the waters of this Town of Barnstable; the number of grants together with the full description therefore used by them; the number and par value of its shares of stock, together with the names and residences of the owners thereof; the number of barrels and kinds of shellfish which it has marketed each year, and any and all other particulars which may seem to said Committee, material to the issue and to report the same to the town, on or before the annual meeting of 1915: and to raise and appropriate a sum of money not exceeding $500 for the expenses of said committee and to act fully thereon.”

“Article 30  was tabled for discussion until the very end of the town meeting. The Patriot reported on March 3, 1914: “It concerned the residents of Cotuit mainly and they indulged in a spirited discussion, assisted by others of the townspeople. Senator Gifford (state senator and future U.S. Congressman Charles Gifford), Capt. U.A. Hull, Maurice Crocker, Wm. B. Crosby, B.F. Crosby were among the participants in the discussion. A motion was first made to indefinitely postpone, the vote was doubted and found to be tied, 19 for and 19 against. Captain Chatfield moved the appointment of a committee of three to investigate the matter and appropriation of $200 for the same. This motion was not adopted.”

The Barnstable Patriot’s account of the 1914 town meeting discussion and decision to investigate the Cotuit Oyster Company.

A two-person committee was eventually appointed to look into the Cotuit Oyster Company and its finances. In 1915, at the annual town meeting, E.L. Chase and Z. H. Jenkins, the committee of two who investigated the company, made their report:

“At the outset we awaited the outcome of the pending legislation regarding the leasing of grants to non-residents or corporations, feeling that that might be such as to render much research on our part unnecessary.

“That Legislation not as far reaching as was at first anticipated, but does make provision for leasing for grants to corporations.

“ We have learned from the commissioner of corporations that the Cotuit Oyster Company reported on June 18, 1914

“This company has taken over (by some agreement) 14 separate grants in or near Cotuit which were originally granted to and held by residents of this town. We cannot learn that any resident has invested money in the enterprise, other than as they may have accepted stock for the assignment of said grants.

“During the year 1912 we believe they planted about 53,547 bushels of seed oysters and during 1912 about 3,000 + bushels. Marketing during the two seasons, about 15,000 and 16,000 bushels, respectively. During this past year we cannot find that they have either planted or harvested any considerable quantity if any.”

Report to the town meeting of 1915 from the committee appointed to investigate the Cotuit Oyster Company.

The report was accepted, and discussion deferred until later in the meeting. The Patriot reported “The last thing to come before the meeting was the discussion of the Cotuit oyster question. Capt. Thos Chatfield addressed the meeting at some length on this matter, after which the meeting was adjourned.”


Heave Short!

The newspaper may not have been inclined to quote Capt. Chatfield’s harangue against Haight and the oyster company, but thankfully a hint at the emotions stirred up by the controversy can be found in a tattered copy of a pulp novel about Cotuit published in 1923 by Milton Bradley, better known as the company that sells Monopoly.

The Skipper of the Cynthia B was the first of three volumes published by Milton Bradley in the early 1920s as the “Bluewater Series” by Charles Pendexter Durrell.

In 1923 Captain Chatfield’s son-in-law, Charles Pendexter Durell, published the second novel in his Blue Watertrilogy for teenaged readers: Heave Short!

The book is set in a fictitious village on Cape Cod named “Saquoit,” (A blend of Santuit, Cotuit and Waquoit) and it tells the story of a spoiled rich boy from Boston, Sam Hotchkiss, who comes to the village one summer while his father convalesces from some unknown illness. Young Sam becomes friends with an elderly whaling captain named “Seth Nickerson,” who tolerates Sam’s entitled snobbery and takes him clamming and sailing in his catboat the Cynthia B.. TThe first volume in the series is dedicated “To Captain Thomas Chatfield, A Mariner of the Old School” and Durrell, writing in his foreword, acknowledges “the friendly assistance of Captain Thomas Chatfield and Captain Freeman S. Hodges [Chatfield’s son-in-law], from whose nautical experience I have gained much.”

Capt. Thomas Chatfield, master of the whaler “Massachusetts” and owner/captain of the three-masted schooner the “Joseph Eaton, Jr,” – born in England in 1830, he came to America when he was three years old, and ran away from his home at Cornwall-on-the-Hudson when he was 15 to escape a childhood working in a textile mill. He came to Cotuit Port aboard the Aaron and Horace Nickerson’s schooner, was sent to live with with Seth Nickerson, founder of the fishing settlement at Rushy Marsh, and at the age of 17 shipped out for the Pacific about the “Massachusetts” under the command of Capt. Seth Nickerson Jr… In the last decades of his life, Chatfield was one of Cotuit’s old master mariners who fought to preserve the village’s public access to the harbor.

In the second book in the series — Heave Short! — Sam Hotchkiss returns to Saquoit via the railroad depot where his train is met by the driver of the Saquoit stage coach service Eben Bates (based on Cotuit’s avuncular Willie Irwin). When the stage stops momentarily at  “Craig’s Mill” (Marston’s Mills)  so Bates can deliver the mail, another passenger in the coach tells young Hotchkiss that Bates is being “wooed by a Mister Hastings” with a fancy dinner at a local hotel that very night.

“Hastings?” asked Sam. “I guess I don’t know him.”

“No, you wouldn’t know him. You ain’t been here since last summer and Hastings jest hove in. Wal, I’ll tell ye. He’s what they call a promoter, from New York. Got lots er money: dresses right up to the nines. He’s formed a stock company to run all the shellfish business in town. Been buyin’ all the shellfish grants he could and sellin’ stock in the company besides. Purty good thing, too. He’s bought nigh everybuddy’s oyster grants here at Saquoit and over to Masonville [Osterville], and they claim there’s some big capitalists back of it. I hear that Cap’n Seth and two or three more is kinder holdin’ off and won’t sell out to the company, nor buy stock, nuther one. I reckon after a while they’ll come to it. I’d go into it in a minute if I had any money.”

From “Heave Short!” by Charles Pendexter Durrell

The story of the oily Mister Hastings and his plot to roll up all of the independent oystermen, fleece them of their savings by selling them worthless shares in the company, and then skip town is the outline of the plot that ties together the novel’s picturesque attempt to capture life in Cotuit during the Roaring Twenties, interspersed with dramatic forest fires and the dismasting of the Captain’s beloved catboat, the Cynthia B..

Sam Hotchkiss becomes alarmed by Captain Seth’s fretting that the poor oystermen of Saquoit are being screwed out of their savings by Hastings, so the boy decides to write a letter to his father, a well-connected Boston businessman, and asks him to consult an attorney about Hastings’ new oyster company.

By the time the book reaches the denouement of its plot, that same lawyer, (as well as his ace investigator and a district attorney looking to make an example of the confidence men prowling the Cape) all converge on the village to investigate Mr. Hastings and catch him in the act of shaking down an oysterman. High excitement ensues when Hastings, realizing he’s been found out, tries to flee the scene but is tackled by the plucky Sam Hotchkiss.

From “Heave Short!”, illustration by Harold Brett

All’s well that ends well. Hastings is arrested, brought to trial and sent to jail. Durrell wraps up his story of the Oyster Company scheme with:

“After the trial, when the investors in the scheme had their money and their oyster grants returned, the village relaxed into its former quietude. Uncle Seth and Aunt Cynthia were happy once more, with no shadow of fear for their friends and neighbors to bother them.”


You won’t have Harry Haight to kick around anymore

Harry D. Haight sold the wharf and land to Stuart and Wilson Scudder in 1920, eight years after the Eastman Kodak executive founded the Cotuit Oyster Company and attempted to roll-up the independent oyster grants granted decades before by the town to the local oystermen who had worked them since the 1850s. Haight struggled to keep the oyster company afloat and was probably shunned by some villagers dismayed by “the shadow of fear” that followed his arrival in 1912. In 1920 Harry Hastings called it quits and sold his shares in the Cotuit Oyster Conpany to Charles Gifford, who first appears on a document as the company’s new treasurer when he signed the deed that sold the Oyster Company’s remaining land to his wife Fannie in 1921. The Scudders represented Scudder Bros., a Hyannis-based coal and heating oil dealer (that was the origins of the Scudder Bros. that founded the Hyline Ferry service in the 1960s). The transaction was completed under the condition that the Scudders demolish the coal sheds and not build any new buildings on the property over the next twenty years without the written approval of Fannie Gifford.

The two coal sheds beside the town landing and the old Oyster Place wharf, c 1910. This view is to the east, looking up the Narrows to North Bay, with the sandy bluff nicknamed “The Whale” visible on Grand Island. Capt. Carleton Nickerson’s fish market and boat yard are in the right foreground, the town landing is hidden by the lower of the two coal sheds. Beyond them are the boat houses of Harvard University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell.

 Gifford kept the Cotuit Oyster Company alive for a decade and a half, eventually selling it and its trademark “Cotuit’s R Superior” ( as well as the exclusive right to market any oyster taken from Cotuit Bay as an official Cotuit oyster) in 1934 to a subsidiary of a  New Haven oyster company that operated it until the early 1960s when the operation was sold to the same company’s local caretaker, who in turn sold it to Dick Nelson, who sold it  to its present owner, Christopher Gargiulo.


End of an era

In 1922 the last of Cotuit Port’s whaling captains died at the age of 91. Thomas Chatfield had arrived in Cotuit in 1846 after running away from his home on the Hudson River to Albany, where he was adopted by Seth Nickerson, Sr.’s sons Aaron and Horace and put to work as a deckhand on their schooner, the Highlander. They brought Chatfield home with them to Cotuit Port, where the young man was taken in by Seth Nickerson, taught the fundamentals of celestial navigation, and then sent to sea in 1848 with the elder Nickerson’s son Captain Seth Nickerson, Jr. .

Chatfield married Florentine Handy, Nickerson’s granddaughter, completed three voyages aboard the Massachusets to the whaling grounds of the North Pacific, and in 1856, at the age of 26, was given command of the Massachusetts. In 1858 he rescued his shipwrecked brother-in-law, Captain Bethuel Gifford Handy, brought him safely to San Francisco from the frozen Russian coast of the Sea of Okhotsk, and left Bethuel in command while he rushed east via Panama to enlist as an officer in the Union Navy. During the war Chatfield commanded a small schooner on blockade duty along the west coast of Florida. The city of Tampa surrendered to him, and with the influence of Admiral commanding the Gulf Squadron of the Union Navy, joined the Masonic temple in Key West.

Returning to Cotuit Port, Chatfield spent the years after the Civil War owning and skippering the schooner Joseph Eaton, Jr. , then retired to make and mend sails and perform rigging services for the coastal schooner trade in the sail loft above his boatshop in the village center. Along with Captains Carleton B. Nickerson, Ulysses Hull, James Handy, William Irwin, and many others,Chatfield led the fight for  Cotuit against the closing of its shores, the end of independent oystering in its waters, and the Osterville Cut that would forever alter its coastline.

Captain Thomas Chatfield’s passing in 1922 marked the end of decades of fighting to preserve Cotuit Bay and the public’s right to access it.

A Dock for a Dock

Before Chatfield died, the town meeting voted and approved a request from Cotuit to “construct a public wharf at Cotuit, same to be located on the public landing at the foot of Oyster Road.” A committee consisting of Milton Crocker, William H. Irwin, and William F. Nickerson was appoited to “have charge building the wharf.” In 1923 they made their recommendation to the board of Selectmen.

“To the Selectmen of Barnstable:

Your committee after due investigation and consideration find that there are four available places along the shore frontage in Cotuit Harbor where a wharf may be located. These are all town landings of more or less merit for the purpose. In the judgment of your committee the two farthest to the west seem the less suitable owing to exposure to the strong southwest winds which prevail and which render a pile-driven wharf less liable to withstand the buffeting of wind and waves. A wharf of stone or concrete structure would be expensive. Moreover, the water is shallow and unless the wharf is extender’, far out it would seem to be unsuitable unless the places were dredged, except for skiffs and boats of small draft. Cotuit has no public bathing beach of any extent but insofar as such privilege does exist these two places seem to be as good as any. and perhaps better.

Of the two remaining places the one furthest to the east seems to be as well adapted as the other except for the depth of water. This place would also require dredging and consequently entail expense. It would even then be no more desirable than the remaining place of which we are soon to speak. Moreover, this also seems to be a place very suitable for bathing purposes. The shore does not make off abruptly but on the other hand gradually shelves making the water warm and safe for everyone. It is at a very convenient distance from the center of the village and easily and safely approached by people who walk or by automobile parties seeking shore privileges.

“We now come to the last available place, this, in the judgment of your committee, seems the logical place. It is in the immediate center of the village and consequently convenient for visitors coming in boats or yachts to do with little traveling after they land whatever errands or business they may have to transact. It appears to your committee to be of less value than any of the other places for bathing purposes owing to the comparative abruptness of the shore and the “presence of fish houses close at hand. The abruptness of the shore on the other hand, and consequently deeper water, makes it particularly adapted for a wharf. The expense of construction will be less because of the short distance of extension into the water necessary and because less dredging will be required. This location is opposed by some because the wharf will interfere with the bathing. This is true in a measure, but not wholly objectionable on this account. It seems the most desirable place available, and as has been said before, the logical one.

“Your committee, therefore, with the utmost respect and consideration for those who differ, make the following recommendation: That the proposed wharf be located in Cotuit harbor at the public landing known as the foot of the Oyster Road, between the shore frontage of Mr. A. Lawrence Lowell and Mrs. McKinley.”

1923 Report of the Cotuit Town Dock Committee to the Board of Selectmen

In January of 1924 the state legislature passed House bill No. 1214  (which had been  filed by the town’s state representative) authorizing the town to extend the wharf and public landing in Cotuit Harbor. The dates when the town dock was constructed and officially opened aren’t known,  but knowing the village there was doubtlessly a celebration to mark the occasion. The first photograph in this essay was taken by Chatfield’s grandson, Hugh Knight, and it shows the new dock beside the demolished remains of the old Nickerson pier, and the Congressman’s summer office standing where stacks of lumber and heaps of oyster shells were once piled up. The office is identifiable from its brick chimney which was all that remained standing after the 1944 hurricane demolished the building. The presence of a Ford Model A (first released in 1923), and a high-bowed, black hulled motorboat are additional clues that the dock was open circa 1925.

Henry Churbuck’s converted catboat yawl, the “Bawlin’ Yawl”, alongside the new Cotuit town dock, circa 1930. Abbott Lawrence Lowell’s boathouse is on the beach beyond. The concrete wall of the former commercial wharf is visible on the lower left. In 1952 it was reinforced with a rip-rap barrier of boulders. Photo by Hugh Knight

Missing pieces

What remains unknown from the research into the saga of Cotuit’s town dock are some minor but possible important details.  In 1942 the Gifford’s filed a map of the property which shows a 10-foot strip along their property and the town landing which widens the parking lot at the driveway for  33 Oyster Place Road. Did the town acquire or take that strip when it built the dock? The 1942 map also shows what appears to be a row of pilings extending diagonally and inland from the corner of the former Nickerson pier, all falling within the 10-foot strip of expanded town landing, and indication the town landing was widened onto the northern edge of the Nickerson-Shedd-Oyster Company land.

The Hurricane of 1944 was the worst storm to hit Cotuit in the 20th century. It tossed catboats onto the waterfront like toys, and demolished the summer office of Congressman (and former Cotuit high school teacher) Charles Gifford. Only the office’s brick chimney remained on the footprint of Jarvis Nickerson’s former wharf. Henry Churbuck’s converted catboat yawl came to rest on some arbor vitae bushes. He didn’t mourn its wreck as the boat was evidently impossible to tack in a brisk breeze.

When did the town actually take possession of the landing? Was Oyster Place a town road, a county road, or a path opened up to become a wagon track? The road was built in 1867 according to Jim Gould, but the deed, if it was granted to the town in the 1700s or early 1800s, was probably lost in the disastrous County Courthouse fire of 1827 which destroyed ninety-three of the ninety-four books of deeds recorded since the first English settlers arrived in the 1630s. At some point the town landing was widened, but it isn’t known at this time if the town took the land from Congressman Gifford by eminent domain, sale, or gift. The Congressman passed away in 1947 without rebuilding his summer office by the shore, nor ever using the remains of the old wharf as a dock.

Gifford was a very successful real estate developer and legislator and so can be assumed to be an expert in real estate law, especially the Colonial laws regarding ownership of the waterfront and the rights of a land owner to not only close the beach between the high and low water marks to any trespassers (with the exception of hunters and anglers engaged in “fowling” and fishing, and sailors in the act of navigation) but their own riparian rights that extended a substantial distance off of the beach into the waterways, rights the first Colonial administrators granted to property owners in order to encourage the private construction of commercial wharves to handle the oncoming rush of settlers, cattle and cargo that arrived with increasing frequency in the mid-1600s.

Gifford was intimately involved in the fate of the old commercial wharf. He ended its fifty year run as a commercial venture by buying out Harry Haight and selling the property — as the company’s treasurer — to the Scudder Brothers who began to demolish every vestige of the former wharf save its low concrete wall. With the Oyster Company’s other property at Little River — the former William Crosby land — Gifford was quick to end its use of the old Jarvis Nickerson wharf and consolidate the Oyster Company at Inner Harbor.

Gifford would also have been extremely interested in the town’s plans to build a town dock on the landing beside his property, and he must have realized that it’s plans set it in very close proximity to the former commercial wharf he bought back from the Scudder Brothers in 1921. He would have known the footprint of the planned town dock would infringe on the riparian rights that went with the old wharf. There were no zoning regulations in the town of Barnstable when Jarvis Nickerson first built his wharf in 1875, and certainly no prohibitions against the construction of new docks such as the Dock and Pier Zoning Overlay district that banned them in Cotuit after passing with enormous effort in 2001. Yet Charles Gifford — 12-term Republican Congressman, prosperous real estate developer, oyster company owner and cranberry farmer — could easily have built any pier he wanted to and objected to the town’s plans to crowd a pier of their own next to his property.

Charles L. Gifford, school teacher, legislator, real estate speculator, inn keeper, oysterman, and cranberry farmer preferred to live without a dock to spoil his view.

The former president of the Cotuit -Santuit Civic Association, Stewart Goodwin, in a 2021 letter opposing the present application to build a long dock next to the town landing, related to the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals the story of how as a teenager he worked around the Gifford property as a landscaper, and on one occasion in the early 1940s while visiting the Congressman in his office asked Gifford why he didn’t have a dock — to which Gifford replied, “it would spoil my view.”


To the present

Oyster Place Road wasn’t paved until 1954. In 1957 — with the backing of the Cotuit Civic Association — an article was debated at the town meeting to spend $5,000 to extend the pier further into the harbor. That request was voted down (by the same frugal town fathers who turned down Sidney Kirkman’s gift of the 15-acre Bluff Point property and beach and sold it for the cash instead), but the request came back the following year, seeking $6,000 for the extension and repair of the wharf.  That article was indefinitely postponed, but the request came back yet again to the town meeting in 1961 — this time the price tag was $14,000 for the extension and repair – and it too was defeated.

In the 1970s the old square pier was extended out into the harbor with an additional L-shaped extension. In the early 1980s the town installed four floating dinghy docks with aluminum gangways, in an attempt to keep up with an explosion in the number of moorings being set around the western half of the Bay. In the late 1980s, Tom Hadley of Cotuit began a private launch service to carry boaters out to their moored boats from one of the dinghy floats. While he sold the launch eventually, he still drives it to this day for the present owners of the service.

Congressman Charles Gifford’s grandson, Frederic P. Claussen, was the last native Cotusion to live on Oyster Place. Fred was Barnstable County’s Register of Probate for 39 years, making him the longest serving elected Republican official in Massachusetts of all tine.

In 2005 Claussen granted the town a permanent easement from the town dock’s parking lot across the base of the old commercial wharf to perpetuate the path the Giffords had let the public use to access the shoreline of the cove. When a subsequent owner of 33 Oyster Place erected a fence and blocked that path, Claussen re-asserted the old easement, but the property owner fought it and persuaded the town’s attorney to nullify Fred Claussen’s easement and convert it into a revocable easement that could only be used in daylight hours. The present owner, who is seeking to demolish the remains of the commercial wharf, has offered as part of his application to build a private pier, to reinstate the Claussen-Gifford way to water permanently.


As always (because I don’t know what I don’t know) I appreciate any corrections, clarification, contributions or questions. The best way is either to comment here, or email me at david AT churbuck.com.


[1] The Henry E. Cole, owned by Issac Sturgis.

[2] In 1882 there were thirty-one schooners run by Cotuit captains. The Barnstable Patriot noted in its December 5, 1882 issue: “On Saturday, Capt. J. Hallett sailed the Plough Boy from Deep Hole to an anchorage near Jarvis Nickerson’s wharf. These are harbingers of the coming winter fleet. In anticipation of the winter, sailboats have been quite generally pulled up onshore and some of them nicely housed.”

[4] The Cotuit Oyster Company’s business office was located on School Street, across the street from the current Kettle-Ho at the intersection with Main Street, it isn’t known if the Patriot’s report referred to a shanty on the Oyster Place Wharf or the School Street office.

1853 whaling bark model

This is a half model of the whaling bark Jireh Swift, built in 1853 in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Plans of whaling ships are hard to find because builders worked from their own half models and the design was so ubiquitous no naval architect seems to have drawn one. I finally located a set of plans in the Smithsonian’s collection which were derived from a recent half model.

This hull will be finished bright (varnished) to show off the walnut topsides and mahogany bottom of the hull. The keel, cutwater, waterline and stern post are made from 1/16th” basswood veneer. I’ll mount it on a red oak backboard eventually.

Restoring a half-model

The half model of my old Wianno Senior had collected dust for years on the wall of my grandfather’s boat shop. The hull was scratched , gouged and dinged and needed some attention to bring it back to rights. but I never got around to it and gradually ignored the sad boat despite the twinge of guilt I felt when visitors would notice and ask me who made it.  With a need to do something during the isolation of the pandemic I decided last summer I’d learn how to carve a half-model of my own. I read everything I could find about half-models, and in my searching I discovered a YouTube channel featuring Malcolm Crosby, Jr. of Osterville carving and painting various half-models.

The series was filmed by Malcolm’s daughter — Betsey Crosby Thompson — and show, step-by-step ,how Malcolm designs, carves, and finishes his models. They are beautiful objects that command high prices at auction, but as Crosby says several times over the dozens of episodes, the old-timers knocked them together for a practical purpose — to help them build a full-sized version — and slapped on a coat of paint without too much concern for perfection.

All fall I watched the master artisan transform stacks of lumber into perfect embodiments of classic Cape Cod boat design, taking notes as he shared the secrets of his craft. Every episode taught me something new. I’ve worked on wooden boats ever since my father handed me a sheet of sandpaper and told me to start sanding the spars of my Cotuit Skiff. I thought I knew how to varnish a spar or paint a hull, but after watching Malcolm Crosby turn a stack of basswood, pine and mahogany into a piece of maritime art made me realize I have a long way to go and far more to learn.

As well it should, for Malcolm ran the varnish and paint shop at the Crosby boatyard in Osterville for 40 years. He has boats in his blood, growing up in a clan of shipwrights and boat builders legendary for their designs and craftsmanship. Watching Malcolm wield a spoke shave to get the perfect curve in a catboat, noting his tips on how to apply masking tape, to finally achieve enlightenment as to why so many coats of varnish are necessary (each coat fills the wood grain a bit more,and when sanding in between coats one looks for the bright spots to indicate where the grain still needs to be filled), how to minimize brush strokes, to keep paint from bleeding into rub rails….. . I started watchingBetsey’s videos with a notebook in my hand, taking notes before going out to the boat show to applying the lessons on my own models.

Maiden voyage of the Snafu III, May 1967, taken from the dock at Crosby’s

After building a model of an 19trh century cutter last fall — the Madge — from plans sold by WoodenBoat Magazine, I carved a Cotuit Skiff from templates I made myself working from a set of plans. Both of those first two efforts were varnished, or finished “bright”, but I was confident from watching Malcolm Crosby on YouTube that I could tackle a painted model.

I really hated to touch the original, damaged as it was, worried my surgery would be a disaster that killed the patient. Eventually I found the courage to unscrew the hull from the mahogany backboard. When it came off I saw Malcolm had signed and dated it in October 1979.

My father had commissioned an earlier half-model of the family boat, the Snafu III,  for himself in the early 70s  not long after Malcolm started carving models of local boat designs, selling them at a gift shop on Osterville’s Main Street.  One summer in the late 70s, as I got ready to return to college, I thought my dorm room would benefit from the presence of the model so I  smuggled the model out of the house and took it to school.

Tony Churbuck in the early 1960s

My father realized it  was missing and asked me  if I knew where it had gone. Of course I confessed and brought it back  home, hitchhiking with it in my duffel bag as I held up a cardboard sign  that read “Home to Mom.” I showed the model  to  the drivers who picked me up. The bag couldn’t contain the three-foot long piece of wood but flashing the yellow hull made  me more visible to potential rides. Some  of the drivers marveled at the flawless workmanship, especially the paint job, which made it shine like a candy apple.

At the  Christmas of 1979 my dad  presented me with a Malcolm Crosby model of the Snafu III of my own. Until I decided to restore the model I had never remembered it was mine and that the other model my brother owned was the original I pilfered from my father.

Standing in the  shop a few months ago, reading the inscription on the back  — “From ACC to DCC, Xmas 1979” —  I grieved for him again as it occurred to me I was holding the last gift he  gave me before he died three months later in a car accident in Mashpee in the winter of 1980.

Malcolm’s signatue next to the pencil station marks on the back of the hull.

So the restoration took on more sentimental significance.  I doubted myself and wondered if I should call Malcolm Crosby and ask him to do it.  As I pulled out  the screws holding the hull to the backboard and the scuffed-up yellow banana of painted carved pine separated cleanly from the keel and centerboard Malcolm had glued to the backboard 41 years ago, I realized I was committed.

I decided to repaint the model in the colors she had when I owned her after my father’s passing, the same white bottom she had when she was launched in 1967, but with the green boot-top I added in the 1980s. That was the same paint scheme as her namesake, the Snafu¸ II. the family’s Cotuit Skiff my grandfather Henry built after WW II. Yellow boats were a family thing, starting in the 1950s when my colorblind grandfather couldn’t pick my father out from the rest of the fleet during its races on Cotuit Bay. For some reason yellow stuck out for him,  so my grandmother, a graduate of Mass Art in Boston, broke out her oil paints and tinted some white marine paint a vivid shade of yellow.

The old salts used to say there are only two colors you can paint a boat: black or white…..and only a fool paints a boat black. That’s fine for the hull, but a white boat bottom is pure vanity. Like expecting a brand new pair of Chuck Taylor All-Stars to stay white while roofing. A week without scrubbing will see white turn to brown, an embarrassing sign of nautical ineptitude whenever a gust of wind filled the big gaff-rigged mainsail and tipped the boat l over to give the people watching from on the beach definite confirmation that a slob was sailing her. My father got rid of the original white bottom almost immediately for that very reason, and for the first ten years he sailed the boat, she had a green bottom.

Leave it to me, ever the traditionalist reactionary and hater of change, to change back to a white bottom in the 1980s. I keep a reasonably ship-shape boat but I’ve never been obsessive about it, and with my phobia of jellyfish and spider crabs and convinced by the filming of Jaws across the Sound in Edgartown I would meet my end underwater as shark food, I hated to go swimming, let alone hold my breath and try to swim under the boat wipe the sea slime off its white bottom.

My further conceit, similar to the owner of a Vega painting racing stripes and a big number on the doors, was my decision to paint the boat’s hull number – 140 – under the turn of the bilge to let other boats racing in the fleet know who to hail when claiming right of way as I charged towards a windward mark with the lee rail buried and the boom sheeted in. That was a courtesy to other races, except we never raced the Snafu III after my father’s early frustrations on  the race course when he first got the boat in the late 1960s. A better seaman than a racer, he could knock out a long splice, back splice, short splice and eye splice while opening quahogs, tie a Matthew Walker knot, sing an obscene sea chantey and charge a boat through a seething rip without knocking the ash off the butt hanging off his lip. My brothers and I preferred to load the 26-foot sloop up with our friends and take them for long  booze cruises to nowhere, mooning the Hyline ferry to Oak Bluffs or the Ostervillian in a biplane who buzzed us one day and who, offended by our lewd behavior, wrote an indignant letter to the race committee of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club complaining about the uncouth barbarians who couldn’t keep their shorts on aboard on the yellow Wianno Senior with the convenient green 140 painted on its bottom for races it didn’t race.

Approaching the restoration, I briefly considered stripping off the original paint down to bare wood, filling the scratches, gouges, and dings, then sanding and priming before applying two or three coats of the new color scheme. That meant losing the waterline as Malcolm had painted it, but it would be easier to go from a dark green bottom to a white one if I could prime the green first with a good primer. The problem with that plan was that the keel and centerboard were glued, maybe even epoxied onto the perfectly finished mahogany back board. It was too fragile to try prying off but it was dark green and would need to be completely covered in white like the hull.

The damage from forty years of neglect, trips to college, and acts of God

While I thought about the best way to approach the color conversion I went after a few gouges in the yellow topsides of the hull with some 330 grit sandpaper, taking the paint down to the bare wood and opening up a bare patch around each flaw about the circumference of a nickel. I used a pungent smelling filler called “Swedish Putty” to fill the gouges. Swedish putty is used by commercial painters to get the glossiest effect possible when painting doors.  Also known as a “knifing compound,” or “Enduit” by the French; Swedish Putty is some ancient Scandinavian concoction based on  varnish,  linseed oil, and  finely ground titanium dioxide and silicates. It comes in a flat, round can wrapped in tin foil, swims in amber oil and smells gloriously of things that are bad for you. It also costs $50 for a little can on the stuff.

Sanding down to the wood

I used the putty instead of a general wood filler because I knew the putty was meant for glass-like finishes and would fair out into the rest of the hull without contracting or expanding and interrupting the perfect curves Malcolm had carved over 40 years ago with no humps or depressions. I applied tiny dabs of the stuff onto the scratches and dents with a thin plastic spatula, letting it dry before knifing on another layer until I was sure all of the dings were completely filled. Then, wearing a hardcore respirator to keep the silicates out of my COVID threatened lungs, I sanded the repaired patches until I was satisfied.

Then back to YouTube to re-watch Betsy Crosby Thompson’s gift to would-be half-model builders (and restorers), as Malcolm went through the ritual of straining his paint through paper filters, conditioned it with 333 Interlux brushing thinner, wiped the surface with a tack cloth and some rubbing alcohol and picked up a small nylon artist’s paint brush and began painting. I masked off the hull from the bottom, headed out to the paint shed, found an old can of Petit Yellow, brought it inside, and let it come up to room temperature before cracking it open, stirring it thoroughly, and then filtering it into a small paint cup.

Everything sanded, underlying grain of the pine showing, masking tape being applied to preserve the waterline during repainting

In all I gave the hull three coats of yellow. The first I thinned  down way too much, and the repaired patches showed through the transparent paint. The second I painted full strength but suffered sags, as the thick paint drooped while it dried and had to be sanded back before the final “goldilocks” coat that was just right thanks to Malcolm’s painstaking process of wet sanding in between coats with ever finer pieces of wet sand paper, soaked with soapy water to help the abrasive sheets slide smoothly over the paint. (Malcolm’s tip on how to fold a half-sheet of wet sandpaper was a revelation in itself).

Because Malcolm’s eye for waterlines is the best around, I respected the line of green paint below the yellow and masked it off with parallel strips of tape to form a stripe that broadened under the tuck of the stern where the waterline meets the top of the rudder. An even-width stripe on the side of a boat looks wrong, and should be elongated to present someone admiring her the optical illusion of two parallel lines, when in fact a boot-top strip that is two inches wide amidships at the middle of the boat, can grow to eight inches wide under the transom. I did my best to pull off this effect with masking tape, preserving the uppermost edge of  Malcolm’s original green before painting the rest of the bottom, the keel, and the centerboard white.

It was all yellow.

                I mentally prepared my sense of patience for a long, frustrating series of coats thinned out enough to level out the brush marks but thick enough to get the job done, followed by wet sanding which remove some of the previous coat, only to repaint and be repeated again with finer sandpaper and more paint. Then Malcolm, in an aside he made as he rummaged through his paint table, held up a little four ounce yellow can of One-Shot Sign Painter’s Paint and said while impossible to find at the hardware store, and a challenge to get at a professional painter supply store, One-Shot was extremely concentrated and could do the job in … one shot.

Masking off the backboard to keep the white off the varnish. Semi-success

                Off to Amazon, where I dropped $25 on four ounces of One-Shot white. Eventually it arrived and I stirred it up, and with faith in Malcolm, started brushing it over the dark green bottom paint. It worked beautifully and completely covered the bottom with two coats.

                There are so many brilliant insights into finishing a boat delivered by Malcolm over the course of the dozens of videos filmed by his daughter that I keep going back to the episodes just to remember things like what brand of paper towel he recommended for wiping down after wet sanding (Viva is the softest and won’t scratch the paint). The result, while flawed to my eyes, was good enough to invite the admiration of my wife and the suggestion to hang the refurbished hull on a prominent spot in the kitchen. And no, I didn’t paint the number 140 on the bottom.

Finished except for filling the seam between the keel and garboards

Part 3: Cotuit Bans Docks but Suffers Moorings

A village allergic to docks

This is the last of a three-part series on the history of Cotuit’s opposition to docks and piers.

Part one is about the Harbor View Club and its 250-foot pier/marina that was built and then demolished by court order in the late 1960s.

Part two was about opposition in the late 1970s to the Sobin Pier on Bluff Point in 1978.

This final installment is about the efforts in the 1990s and 2000s to change the town of Barnstable’s zoning by-laws to permanently ban the construction of new piers in Cotuit from Handy’s Point to Loop Beach, and the attempt a decade later to extend that ban on new docks near any shellfish relay areas in all of Barnstable

As always, I’m looking for comments and insights from people who participated in past dock and pier issues.  Please email me at david@churbuck.com or leave a comment on the post.

Introduction

 Julian Sobin’s victory to get a 144-foot permanent pier for his new home on Cotuit’s Bluff Point triggered a mild case of paranoia among the anti-dock contingent in the village. They had missed the Conservation Commission hearing when the dock was first discussed in public, and realizing legal abutter notifications wouldn’t alert them to every new pier, the learned to be more vigilant and to comb through the legal notices posted in the Barnstable Patriot every week to ensure another pier wouldn’t catch them unaware. It wasn’t until email started to be more used in the early 1990s that it became much easier for the anti-pier activists to rally opposition and solicit letters of opposition from summer residents who weren’t on the Cape in the off-season when the various town departments and boards charged with reviewing pier applications usually met.

From the Cotuit Narrows to beaches fronting Nantucket Sound, every dock application was challenged. After a while it became a familiar process and the same cast of opponents with the same anti-pier arguments routinely appeared before the planning board, the shellfish advisory committee, the waterways committee, and the conservation commission. Both sides became  familiar with the other’s arguments, but it seemed no matter how many times the debates for and against docks and piers were made, it appeared nothing could be done to put the contentious issue to rest forever.

In the early 1990s the impact of the building boom of the 1970s and 80s were felt everywhere on the Cape.  The parking lots of the town’s beaches filled up before noon. The harbors filled with boats, and in Cotuit, where only a handful of boats were once moored in two distinct anchorages off of Ropes Beach and the Town Dock, the two coves merged around Lowell Point until moorings extended along all of the western shore line of Cotuit Bay. The surge in moorings put pressure on the parking spaces at Town Dock and Hooper’s Landing. Dinghys, Hobie Cats, kayaks, were scattered in the beach grass along the shore, some seemingly abandoned for years. The length of the town dock in Cotuit was extended further to accommodate more boats and four floats were installed to manage the surge of dinghies.

In the 1980s the town revamped the composition of its waterways committee – the board chaired by the town harbormaster which looked over  the town’s waterfront  — and reduced its size from 19 to 5 members, dropping the old system of assistant harbormasters who managed the town’s anchorages and public piers, sometimes with the appearance of conflicted commercial interest because some members of the committee owned boat yards or marinas or had some economic interest in the waterfront such as marine construction, boat sales or real estate transactions.  The new five-person committee, like its 19-person predecessor, lacked enforcement power and gave its recommendations to those town boards who did.

The era when a person could row out into the harbor and drop their own mooring was ending. Where the local assistant harbormaster had informally approved the placement of moorings in the past, the proliferation of moorings spurred the town’s Government Study Committee to start discussing the need for a formal mooring permit program.

Peter Murray, who served for 20 years as the town’s assistant harbormaster for Cotuit, told the Barnstable Patriot in 1989 “that until the harbor management committee plans are considered by the town for approval, there will be little done to unsnarl the mooring and launching area tangle.”

The Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association formed a waterways committee of its own in the late 80s to address the pressure the village was feeling from the surge in demand for access to its waterfront. In 1989 the head of the civic association’s new waterways group — Dr. John Shea — told the waterways committee that Cotuit had quickly become a haven for recreational boaters, many of whom were not residents of Barnstable.  Dr. Shea criticized the new launch service operating from town dock with the claim (according to the Barnstable Patriot) the launch attracted larger boats and was the main enabler of the expansion of the mooring field. Shea, also criticized the seasonal use of the boat ramp at Ropes Beach by commercial fishermen — mostly off-Cape scup fishermen — and told the committee the civic association wanted a restriction on the use of ramps to certain hours of the day.

Cotuit’s concerns over the rapid surge of moorings and the parallel decline in the harbor’s water quality spurred the Town Council to  commission a Boston consulting firm — Camp, Dresser & McKee — to conduct a comprehensive study of the town’s waterways and beaches. Citizens were invited to participate in a series of workshops moderated by the consultants. The recommendations that resulted were scoffed at by critics who deemed the entire study a waste of money with absurd recommendations to increase public access, not curtail it.   In the spring of 1990 the town’s Coastal Resources Task Force   held a hearing to discuss the study’s findings and recommendations. The public was not enthused. Frank Fuller of Osterville, in a letter to the editor of the Barnstable Patriot, wrote:

“The proposed Coastal Resources Management Plan for Barnstable’s southwest coast is, in many respects, ill advised and absurd…. We don’t need another costly commission or staff. We don’t need or want a shuttle bus system from inland parking lots to all public water access areas…. We don’t need or want a launching ramp at the Cotuit Town Pier, nor we need the pier enlarged. The addition or improvement of ramps would bring in more boats on trailers. Where are the additional cars and trailers to be parked?”

Frank Fuller of Osterville

Mr. Fuller’s opinion that improving the waterfront facilities in Cotuit would only attract more boats, more trailers, and more parking problems was shared by other skeptics in the village. Those improvements were, in the opinion of some, “attractive nuisances” that encouraged out-of-town boaters to avail themselves of Cotuit’s beaches, public pier, launch ramp and town ways to water . But the forces of progress and state and federal grant money prevailed. The Cotuit Fire Department obtained its first rescue boat but couldn’t launch it at low tide. That led to the boat ramp at the foot of Old Shore Road getting a major upgrade. What had been a somewhat iffy place to launch a small boat from the beach turned into a concrete slab bedded in crushed stone. Despite the warnings of some in the village that the new ramp would attract out of town boat owners and their trailers, the ramp was built and driveways on Old Shore Road began to get blocked by parked trailers that made it impossible for home owners to get in or out of their property. The shoulders of Putnam Avenue around Ropes Field began to get clogged with parked trailers every afternoon from spring to fall. What had been a scenic cove was cluttered with more than 50 various street signs from one end of Old Shore Road to the other. Traffic jams built up around the launch ramp as boat owners tried to back their trailers down at the blind curve at the bottom of the hill. Tempers flared and eventually the scenic lane was declared a one-way street.

More boat ramps were among the recommendations presented to the Coastal Resources Task Force by the Boston consultants. But there were others according to newspaper accounts:

“In the consultant’s recommendations are proposals for a commission or committee to oversee and enact this and similar plans town wide, the phasing out of seasonal mooring rentals by 1995, tightening transient mooring rental regulations, and a batch of new, higher fees lo pay for the numerous waterfront proposals such as boat ramp improvements, channel dredging, bus shuttles from inland parking arrangements, and the  construction of two marinas in Cotuit and West Bays.”

Attorney John Alger of Osterville — a familiar figure to dock opponents from his involvement in the Harbor View and Sobin pier disputes –told the coastal task force hearing:

“…the permitting process for new pier construction goes through at least eight different town, slate and federal agencies for approval before getting a final OK. Alger believes there are enough groups and regulations looking over applications for adequate review. “If people got their acts together, we can do it all at once,” he said, once again raising applause from the audience. This sentiment was echoed by several other people, all of whom believe there are sufficient departments currently in place to deal with these water issues.”

John Alger, attorney for pier applicants as quoited by the Barnstable Patriot

Bob Comes to Town

The catalyst to organize the chaos in Cotuit’s anchorage arrived in mid-August of 1991 whjen Hurricane Bob hit Cotuit and threw dozens of boats on the beach shoreline from Town Dock to Handy’s Point.  An estimated 200 out of 800 moorings in Cotuit failed when Bob blew through. The aftermath exposed the serious flaws in the traditionally laissez faire approach to moorings. Forty-foot sailboats were found on the beach still connected to a mooring suited for a 14-foot skiff. Worn out chains and tackle, mooring pennants with no chafing gear, and half-submerged hulls in the harbor led to calls by mooring holders nd give the Harbormaster more authority to manage the crowded anchorage, inspect ground tackle and bring some organization to the chaos that led to improperly moored boats break free and take neighboring boats ashore with them.  With boat owners suing other boat owners and cranes rolling down the beach to lift boats back into the water, a lot of attention was focused on the management of the anchorage. That attention made it clear, according to published reports, that “Cotuit Bay is believed to contain the largest concentration of moorings” in town. Today the town of Barnstable has more moorings than any city or town in the state. And more of those moorings are in Cotuit than any other town anchorage.

Bob’s aftermath at Ropes Beach – from the Barnstable Patriot

Like Peter Murray, another professional mooring servicer, Bob Jensen, owner of Cotuit Mooring and Marine service, told the Patriot that he felt the mooring field “had grown too large” and the town should take steps to “shrink the mooring area” and “eliminate rental moorings.”

Jensen wasn’t alone in his concerns.  When Hurricane Bob hit, the mooring field covered the western side of Cotuit Bay from Bluff Point to Handys Point and was creeping steadily eastward towards the channel. The sailors in the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club mourned the loss of a good portion of their  traditional race course inside the sheltered bay. Grumbling and grousing mounted as long-time village residents found themselves on mooring waiting lists, unable to do what they had done for generations when no more than 50 boats were moored in the harbor: set their own moorings and throw a dinghy on the beach so they could row out to it.

The Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association created a ten-member waterways committee chaired by Peter Hickman. In December of 1993 ,  after “a great deal of give and take” within its membership, the CSCA presented the town’s waterways committee with its recommendations to make things better on Cotuit Bay for the residents of Cotuit. Among those recommendations  were a proposed boundary line to keep the mooring field from expanding further into the harbor, a moratorium on new moorings, more  enforcement of boating and mooring regulations, and improving the mooring renewal process.

For the most part, most of those requests have  been honored.  Under the management of former Harbormaster Dan Horn, Barnstable was able to establish some control over the anarchy . His department started to keep a boat on patrol in the Three Bays, taking over enforcement powers from the former Barnstable Police boat the Alert. It acquired a pump out boat to empty onboard holding tanks from boats visiting or moored in the bay. The mooring permit process evolved and was tweaked, but still demand was soaring, and waterfront property owners who couldn’t get a dock began to demand a mooring off their beach. People would miss the renewal deadline and had to appeal to the Waterways Committee to get their moorings back. No one was happy with the situation.

The mooring boundary betrween the Sobin Pier and Gould beach house proposed in 1993

In 1993 the Cotuit Fire Department went to the town Waterways Committee seeking permission to tie its 17-foot Boston Whaler to one of the floating dinghy docks at Town Dock. Saying the boat ramp at Rope Beach on Old Shore Road was in bad shape and unusable at low tide, former Fire Chief David Pierce told the committee he couldn’t guarantee the fire department could launch the boat safely at all tides.  The Barnstable Patriot story about Chief Pierce’s request also disclosed, for the first time, plans to rehabilitate the Rope ramp, saying “If the ramp is refurbished by next season, it may preclude the need [of the fire department] to use space at the town dock.”

The town denied the fire department permission, and to this day Cotuit’s rescue boat depends on the kindness of private pier owners for a berth and Cotuit gained a new boat ramp it hadn’t requested.

Cotuit bans piers and docks

In 2000,Cotuit attorney Rick Barry was elected to the town council to represent the precinct now represented by Councilor Jessica Rapp-Grassetti.  Barry was an avid fisherman and clammer, so one of his first acts on the council was the filing of a resolution to designate all of Barnstable’s waterways as a “no discharge zone,” to give the town’s waterways a level of regulatory protection that superseded the regulations set down by the Clean Water Act of 1972. Barry pushed for the resolution, according to the Patriot,  because “…reports show fecal coliform bacteria levels in all of the town’s coastal embayments are having an adverse effect on water quality, forcing the closure of shellfish beds, and threatening the health and safety of the town’s residents.”

He was right. Feces from dogs, waterfowl, and boats were a disgusting problem that contributed to the decline in Cotuit’s water quality. So too was road runoff from rainstorms, lawn fertilizer leeching into the water table, phosphorus-based laundry detergents, the careless dumping of chemicals and solvents, and even the flushing of pills down toilets. What wasn’t identified then as the primary culprit was nitrogen, nitrogen in the form of human urine that leeched through a septic tank into the permeable sands and down into the water table. The freshwater springs that for centuries “sweetened” the waters of Cotuit Bay and made its oysters sweet and world famous, were now delivering an invisible tsunami of pee that was slowly making it’s way to the waterfront from subdivisions built in the woods in the 1970s as well as from the mansions and other homes along the shoreline.

Barry’s resolution succeeded in stopping boaters from flushing the heads of their yachts into the bays. The town purchased a pump-out boat and installed a pump out facility on a dock beside the marine boat lift at Crosby’s boat yard in Osterville.

Then Barry went further, and picked up on an earlier effort to beef up the town’s regulations for piers and docks that had stated in 1998 when the conservation commission tried to clamp down on applications for new docks in West, North, and Cotuit Bay . The ConCom argued that since it rarely approved a new dock and almost always had its denials upheld by the courts on appeal, the regulations should be tightened to dissuade waterfront property owners for seeking a dock they inevitably would be denied. Dock applications were clogging the commission’s meeting agendas and taxing the capacity of its staff to review each and every one. The ConCom didn’t seek a total ban on new docks, but the pro-dock forces of real estate agents, environmental consultants, attorneys, and marine construction companies feared one was coming, and argued to the Town Council that the Conservation Commission didn’t have the authority to change the existing regulations, and that the existing process that required review and approval by several other town boards was sufficient. Thus changing the zoning rules to govern the placement of new piers was considered by the town but dismissed until another study could be completed.

During all of this the attitude of the state courts towards dock applications changed dramatically. By the mid-1990s the country and state courts began to overturn the town’s denials and bless new docks.The reversal of its rulings forced the ConCom to change the way it reviewed new applications, gradually granting more approvals as the demand escalated. In 2000 the  town decided to take another look at its dock regulations, appointed a pier and dock committee, and waited for its report.

Rick Barry wasn’t going to wait. Having worked to get the “no discharge” resolution passed with the support of the town’s shellfishers, Barry drew up a “zoning overlay district” in December of 2000 to amend the town’s zoning laws to ban docks on the western shore of Cotuit Bay along a two-mile stretch from Handys Point to Loop Beach.

In his explanation of his proposed ban, Barry wrote:

“”The Cotuit shore of Cotuit Bay represents one of the last accessible, unbroken stretches of coastline in the Town: it is a remnant of what was once a much more common feature. The construction boom has reached the opposite shore, making this a highly advantageous time to preserve the Cotuit shore’s character while it still exists.”

Town Councilor Rick Barry of Cotuit

The Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association, bruised by the Harbor View and Sobin pier disputes that had divided its membership, decided to go beyond polling only its membership on the question: should Cotuit ban docks and instead mailed a survey to every Cotuit address: 2,000 of them. Thirty percent of those surveys were returned – over 600 – with nearly 80% indicating support for the ban. The CSCA helped Barry refine his proposal. The president of the CSCA at the time, Peter Hickman, told the Patriot “It was a subject of intense debate within the executive committee of the board… Some on the executive committee wanted to see a much more expansive prohibition, basically encompassing the entire Cotuit shoreline.”

The proposed ban would bar a potential 40 new piers from ever being built in Cotuit. Hickman told the Patriot he expected the ban would be opposed by waterfront property owners “…and a Cotuit-based group known as the Waterway User Association.”*

Over the winter of 2001, Barry’s Pier and Dock ban resolution sailed through a public hearing and was approved by the Town Council by a vote of 8 to 3.  The only dock construction permitted in the future would be the rebuilding and repair of existing ones.

The hearing attracted a good deal of public comment before the Town Council – most of it in favor of Barry’s proposal – with the ban’s opponents arguing for the right of property owners to apply for a dock on a case-by-case basis. Councilors Richard Clark and Osterville’s Carl Riedell voted against the proposal, with Riedell offering an amendment to put a four-year sunset provision on the new overlay zoning proposal. Clark wanted the town to finish its planned revision of its dock regulations and wait for the recommendations of council’s sub-committee studying the issue.

Cotuit’s ban relieved some of the pressure off the town council to change its regulations. Cotuit was the most ardent anti-pier village in the town and a ban there would take off some of the heat. The changes that were eventually proposed by the town council sub-committee would have tightened restrictions in environmentally sensitive areas and relaxed them elsewhere. The way the town study group defined “sensitive” was to set the minimum required depth at the end of a dock to 3.5 feet – a depth thought sufficient enough to reduce the impact of propellers on bottom sediments. Getting to that depth would require a dock longer than the 100-feet limit set by the study group.

The town-wide ban

Rick Barry went back to the town council in the spring of 2007 with a proposal to create another zoning overlay district to ban new docks and piers near any designated recreational shellfishing and relay areas. The Barnstable Association of Recreational Shellfishers (BARS), a citizen group formed to encourage recreational clamming, was fully behind the concept, fired up by the approval of a new pier adjacent to Cotuit’s Cordwood Lane area despite BARS’ vehement opposition and the opinion of the town’s shellfish biologist. Waterfront property owners in Osterville and Oyster Harbors began to complain about the impact of commercial aquaculture grants and floating bags of seed oysters off of their property. Now Barry and Cotuit were joined by the town’s clammers to take another stand to protect the bivalves.

Barry’s town-wide ban would have stopped new docks in Barnstable Harbor near the Scudder Lane recreational clamming area, in Hyannis Port  near the relay area (used to cleanse clams raised in polluted areas with cleaner water near the Sound) near the yacht club, the West Bay landing in Osterville to the east of the Wianno Yacht Club, North Bay in two locations near Bay Street and Sand Point Road, and all of Cotuit’s relay and recreational areas.

The town council took the proposal under advisement and turned it over to the zoning subcommittee to put some thought into it, reviewing the concerns of waterfront property owners, and refining the specific areas to be affected by the ban .

Things heat up on the town council

In January of 2008 the proposed town-wide ban went before the Town Council. For two and half hours it heard comments for and against the ban. It was one of the more heated hearings in the history of town goverment. Reporter David Still, writing for the Barnstable Patriot, wrote “…the town council pushed off a final vote …until other options are reviewed with the harbormaster and legal department. That move came after two reconsiderations, some parliamentary maneuverings and good deal of ill will among town councilors.”

The councilors debated the proposal, with some proposing that waterfront property owners be given a mooring off their property in lieu of a new dock – a move apparently objected to by the harbormaster’s office. Five councilors opposed the ban, their opposition led by Jim Crocker of Osterville who “…objected to the proposal because it was not fair to property owners, and also because he does not believe science supports such a ban as a protection for shellfish resources.”

“This is a grab, and we have to admit that it’s a grab,” the late councilor said. Before long Crocker and Barry were openly sparring on the dais of the meeting room at town hall, with Barry claiming Crocker had been a no-show at every public hearing he attended and Crocker saying “You’re going to regret saying that, but go ahead.”

The crowd gasped.

The Patriot reported of the 25 people who gave public comment at that hearing, all but two speakers were in favor of it. Barry openly challenged his fellow councilors who joined Crocker’s opposition. He called out one councilor who had abstained to take a stand.

The following month a compromise was hammered out. The ban would be limited to the Three Bays area and capped by a two-year sunset provision while the town figured out a harbor management plan. The town’s shellfish committee, chaired by Cotuit attorney Stuart Rapp, was disappointed because it hadn’t been consulted during the dickering that led to the compromise. Meanwhile the Planning Board was still in favor of the original ban without the two-year expiration and apparently they too were not consulted when the town council was working out a compromise.

It took two years, but in 2010 the town council approved a ban of new docks and piers in designated shellfish areas by a 10 to 3 vote.

Goodbye to all that

Rick Barry told the Barnstable Patriot that even if he could run for re-election to the town council (he was prohibited by term limit rules), he didn’t know if he would because “His experience with the pier and dock ban, an expansion of an earlier Barry-sponsored ban for Cotuit’s shoreline, proved discouraging.”

“I find issues like this personally very frustrating,” Barry told the Patriot. As debate wound down and the modified ban was passed, “he encouraged those in the room to remember how people represent them when they go into the voting booth for contested races.”

*If anyone knows anything about the “Cotuit-based Waterway Users Association” please contact me.

Part 2: the Sobin Pier and other dock fights of the 70s

A village allergic to docks

This is the second in a three-part series on the fractious topic of piers in Cotuit. Previously I detailed the story of the Harbor View pier dispute that took place in the 1960s. This chapter is about an even more divisive struggle between a waterfront landowner and the anti-pier forces of the village that raged in the late 1970s: the Sobin Pier.

Background

1978 marked the tenth anniversary of the demolition of the Harbor View Club’s 250-foot pier. Watching its dismantling might have felt like a victory for the preservationists in the village who wanted to preserve the quaint character of the place.  Morton Clark, the Rhode Island businessman who owned the club, passed away in 1968, the year before the state’s Supreme Court ordered the pier removed. His heirs held on for a few years longer before selling to a new group of Boston investors who tried to make a go of the business without a marina. In 1980 Harbor View Realty Inc. was dissolved and the big mansion on the bluff reverted to a residence which it has ever since. One of the subsequent owners tried, and failed, to get a permit for another 250-foot pier.

The anti-dock forces didn’t have long to savor their victory over off-Cape developers. The early sixties had focused world attention to Cape Cod during the JFK Camelot-era, and the opening of a four-lane highway (Route 3) from Boston to the Cape had cut the drive time to Cotuit from several hours to 90 minutes. Cotuit had a history as one of the first summer resorts on the Cape. With President Kennedy eating lunch on the fantail of the Honey Fitz with the president of Italy off the cove of Sampson’s Island, it was impossible for the westernmost and smallest village in Barnstable to hide from public view.

Large scale development on the Cape began in the mid-1960s. That development especially impacted the town of Mashpee which had remained undeveloped for the first half of the 20th century because of its tenuous identity as the soverign tribal lands of the Wampanoag tribe. Real estate developers succeeded in breaking the colonial covenants put in place by the tribe’s benefactor, Richard Bourne, who forbade the sale of any of the “Plantation of Marshpee’s” lands outside of the tribe. By the mid-1960s a large luxury development in Mashpee — New Seabury — sprang up along Cotuit’s western borders along Popponesset Bay to Waquoit Bay to the west.

The next decade, the 1970s, were the decade when what the Cape’s early preservationists called the “Rape of the Cape” occurred. Those early environmentalists and preservationists warned town selectmen and planning boards of the impact that unchecked real estate development would have on the sole source fresh water aquifer beneath the Cape’s sands as well as the water quality of the peninsula’s bays and harbors. As they pushed back against that development and created organizations such as the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, the first symptoms of over-development were emerging. In the early 70s Cotuit Bay was no longer a pristine place prized for its oysters. Eel grass beds began to disappear. “Marker” species like spider crabs that indicate a sick bay proliferated, while prized species such as scallops began to dwindle. Where once only a few old catboats and bass boats were anchored in the Bay, the invention of fiberglass and the convenience of outboard motors made boat ownership a reality for the Cape’s surge in new residents.

Environmentalism was gaining momentum in Washington in the early 70s, fueled by the back-to-nature movements of the 60s, and the realization that chemical dumping was threatening species such as the osprey. The passage of the Clean Air and Water Acts of 1972 marked a change in attitudes about unbridled development, but on the Cape, the land grab was just getting under way, and off-Cape developers jammed the agendas of planning boards with applications for subdivisions and demolition permits. Across the Cape, every town’s board of selectmen were glad to grant those permits. More houses meant more taxes, more employment for year round residents. Yet with nothing but the country government to unite them in considering the impact on traffics and roads and other infrastructure, the towns went their own way, with the outer Cape towns indignant over JFK’s creation of the National Seashore, and upper Cape landowners selling hundreds of acres of scrub forest to off-Cape developers before something similar to the Seashore could happen to them.

The veterans of the Harbor View fight didn’t let their guard down. Cotuit preservationists were on guard and learned to scrutinize the legal notices placed in the local papers for real estate transactions and applications for new piers, using the same organizing methods they developed in the 1960s to keep summer residents informed of hearings and meetings scheduled in the dark of winter when developers and their lawyers knew the opposition would be elsewhere. The year-round residents, many of whom were former summer residents and Cotuit Skiff sailors, were on high alert, swinging into action and soliciting letters of opposition from summer residents who couldn’t attend those hearings and filling the town hall hearing rooms with those who could.

Five years after the end of the Harbor View’s bid to become a commercial marina, the anti-dock forces found themselves facing another application for a permanent pier application, this one only a few hundred yards down the beach from the scene of the first fight.

Bluff Point: “One of the finest resort estates in New England

Bluff Point is home to Cotuit’s third summer home (the first was the Samuel Hooper’s house on the corner of Putnam Ave. and Old Shore Road, the second was the Thorndike house on Old Shore Road). It was built after the Civil War by Colonel Charles Russell Codman, the officer in the Union Army who commanded of the 45th Massachusetts Infantry. Codman was heir to the Sturgis China-trade fortune. After the war he commissioned the design and construction of an imposing three-story home on a 14-acre lot on Bluff Point (soon to be referred to in the village as “Codman’s Point”). It was the biggest house in Cotuit and commanded a spectacular view over Sampson’s Island and Dead Neck. Unlike many early summer mansions torn down in recent years Codman’s home still stands today.

The Codman “Cottage”

Colonel Codman’s son Russell Codman sold Bluff Point to Francis Alsop in 1919. Alsop  left the Codman mansion untouched for the most part, and in 1934 the property was purchased from him by Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Kirkman, president of the Kirkman Soap Company in Brooklyn.

The Kirkman’s were smitten by Cotuit’s charms and became generous benefactors to the Cotuit Library and Mosswood Cemetery. At the time of their deaths (within ten months of each other) in 1953 and 1954, the Kirkman’s had no children or other heirs, and to the surprise of many in town, they bequeathed their home and Bluff Point property, as well as their Manhattan residence and more than $1 million in public utility bonds to pay for the upkeep and improvements to Mosswood Cemetery as well as a significant part of the Cotuit Library’s operating budget. It was at the time the biggest gift the Town of Barnstable had ever received. The selectmen sent one of their own to New York City to meet with the Kirkman’s lawyers as if in disbelief of their good fortune. The value of the estate was so big that some Cotuisions joked later that it could have paid for the construction of a glass dome over the graveyard.

The Kirkman gift included their Bluff Point property and the Codman house. But that property was rejected by the town, who preferred that the executors of the Kirkman estate sell the house and 14 acres of land and include the proceeds in the proceeds from the Kirtman bequest along with the bonds and other securities. Apparently the Kirkman will was a bit vague and failed to restrict the proceeds for Cotuit alone. So the board of selectmen took advantage of its ambiguity to persuade the probate court to expand the intent of the gift to include all of the town’s cemeteries and libraries, not just Cotuit’s. Some villagers were not pleased by the move.

Sidney Kirkman, posed on the lawn of his beloved Bluff Point with Sampson’s Island behind him.

As it turned out, it wasn’t the rapacious raid of the Kirkman Trust by the board of selectmen that should have upset Cotuit, but the lost opportunity to obtain one of the best beaches for the public’s use. Beaches were popular and expensive to acquire, but in the early 50s nobody could have predicted the future demand for more of them. The town’s feelings about acquiring open space and removing valuable real estate (especially waterfront land assessed at an extremely high rate compared to interior lots) from the tax roll were indifferent if not openly negative.

In the spring of 1954 the Barnstable Patriot wrote two editorials which confirm how close Cotuit came to obtaining a significant new public beach for free.  In the first editorial, the writer stated: “The Patriot correspondent in Cotuit informs us that many residents there have expressed the hope that it may not be necessary for the town to sell the Bluff Point property. She writes that “the scarcity of beaches for swimming is so acute in Cotuit that the town has spent and probably will go on spending thousands of dollars on a mud hole like Hooper’s Landing. No matter how much sand is dumped in it, the mud manages to seep back in a year or so. If we can possible keep a decent stretch of sand for the use of Cotuit residents and their guests, why shouldn’t we have it?”

The second editorial endorsed those sentiments:

A Fitting Memorial to the Kirkmans

“The report given by selectmen after their New York conference with executors of the Kirkman estate indicates that it is almost certain the  terms of the will may be broadened and the Bluff Point property in Cotuit, with its beautiful beach, will become a memorial park for the use of all townspeople.

That this use of the property would be very satisfactory to the residents of Cotuit was suggested in this column several weeks ago by the Patriot correspondent in the village. It should seem that the plan should meet the approval of residents of other villages.

Apparently the Cotuit property will be probated in the Barnstable Court, the remainder of the property probated, in New York, then sold.

Then the question of acceptance of the fine bequest from the Kirkmans will be presented to voters at a special town meeting.

The town passed on its chance to acquire Bluff Point, raided the Kirkman fund, and disbursed its money around the entire town. The story of the Kirkman Fund is a fascinating tale of litigation, town politics and the perils of leaving behind bad wills . It deserves its own telling, but for the purposes of this story the Kirkman Estate  — and the lost opportunity to turn Bluff Point into a public park and beach —  sets the stage for subsequent events which would see the property once  “regarded as one of the finest resort estates in New England” broken up and subdivided into fourteen new house lots.

Billy Sullivan comes to town

The trustees and executors of the Kirkman Estate sold the property  to Albert Gustin of Kansas City in 1955.  Albert and his wife Hester owned the estate until May 1973, when their estate sold the property to  an entity called the ”Cotuit Trust” represented by its trustee, attorney Thomas Wooters of the Boston law firm of Sullivan & Worcester. Real estate trusts and limited liability corporations (LLCs) are common legal dodges used by lawyers and estate planners to minimize estate taxes and conceal the identities of wealthy clients shy about disclosing their holdings to the public. The mysterious  Cotuit Trust hired surveyors and in September of 1973 Osterville attorney John Alger filed a 14-lot subdivision plan with the Barnstable County Registry of Deeds following that plan’s earlier review and approval by the Barnstable Planning Board.

The Bluff Point Subdivision Plan of 1973

The identity of the new owners of Bluff Point became public when the Cotuit Trust sold parcels of the new subdivision in January 1975 to William H. “Billy” Sullivan, Jr,, heating oil tycoon and owner of the Boston/New England Patriots football team from the team’s inception in 1960. The price Billy paid the Trust for the parcel where the Codman mansion stands, was a sure indication of his involvement in the subdivision: $1 for the parcel where the Codman mansion stands as well as an adjacent lot for Sullivan’s son and daughter-in-law, Charles “Chuck” and Barbara Sullivan.

Cathy Hayden of Cotuit wrote a poignant  essay entitled “Bluff Point” that appeared in the April 3, 1974 edition of  the Barnstable Patriot:

Most of us traversing this most lovely stretch of Cotuit road viewed the homes and property with a vague, occasional thought of apprehension, seemingly groundless. Nothing ever seemed to change; development was not a viable thought in too many minds. Like the winds and the weather, all things change…

“Two weeks ago. the March winds dropped to a quiet ruffle of the harbor’s waters, allowing sound to be carried for great distances. No matter where you were in the village that day, the sound of the bulldozers at work was carried to you. Viewed close up, the brilliant yellow machine was busy at a very early hour of the morning, performing its unique gyrations, removing permanently many of the old cedars and deciduous trees that lined the drive to the main house at Codman’s Point. This marked the beginning of the development of a 14-lot subdivision.”

Cathy Hayden, “Bluff Point”, Barnstable Patriot April 3, 1974

Mister Sobin Tries to Build His Dream Dock

Billy Sullivan was far from the first “boldface” name to take a shine to Cotuit. Larry O’Brien, JFK’s chief of staff and former commissioner of the National Basketball Association, lived on the bluff overlooking Loop Beach and Sampson’s Island. H. Gates Lloyd Jr., deputy director of the CIA under Allen Dulles, lived at the southern most extreme of the village. On Oyster Harbors lived Mellons and DuPonts. Former Massachusetts Governor Foster Furcolo summered in Cotuit. Even in the earliest days of Cotuit’s summer community the literati and intellectuals of 19th century Boston, from Henry Adams to William James, George Santayana to Mark Howe had been guests at the Codman mansion.

Now it wasn’t a Boston Brahmin, but Billy Sullivan who was the owner of Codman mansion, and with his son Chuck living next door, the Cotuit Trust’s remaining parcels were sold off and the driveway was expanded into a private road called Bluff Point Drive.

Appearing before the town’s Planning Board in 1973 to present the subdivision plan, the Cotuit Trust’s local lawyer John Alger said (in essence), things could be worse, for while the “14-lot subdivision could quality under old half-acre zoning and therefore be twice as large, all lots are one acre or better.”

Billy Sullivan

In 1976 the Cotuit Trust sold  two lots  on Bluff Point to Julian and Leila Sobin of Boston.  The property, referred to as  “Lot 8” on the 1973 subdivision plan, was the prime piece of property on the north side of the point, across the road from the Codman house, with a view across  Cotuit Bay from Handys Point to Dead Neck.  The Sobin’s paid $247,500 for the land and started construction on a modern, seven-level main house and guest house  with balconies and decks tucked into the pine trees on the bluff.

Julian M. Sobin was not a celebrity figure like his neighbor, but he was a very successful businessman and consultant. As senior vice president of the International Minerals and Chemical Corporation.. Sobin was one of the first American businessmen to transact business in Red China following the Nixon-Mao visits of 1972. He was so deeply involved in the opening of US-Sino trade relations and accumulated so much valuable information about the formerly closed country that he co-authored the Encyclopedia of China Today, a book which was nominated for a National Book award.  The Gerald Ford Presidential Library has archived transcripts of interviews conducted by Sobin with other American businessmen who pioneered trade with China in the early 70s.

Update 2021_01_30: I ordered a used copy of  "The China Guidebook: 1990" another book Sobin co-authored with Frederic M. Kaplan and Arne de Keijzer. His official biography reads: "Julian M. Sobin is Chairman of  Chemtech Industries of St. Lous, and Hall Chemical of Cleveland, as well as Goldman Resources, Inc., of Boston. A former Fellow, now an Associate, of the Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, he is retired corporate senior vice president of International Minerals and Chemical Corporation. Mr. Sobin was the first US businessman invited to Beijing (in March 1972). Over the next 12 years, he negotiated some of the largest Sino-US trade contracts, including the first US purchase of Chinese crude oil in 1977. Co-author of Encyclopedia of China Today, and author of China Trader, Mr. Sobin was chairman of the International Marketing Institute at Harvard Business School.

When Julian and Leila Sobin purchased the 5.75 acres on Bluff Point they already owned a summer home in New Seabury, then still a relatively new development built in the 1960s  along the coast of Mashpee between Popponesset and Waquoit Bays. At their New Seabury property (near the summer home of current Patriot’s owner Robert Kraft), the Sobin’s had a dock for their motorboat.  So why not build one in Cotuit?

One suspects Julian Sobin wasn’t briefed on the details of the Harbor View pier fight. Even if he had, his attorney John Alger would have assured him that a pier was his right under some of the oldest laws in the state.

The Sobin’s wanted to build a 144-foot permanent pile pier from their beach out to deeper water where they planned on dredging to cut enough depth to tie up their boat. They claimed the length was required to minimize the amount of dredging needed to allow them to get their boat on and off the pier. With Alger handling the filings with the town and state, few if anyone in Cotuit was aware of what was coming because other than Billy Sullivan, Julian Sobin had no other abutters who he was legally obligated to notify of his plans.

While Cotuit slept, the Sobin pier was quietly born. Then, on February 2, 1978, the lead story on the front page of the Barnstable Patriot sounded the alarm.: Cotuit was getting a new dock.

Bluff Point pier: controversy in Cotuit” – was the first published news that the Sobin pier, like the Harbor View’s a decade before, would be opposed. Just four months previously,  in October of 1977 the pier had been reviewed and approved by the town’s conservation commission with no opposing comments made by the public.  The harbormaster Richard Sturges and assistant harbormaster Chester A. Crosby, Jr.  were in favor of the pier and “Crosby considered the facility would be a help to harbormasters” according to the Patriot. Alger already had the approval of the state’s Division of Waterways of the Department of Environmental Quality Engineering in hand. It was when the Sobin pier was submitted to the federal Army Corps of Engineers for its blessing  that the anti-dock forces in Cotuit sat up and took notice.

Anna Murray, a long-time Cotuit skiff sailor and one of the founding spirits of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club, led the opposition. She was a formidable salty-voiced figure who would stand at meetings of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht club (the oldest junior yacht club in the country), to chastise adults for daring to vote on the club’s business when only members under the age of 25 (and who were unmarried) were eligible to vote. A veteran of the Harbor View fight, and possessing a photographic memory of anything to do with Cotuit’s shoreline, Anna Murray was ready to lead the fight against another pier.

She told the Patriot: “I think Mr. Sobin should have his pier, yes. But he doesn’t need one 144 feet long for one motorboat. If all the piers in the harbor were like the one he wants, we’d be in a helluva mess.” Cut it in half and don’t dredge, and she would be in favor she said.

The length of the proposed pier was required to minimize the amount of dredging required for the Sobin’s boat according to Attorney Alger, who also pointed out the pier it would be located at the site of a former dock owned by the Kirkman’s that was located on the same spot. Murray retorted that the Kirkman pier was seasonal – being erected only over the late spring and early fall and then dismantled for the winter, whereas the Sobin plan was to construct a permanent structure.

Of particular interest in the first story about the Sobin pier is the  description of the pressure that rapid real estate development in Mashpee on Popponesset Bay was having on Cotuit due to Mashpee boaters mooring their boats in Cotuit Bay.

 Cotuit resident Henry Walcott told the paper, “There’s increasing traffic in Cotuit. A number of boats have moved her from Popponesset Island and New Seabury. The reason? A sandspit extending from the Mashpee side has been steadily extending across the entrance of Popponesset Bay. Shoaling has reduced the narrowed entrance to a very shallow depth. You can get a canoe through at low tide, and not much more. Sometimes boats can’t get in at all.”

Unbeknownst to most people in Cotuit, at a time before the town of Barnstable began managing moorings with its program of annual inspections and renewals, a time when the was still plenty of open water for moorings in Cotuit, was the constitutional provision that no town could reserve its coastal waters for the exclusive use of its residents, and that the water — not the land surrounding it — was the domain of the Federal government under the authority of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Screaming Banshees for Peace and Quiet

A week after the first published story, the Sobin Pier made the front page of the local weekly newspaper the following week as well. The second story described the delicate diplomacy of the Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association as they prepared to mail a newsletter to its membership notifying them of the pier application but not taking an official position either for or against it.  CSCA president Thomas W. Aselton “said he wanted to make it clear that the general membership of the association is not opposed to the plan, although he modified that statement later to say they are not opposed to or in favor it.”

Aselton described the pier as a “very emotional issue.” That would prove to be a bit of an understatement. His caution and non-partisan diplomacy to keep the civic association neutral was doubtlessly influenced  by the group’s previous internal disagreements in the 1960s when its membership voted to  contribute funds drawn from the CSCA treasury to help pay the legal fees of the Harborview’s opponents. Unanimity is rare in any group of citizens, but the actions of the civic association in the Harbor View affair had apparently alienated enough members to make its board of directors very nervous about being the standard bearer for people opposed to piers. The civic association had also just opposed a previous  pier application made by Thomas Eisenstadt, a former country sheriff, but by the time the Sobin pier came along, it was struggling to present a neutral opinion. Aselton told the Patriot that tje members of the CSCA and himself  “are concerned about the great amount of out-of-town boats mooring in the harbor.”

Aselton initially told the Army Corps of Engineers that the civic association was opposed to the pier, but then he retracted that statement and told the ACOE the CSCA would be taking a neutral position. When the monthly newsletter went out that spring, some readers were surprised to see the board of the association endorse the pier by stating they felt “…there is no infringement on the right to enjoy the harbor.”

Aselton wasn’t the only civic leader struggling to keep their organization neutral. Geoffrey Jackson, president of the Association of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club wrote a letter expressing his personal opposition to the Sobin pier, only to change his mind later after being contacted by the Sobin’s lawyer with more information. Even with more than $20,000 still remaining in the ACMYC’s old “Watch and Ward Fund” raised to fight the Harbor View, the ACMYC, like the CSCA, decided to sit on the sidelines of the debate and let its individual members make their opposition known to the town and ACOE themselves.

Into the breach stepped Anna Murray and Barbara H. Sullivan. They founded
“STOPP” — Sensitive Thinkers Opposed to Permanent Piers — and organized a blitz of letters from Cotuit residents who were opposed to the pier to be sent to the Army Corps of Engineers. In all, more than 150 letters were mailed to the Army Corps regional office in Waltham where they became part of the public record.

The names of some of the opponents included:

  • John C. Linehan, waterways committee chairman of the Osterville Village Association
  • Mrs. Marcus Bryan of Cotuit wrote: “We are all concerned about this. We have lived here for over 30 years. We are no natives; we chose Cotuit because it is peaceful, quiet and beautiful. It is a paradox that people have to become screaming banshees to keep it quiet and beautiful.”
  • Marston and Louise Boden
  • Professor James and Anne Gould
  • Dr. Helen Taussig
  • Harriet Ropes Cabot
  • Geoffrey Jackson, president of the parents Association of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club
  • Mrs. Jacques Barzun
  • John Reardon
  • John Pickering
  • Stanley McElroy
  • Charles B. Swartwood III
  • Henry Walcott
  • Pemberton Whitcomb
  • and many more…..

Asked by a reporter how he felt about Cotuit’s “welcoming committee,” Julian Sobins said:
I am trying to be a good neighbor. I love Cotuit. It’s a lovely town. I’ve tried to be so careful with the property and restore it to its position of beauty.”

He added that he was “terribly discouraged” about the opposition.

STOPP and the  War of the Letters

Opinion was divided in the village. The old distinction between summer people (and some are not) and year-round residents was blurring. The older year rounders came from a tradition of making a living from the water. Docks were needed to offload oysters, boat yards needed marine railways and lifts to launch and haul boats. Even the bottom of the harbor was staked out and owned by the Cotuit Oyster Company. More docks meant more construction jobs. More boats to build and sell and paint and maintain. That faction remembered a far more commercial village than the newer arrivals did, when “downtown” Cotuit had a row of stores and shops on Main Street and the corner of School Street.

The anti-development faction were, for the most part, comprised of summer and year-round residents who had been summer residents in the past. With the long tradition of racing Cotuit Skiffs — one of the oldest continuously sailed one-design classes of sailboats in the world — those sailors preferred sailboats to motorboats, and were accustomed to racing those boats across the entire expanse of Cotuit Bay. Just as the Harbor View pier engendered hard feelings between neighbors and dominated the debate between members of the civic association and the yacht club in the 1960s, the Sobin pier seemed to kick the level of the vitriol within the village up to new heights.

Attorney John Alger was confronted by over a hundred letters opposed to his client’s pier. He wrote letters to every opposing letter writer and enclosed a six-page memo with plans and drawings. It some respects it was a brilliant move by Alger; instead of trying to sway village opinion in a raucous public hearing, he directly replied to every opponent with his best arguments for why their new neighbor should have a big pier. To some extent Alger’s letters and memo worked. He was able to persuade four opponents to withdraw their objections and two others to reverse themselves and publicly support the pier. If receiving a letter and six-page document from a local attorney was perceived as some sort of legal intimidation by its recipients is not known.. But Alger’s gambit paid off and soon some opponents changed their minds and joined the minority of supporters who had sent their letters endorsing the pier off to the Engineers.

Some of the supporters of the Sobin pier included:

  • Patriot’s owner William H. “Billy” Sullivan Jr (the Sobin’s neighbor,) who wrote, “I am writing because I was distressed at some objections and unfortunate stories that were being circulated.”
  •  Robert F. Hayden, long-time civic figure, mover of buildings and owner of the Treasure Highland, a salvage company formerly located on the site of the present Stop & Shop and plaza on Route 28 in Marstons Mills,  wrote: “This facility would not interfere, thwart or obstruct competitive or instructional navigation executed by competent participant therein…It would be extremely narrow to militate against a shoreowner’s desire to enjoy the same love as I do for the harbor.”
  • Harbormasters Richard Sturges and Chester Crosby Jr. (who also owned the marine construction company which performed the dredging around the proposed pier)
  • William Todd, the former caretaker of Bluff Point
  • Richard Pierce, Cotuit boat builder

Withdrawing their initial objections were:

  • Geoffrey G. Jackson, president of the ACMYC
  • Elizabeth Almy
  • J.E. Kelley
  • Malcome and Katherine Ryder
  • Sydnor Dever
  • Harriet Ropes Cabot

In his six-page memo sent to the objections, Alger characterized their “general objections as navigational hazards, including children and mosquito fleet youngsters, pollution, aesthetics, precedent-setting and ‘resentment of newcomers’ – ‘New Seabury and Prudential Center’ types. “

By claiming “resentment of newscomers” Alger blew a dog whistle that inflamed Anna Murray. Alger had been berating the Barnstable Patriot reporter — Fred Bodensiek — for including in his stories the fact of the Sobin’s off-season residence in an apartment adjacent to Boston’s Prudential Center on Boylston Street and their ownership of a summer home in New Seabury.

Bodensiek wrote, “Alger in phone conversations has objected to the Patriot’s mentioning of these places where the Sobins have homes, and its last three stories on the pier, the paper has omitted that data.”

Alger took off the gloves and deliberately pushed a hot button that had been pushed a decade before during the Harbor View controversy by the Harbor View’s sailing instructor in a letter to the editor of the Patriot in 1969. James Ryan then claimed Cotuit’s opposition was driven by anti-Semitism. Alger didn’t go that far, but he made it clear in his statements to the press that Cotuit didn’t like newcomers.

Alger was quoted in the March 30, 1978 Patriot story headlined “Paper pier war goes on and on”

“Probably to the petitioners the most serious opposition that has been raised, and the one most difficult to rebut, is the position raised by a small minority of the objectors that the petitioners are ‘Prudential Center’ or ‘New Seabury’ types who don’t belong in Cotuit. This is most distressing to the Sobin’s, who truly want to be accepted and to be part of the community. The size of their investment alone is some indication of their knowledge and appreciation of the charm and special qualities of the village.

“The mere fact that they have tried so hard makes the criticism even more hurtful. One of the attributes of Cotuit, which I early recognized and have always appreciated, was its willingness to judge its neighbors, both year round and seasonal, not by who they are but what they are. I feel certain that this criticism is totally irrelevant and needs no rebuttal.”

Attorney John Alger

Cotuit resident Anne Gould wrote a letter to the editor in rebuttal to Alger’s claims:

“I personally find your contention that opposition to the Sobin’s pier could stem from resentment of newcomers very disturbing. As one who was a newcomer not too many years ago, I have never felt there was this kind of attitude in Cotuit. However we may be a community prejudiced against piers.”

Anne Gould, one of the founder of the Mary Barton Land Trust and Barnstable Land Trust

Anna Murray combed through the letters on file with the Army Corps of Engineers looking for any impolitic statements or allusions to “New Seabury” and “Prudential Center” types of people. Finding none, she wrote Alger demanding an apology for his inflammatory claims that Cotuit was prejudiced against newcomers.

“After reading these letters carefully three times, I find no one writer using the words ‘Prudential Center’ or ‘New Seabury types who don’t belong in Cotuit,” wrote Murray. “You say this criticism is irrelevant. As there is no such criticism, I ask that you publicly, and by letter, apologize to each person written to.”

The Patriot’s Bodensiek also looked into Alger’s claims that some opponents were prejudiced in their letters, and like Anna Murray, found no evidence to support Alger’s claim. He wrote that, “In perusal of copies of the approximately 100 letters to the Engineers, secured by Mrs. Murray, this writer could find no statements indicating resentment of newcomers.”

Geoffrey Jackson, president of the ACMYC, explained his withdrawal of his objections, writing that Alger’s “fair summarization of the objections was illuminating…I too am particularly distressed at objections based on ‘resentment of newcomers’….the CMYC and the related association of the CMYC, has maintained since inception totally non-restrictive policy with regard to membership and will undoubtedly continue to do so. The concern expressed in my Jan. 31, 1978 letter to the Army Corps of Engineers …is, in my view, resolved by your communication.”

Lawyers living in Cotuit and writing on their own behalf  rebutted Alger’s claims on behalf of the Sobins. Charles B. Swartwood III wrote, “When Mr. and Mrs. Sobin purchased their house, they were obviously aware of the depth of the water adjacent to their property and the difficulty of constructing a pier in deep water. In fact, I believe the town pier is only a few feet longer than the Sobins’ proposed pier, and I question whether their needs are equal to that of the whole village of Cotuit.”:

Attorney John H. Galloway III wrote, “If all the property owners along the west side of Cotuit Bay were permitted to construct such piers and perform such dredging, Cotuit Bay would become nothing more than one large marina.”

Attorney Frank Opie wrote the pier “…would, for all practical purposes, destroy the harbor for small-boat sailing…I can assure you that any permit to build such a pier will result in litigation involving both the Sobins and the U.S. Government.”

Other opponents wrote:

  • “There is no question that if you allow this to be built that a precedent will be set, and anyone else in the small harbor can do the same thing. It won’t take too long before the entire small-boat sailing space will be taken up by the piers and it’s goodbye Cotuit Harbor….we certainly don’t want a mini-Atlantic City shorefront in Cotuit Harbor.” Donald C. Kneale of Cotuit.
  • “Some years ago, a similar request to install a large pier in Cotuit Harbor aroused a substantial group of opponents, and the matter was resolved only after much hard feeling and expensive litigation. Hard feelings continue.”  Bruce and Kathryn P. Eaken, Cleveland, Ohio.
  • “If the Sobins are granted this permit, would we be allowed a similar one? And would not the two practically box in this corner of the harbor, leaving only room for powerboats to maneuver with any degree of safety?” Olivia Brane, Cotuit.
  • “We do not want to exclude people but we do want to invite them into a quiet, clean Cotuit Harbor that is safe for children in small boats.” – Sarah Schear, Belmont.

The inimitable Anna Murray had the last word in the Patriot’s story of March 30, 1978:

“If the petitioners [the Sobins] are upset, think what we are. We stopped the Eisenstadt pier, the Harborview Pier and the 160-foot Blakely pier. I will fight any permanent pier over 75 feet5 with every breath in my body until  I’m pushing up daisies.”

Anna Murray, founder of STOPP

Proliferating Piers

Murray’s reference to the “Eisenstadt” and “Blakely” piers, were in reference to two previous battles over applications to build permanent piers on Cotuit’s shores.

In 1974, surveyor and engineer Charles Savery was denied his bid to build a 163-foot pier near the bottom of Cross Street near Riley’s Beach across from the point of Sampson’s Island. Savery claimed the  former Riley estate had historic approval for a 232-foot pier that dated back to 1898 and he also “pointed to the many private piers in the area” in his unsuccessful arguments before the Barnstable Appeals Board.

The 1970s saw a large number of new piers constructed throughout the Three Bays. Nine were constructed in the Three Bays region in 1979 alone. John Alger argued they should be encouraged and expected.

“They should be allowed as a matter of course. There is absolutely nothing in the town zoning by-laws or the town by-laws to forbid this, providing they are approved by the conservation commission and the owner is entitled to them. The people in many cases are assessed for $100,000 per acre, or 80 or 60, depending on the area. The reason is that these lands cost that much to buy. And the reason they are so expensive is that they are there to enjoy the waterfront and one of the rights of shorefront property owners since time immemorial is to enjoy their boats and their own waterfront as long as they do not substantially impinge on the public’s right…With the prices land is going for, they almost have to have piers on them.”

Attorney John Alger

Alger, who was also Town Moderator of Banstable’s town meeting, successfully represented seven of those nine waterfront property owners who received docks in 1979. He passed away in 2007 at the age of 76, a formidable opponent to any one who dared speak against one of his clients in a public meeting.

At the conclusion of the Patriot’s extensive story about the burgeoning pier problem, Bodensiek wrote:

“A string of piers at every property on the outer and inner rims of the great bays is not an impossibility. The crowding of the harbors by boats on moorings is another factor. Summer and off-season boat traffic, in the ring created by the Three Bays and the Seapuit River is increasing. And the ecological damage? The day when small Mosquito Yacht Club boats held sole sway is undoubtedly long gone. The overcrowding of one of the town of Barnstable’s great seashore assets may not be long off.”

Fred Bodensiek, writing in the Barnstable Patriot

The tide turns against piers

The Army Comes to Cotuit

The Army Corps of Engineers took notice of the 150 letters that eventually arrived at its Waltham offices . At the request of STOPP, the Corps convened a public hearing in Cotuit at Freedom Hall on June 29, 1978. According to published accounts, the hearing was packed with 250 people. The Corps arrived with a preliminary assessment of the project and stated at the start of the hearing that it saw no significant environmental impacts, pointing ouit that “Piers are considered to be an accessory use of waterfront property throughout the area. Cotuit Harbor is heavily used for recreational boating, and the proposal pier construction and dredging are consistent with those areas.”

The Cotuit hearing underscored some serious deficiencies in the review process for piers. At that time the only town board with any jurisdiction over  a pier application was the conservation commission. The town waterways committee reviewed pier applications but had no authority to deny or approve them, only to give its opinion of their impact on navigation. That committee is chaired by the harbormaster and has been traditionally comprised of members drawn largely from commercial backgrounds such as assistant harbormaster and marine construction company owner Chester Crosby Jr., had reviewed the  pier and saw “nothing detrimental navigation-wise with the pier plan.”  

Chester also dredged the harbor around the Sobin pier.

When the Freedom Hall hearing was called to order equal numbers of the public took to the microphones to speak for and against the pier. A petition to approve the pier was presented to the Corps by Alger bearing the signatures of 123 names; a move by the pro-pier forces that caught STOPP and its letter writers by surprise. Still, faced with a divided hall, the opponents tried to make their case:

“The question before us tonight is quite simply the freedom of a small community to have a decisive voice in controlling their own surroundings. When a conflict arises between the interest of an individual and those of a community such as ours, the interest of the community must take precedence. For many years we have successfully fought the building of large piers. The proposed pier is only the latest attempt to encroach upon the amenities of our shoreline.”

Robert Hewick speaking to the Army Corps of Engineers at Freedom Hall

Robert Hayden of Cotuit said both local and state agencies had approved the pier and he urged the Corps to abide by those decisions. Ralph  Baker stated the Kirkman’s had a pier on that beach in the 1940s and saw no reason why the Sobin’s would be any different.

Barbara Sullivan of STOPP, daughter-in-law of Billy Sullivan and also a resident of Bluff Point,said her neighbors in the Bluff Point subdivision “feel the pier will cut out their vested right to traverse the beach around the point.”

Sullivan’s neighbor, Anthony Franchi, said the pier would hurt property values, and according to the Patriot, he said if the pier was approved then he would apply for one for his two boats.  Another Bluff Point neighbor, Frank Sweet, said he was neither for, nor against the pier, but “If he [Sobin] wants a dock, I can’t argue with him.”

The Sobin’s were present at the hearing at Freedom Hall but did not speak.

The Silence of the Sobin’s

It’s impossible to speculate what went through Julian Sobin’s mind as he built a new home  and waited for his pier to be approved while some of his new neighbors rose up against him. Few in town knew the Sobins, but in the spring of 1978 his neighbor Barbara Sullivan sat down with Julian Sobin and urged him to abandon his pier and put his energies into commissioning a comprehensive study of Cotuit Bay and its boating facilities in order to better utilize the town’s facilities and discourage future private docks. Sobin listened but refused her request to drop the pier. According to the Patriot’s account of the meeting, Sobin said he thought such a study would be a good idea. “As a citizen of Cotuit, and as a resident, which I hope to be, it sounded to me like a sound, intelligent suggestion, if a reasonable study were made of the total situation.”

Barbara Sullivan asked Julian Sobin to split the cost of her proposed study. According to her he rejected the idea.

Appeal

After the Cotuit hearing in June, 1978,  the Army Corps of Engineers retreated to its office outside of Boston to review the public comment it received from the village’s residents and come to a decision. Months went by. Then the new year arrived and with it the Corps’ decision.

The Corps approved the pier with no conditions.

After news of the approval was known Sobin’s neighbor-once-removed  on Bluff Point, Anthony Franchi, wrote the Sobin’s “asking them to reconsider constructing the 144-foot pier sticking out into Cotuit Harbor.”

Asked if he were suggesting the possibility the Sobins might consider not building the pier, Franchi told the Patriot:

“That’s my hope. That they will reconsider constructing it. It’s just a matter of trying, hopefully, to resolve the differences in the dispute. We want to be as peaceful as we can with our neighbors. I am of course disappointed the Corps has given the permit because we would like to keep the beaches and the area as they are. I certainly hope he will reconsider in favor of what we believe is best for the beach, the town, and the area. Before I do anything, or plan to do anything, I would like the opportunity to talk to the Sobins.”

Anthony Franchi

Little could be done to thwart the Sobin’s from moving ahead unless an abutter objected. That abutter was Franchi, who like the Sobin’s had purchased a parcel of Bluff Point from the Cotuit Trust and built a home there. Franchi’s objections were based on a reading of the rules of the  Bluff Point homeowners association which required all members of the association have free and unobstructed passage along the beach around all of Bluff Point. Franchi filed a lawsuit against Sobin in May of 1979 and successfully obtained a temporary restraining order to block construction.

 Temporary is far from permanent and the clock ran out for the pier’s opponents in May of 1980 when the Massachusetts State Land Court ruled in favor of the Sobin’s pier. In his ruling, Associate Justice John E. Fenton Jr. approved the 144-foot pier with the stipulation that the pier not interfere with any neighbor’s right of passage along the beach of Bluff Point, thus conceding to Franchi his claim the pier would interfere with his right of passage a. Judge Fenton ordered the Sobin’s to build a passageway under the pier so walkers could pass through unobstructed.

And in the end…..

The pier was built in the late spring of 1980. It  still stands today.  A boat was tied to it for a while throughout that decade, but little was seen or heard of Julian Sobin after the dock went up. Aside from filing various plans with the concom to build a hot tub and some stairs to his dock, and going on record with country registry of deeds for waiving the right of first refusal to buy any other properties within the Bluff Point neighborhood (as is the right of any property owner under the rules of the Bluff Point Association), the Sobin’s seemed to simply fade from the headlines as they settled into their new home. Julian Sobin never backed down, offered no concessions or room for compromise, and doubtlessly his legal costs were considerable. Julian Sobin got his pier.

Billy Sullivan died in 1998. He sold the Patriots in the late 1980s when the team couldn’t meet its payroll due to the reported loss of $20 million by his son Charles (who had been the promoter of the late Michael Jackson’s Victory tour which apparently turned out to be a debacle for the Sullivan fortune).  After filing for bankruptcy, the team and its Foxborough stadium were sold. Today the Codman mansion is  owned by the Sullivan Trust, the trustee of which is Jeanne Sullivan McKeigue, former member of the New England Patriot’s board of directors.

In 1999 Julian and Leilla Sobin sold their Cotuit property at 124 Bluff Point Drive  to Bluff Point 1999 Trust No. 2 for $2,155,860.00.    That trust still owns the property,  pier and the entire point of sand  to this day. The identity of the beneficiaries of the Bluff Point 1999 Trust is unknown.

Julian Sobin died in August of 2001. His widow, Leila, died ten years later in 2011. When Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was uncovered in 2008, among the list of names of the investors he defrauded was the name of Julian Sobin of Boston.

 Next up….

How Cotuit fought for, and won, a change to the town’s zoning bylaws to prohibit the construction of any new docks on the western shores of Cotuit Bay.

Part 1: A Village Allergic to Docks

“The battle of the pier has resulted in neighbors no longer speaking to each other, name calling and the collection of money for legal fees from the citizenry.”

If you have any memories of the Harbor View pier, the court battles and controversies, or if you have a photo of the former 250-foot pier, I would be grateful and happy to include your thoughts on the matter, or any correction to the record of the dispute which follows. Thank you.

David Churbuck

The history of docks and piers in the village of Cotuit would seem to be one of the most tedious topics I could be blogging about. Yet it is a story that goes to the heart of Cotuit’s early maritime history, the reason why the village was once known as “Cotuit Port” and became one of the most important commercial ports on Cape Cod in the 19th century. Docks have  been a subject of intense controversy and debate in the village over the past 50 years, debates and court fights that have pitted neighbors against neighbors, dominated village politics, and ( it could be argued), lay the foundation for the village’s tradition of   preserving open space, fighting the demolition of historic homes, and advocating for the environmental health of its waterways and beaches.

The current application by a life-long summer resident to construct a new pier adjacent to Cotuit’s town dock has reignited community interest in the controversial and divisive topic of piers and docks. This essay is not about the pros and cons of that present proposal, but a brief look at Cotuit’s history of opposition to new docks and piers. I’ll break up the story into three parts.  

Older residents will recall the first major battle over a pier: the Harbor View Club’s 250-foot long permanent pier which was built in the mid-1960s, and then demolished in 1969 after years of court cases culminating in the state’s Supreme Court order to have it removed. The Harbor View pier fight was followed in the late 1970s by another battle over the so-called “Sobin pier” on Codmans/Bluff Point, a battle the pier’s opponents lost and its  owner won, again a fight entailing  years of hearings, court cases and arguments within the village  that pitted neighbor versus neighbor. The third major controversy over docks and piers came nearly 20 years ago, in 2001  the village and recreational shellfishermen successfully pushed for a ban on new piers from Handy’s Point to Loop Beach despite vigorous opposition from the real estate and construction lobbies.

But before jumping into the sad tale of the Harbor View, let me digress with a little history of docks in Cotuit

The First Docks

The reason the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has unique laws governing the ownership of waterfront property down to the edge of the water, and not the high-water mark like most other states, is the important role piers played in the settlement of the colony in the mid-1600s. Piers allow a ship to unload its passengers and cargo without needing to transfer them to a small boat – or lighter – which would then be rowed ashore into shallow water where it would be unloaded and carried the rest of the way. A contributor to the high mortality rate of the Pilgrims over their first winter in Plymouth was blamed in part on the need for the passengers and crew of the Mayflower to wade ashore in frigid waters, soaking their boots and clothing twice a day as most of the passengers lived aboard the ship while the first houses were being built ashore.  As subsequent ships arrived carrying Puritan colonists to Salem and Boston, it was apparent to the first colonial governors that substantial piers would be needed to handle the passengers, cargo and livestock arriving from England. Those piers – some of which remain to this day along Boston’s waterfront – were massive structures created by dumping boulders and stones into the harbor, then encasing the fill in timbers and planks to create a permanent pier where ships could berth and be easily offloaded. To encourage such construction the colonial regulations granted waterfront property owners control over the entire beach – from dry sand down to the water’s edge and then beyond into the waters of the harbor, giving them “water rights” over the submerged bottom under the pier. Because shipping and fishing were the foundation of the colony’s survival and success, the regulations succeeded and Massachusetts became the most successful maritime colony on the continent, with its  piers leading to shipyards, warehouses, ropewalks, and other related trades.

The first commercial pier built in Cotuit wasn’t built until 1797. It was owned by Braddock Crocker on the beach where the current yacht club pier stands at Ropes Beach/Hooper’s Landing, and some remnants of it can still be found buried in the mud there. Crocker’s pier was soon joined by Hezekiah Coleman’s pier, then others, making the Ropes Beach cove the commercial center of the village and leading to the renaming of the neighborhood as “Cotuit Port” to distinguish it from the original colonial settlement inland at Santuit near the Mashpee town line and the Santuit River.

Braddock Crocker’s pier, built 1797

In the early 19th century Cotuit’s piers were used to load cordwood for the island of Nantucket, to embark and disembark passengers on the  packets which ran daily between the village and the island, as well as load other cargo bound to the prosperous island.  After the Civil War, when the first summer residents began to build homes along the shores of Cotuit Bay, the commercial center began to shift to the area around the current town dock. Carleton Nickerson built a boat shop there, the Cotuit Oyster Company’s headquarters were there, and Sears, a Hyannis lumber company, built a depot at the town landing along with sheds to store coal delivered by coastal schooner to the village’s stoves.  The harbor was an important commercial port, and businesses such as the Coleman family’s Santuit House hotel, the blacksmith shop on Old Shore Road, Thomas Chatfield’s sail loft, and the Handy’s shipyard at Little River all prospered serving the hundreds of coastal schooners that passed through Nantucket Sound every day, carrying the cargo the country depended on at a time before roads or railroads connected its cities and towns.

As Cotuit made the transition from commerce to recreation in the late 19th century, the piers near Ropes Beach were used for the pleasure of the summer visitors staying at the Santuit House. Ice cream and clams on the half-shell were served from a shed on the end of one pier. Later, with the construction of the Pines Hotel near Riley’otHGs Beach and Sampson’s Island, a pier was built for the convenience of the guests who hired retired whaling captains to take them for day sails around the bay in their catboats.

The Harbor View Club

In 1902 a wealthy businessman—one  W.T. Jenney and his wife — built a large waterfront home on the bluff overlooking Cotuit’s town dock. Thereafter known  as the “Jenney House” it still sits next to Freedom Hall on Main Street and commands a spectacular view over the harbor, Dead Neck, Sampson’s Island, and Nantucket Sound beyond. The property  may also be the   “white elephant” of  the village, having changed hands nearly a dozen times since its construction.

The Jenney House in modern times

The Jenney House sits in a residential zoning district,  but it  became an informal  business in the early 1930s when  its owner, Annie Flanders, opened a tea-room that served sandwiches, ice cream, soda and yes, tea. She was unable to make a go of it, fell behind on the mortgage and taxes, and  lost the property to a foreclosure by the Wareham Savings Bank – who held onto it for six years before selling it in 1944 to a businessman from Worcester, Joseph Abdella.

In the early 1950s Abdella sold the Jenney House without making any significant modifications to it. In 1951 it was purchased by a Providence, Rhode Island “industrialist “named  Morton Clark and his wife Edith. The Clarks incorporated Harbor View Manor Inc., sold the property to that entity, brought on a partner, Ellsworth Rouseville of Attleboro, and gradually expanded the commercial use of the property, running it as a seasonal inn and making some minor modifications that didn’t attract much attention from the abutters despite its ongoing non-conforming commercial use in a residential zone.

In 1956 the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club celebrated its 50th anniversary with a regatta on Cotuit Bay. Headquarters for the event was the Harbor View, as the CMYC at the time had no pier or beach of its own, but depended on the hospitality of members to provide it with a home. Ironically, in ten years time the CMYC would be involved in a fight against the harborside inn.

In 1964 the Clarks received a permit from the state Department of Public Works to build a 250-foot long, eight-foot wide permanent pier with a 50-foot wide “T” at the end and slip accommodations for 26 boats.  While it appeared to be a marine, Harbor View Inc. founded a yacht club, registered it with the International Yacht Racing Union, and applied to the town of Barnstable for building permits to enclose and enlarge the home’s porch, to construct locker rooms for the yacht club’s members, dig up the 6,000 square foot lawn to make a parking lot, and various  other modifications to turn the former Jenney House into a year-round restaurant, hotel, and yacht club.

In January of 1965 the Harbor View Manor Club went before the Barnstable zoning board of appeals to get a variance for its non-conforming use and permits for the new construction. At that meeting the Clarks and investors in the corporation were met with opposition by 300 village residents and 200 telegrams sent by summer residents unable to make it to the Cape for the hearing in the off-season.  After taking the matter under advisement, the board unanimously voted to deny the building permits and variance and it appeared the expansion plans would be thwarted.

The Barnstable Patriot’s Cotuit correspondent, the late Frances X. Schmid, wrote in the weekly Cotuit news column of January 15, 1965, an item with the headline: “Villagers Protest Proposed Yacht Club”

“Three hundred villagers in person and 200 telegrams were part of  a protest presented to the zoning board at a  standing-room-only only hearing In the hearing room at the town office building last Thursday afternoon, protesting the petition of the Harbor View Manor Club, Inc.,  for an extension of the non-conforming use to permit the enclosure of a part of the existing building on Main Street and lo allow the use of the premises as a hotel-yacht club. Harbor View Manor Inc. President Lloyd J.  Clark has asked permission to enclose the  porch. Install plumbing facilities  on first floor, extend basement area for enlargement of cocktail lounge, and to add a sub-basement for installation of 228  lockers, shower and toilet  plumbing for both men and women. Representatives of the fire district and the prudential committee were also present lo protest the granting of the extension. Summer homeowners — among them Victor Boden of Stamford. Conn , and  J.C. Stookey of Hasting-on-Hudson, N.Y.— made the trip from their winter homes to join the protest. The petition was taken under advisement”

Frances X. Schmid, Barnstable Patriot, Jan. 15, 1965

Emboldened  by the state’s  permit to build the pier, the Harbor View pushed ahead with construction in the spring of 1965 and received a special building permit from the town’s building inspector, Herbert Stringer for the modifications to the building.  Two neighbors – Dr. Donald and Mary Higgins, and Mr. and Mrs. William Crawford – sued the building inspector in June of 1965. The battle over the new yacht club had begun.

Public opinion was divided. Some year-round villagers welcomed the arrival of a “real” yacht club and marina. Cotuit lacked a gas dock or boating facilities like Osterville, and the Harbor View Yacht Club promised to bring some real waterfront amenities to town  – including a fancy restaurant – which the village lacked since the decline of the commercial district at the turn of the century. The opponents were mainly summer people who wanted to preserve the informal, uncommercial character of the village.

In 1967, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times wrote a feature article about the impact of the late President John F. Kennedy’s summer “White House” at Hyannis Port on the sudden popularity of the Cape, especially along the south side between Cotuit and Hyannis Port. Cotuit summer resident and former Secretary of Commerce John Connor told the reporter that life in the village was “… delightfully unorganized.  Here, the ‘yacht club’ is the end of a dock and dues are one dollar a year. There is none of that white-jacket stuffiness you get over in Oysters Harbors.”

That state of  “delightful unorganization” changed forever in 1966 when opponents to the Harbor View began to raise money through the Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association and the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club  to help pay the fees of the Higgins and Crawford’s  attorney: the late Richard Anderson.  One wag nicknamed the effort the “Watch and Ward Society of Cotuit” in humorous reference to the Boston Watch and Ward Society that was  notorious for banning books in the early 1900s.

The agenda of the Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association meeting of August 1966 was dominated by the topic of the Harbor View. Frances Schmid wrote in her Barnstable Patriot  column:

Too Many Boats Too Many Gulls

Although it would take more Boston and Philadelphia lawyers than those barristers which have already been involved to make “Harborvlew” synonymous with “happiness” to most summer and settled residents of Cotuit, the attitude of the villagers toward “the external forces impinging on our community” was made much clearer than the water in Cotuit Harbor will be, at the annual meeting of the Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association at Freedom Hall Friday night. After such preliminaries as reading of last year’s meetings, the reporting of the amount in the treasury (some of which, In a motion by William Morse, Jr., will be used to Join with the Mosquito Yacht Club “in their efforts to enforce zoning regulations which we believe have been breached by Harborvlew”), the election of three new members, and such variegated discussions as jal-lai, Popponessett Bay, Barnstable Harbor Motel, cedar tree treatment, keeping Cotuit clean, a new dump site and the growth of the herring gulls, the remainder of the meeting got hotter than the afternoon that preceded this writing as various pro and con speakers rose to express their views and concern over the possible polluting of the harbor by boats that will tie up at the Harborvlew’s pier.

Although the State Health Department is concerned with the pollution of harbors and there are laws concerning the sealing of “heads” while boats are in the harbor or tied up at the dock. It was explained by Dr. Donald Higgins that it is hardly possible to police boats dumping. Robert Hayden, who feels that the pier and boats there can be an asset to the village, advocated the furnishing of more “facilities.” He also felt present regulations were acceptable to the modern day.

Motions for the joining of forces with other interested groups in the taking of more samples of water for testing by the Board of Health, followed by appropriate action if indicated, came from Dr. James Dunning, Mrs. D. T. Craw, and William Morse, Jr.

Gordon Browne, Jr., noted that although many protests were received over the holding of the firemen’s ball at the Harborvlew, there was no other place in the village to hold it. Which reminds us of a good joke about why firemen have so much more lavish affairs than policemen, but you’ll have to send a self-addressed stamped envelope for the answer.”

Frances X. Schmid, The Barnstable Patriot, August 1966

The dock was built in 1966  and the Harbor View Club opened for business. The Civic Association met again in August 1967 and the members voted to contribute $400 to “help defray expenses in the suit now pending in Superior Court.”  

That suit was heard by  Barnstable Superior Court Judge Edward F. Hennessey in January of 1968. To the dismay of the plaintiffs and the anti-Harbor View coalition, Judge Hennessey upheld the building inspector’s issuance of the special building permits, finding the changes to the property were “as lawful exercise in the discretionary powers of the building inspector under the terms of the (town) by-law.”  Judge Hennessey  also approved of the changes made to the property, writing in his decision: “…the new enclosures have enhanced the internal and external appearance of the building….the new (blacktop) surface was applied in a professional fashion and is attractive in appearance …motor vehicles, formerly parked on the dirt path and indiscriminately on all part of the grass surface … the new pier is attractively constructed …. There is no credible evidence that boat traffic in the vicinity has been increased by reason of the pier (and that) it is an obstruction to navigation…appropriate state authorities approved its installation before it was constructed … the efficiency and utility of that portion of the harbor has been enhanced.”

Judge Hennessey concluded: “All of the alterations complained of in the petitioner’s bill have made Harbor View and its immediate neighborhood more attractive to the eye.”

The Higginses and Crawfords appealed Hennessey’s decision and it was heard by the state Supreme court over the winter and early spring of 1967.  There, with Bernard A. Dwork of Dwork & Goodman representing the Harbor View, and Daniel J. Fern representing the abutters, the appeal was reviewed by five justices who focused on precedent and a close interpretation of the town of Barnstable’s zoning laws as they related to the concept of “non-conforming use.”  On May 2, 1967 the Supreme Court ruled against the Harbor View. Two years later, in June of 1969, Associate Justice Paul G. Kirk ruled that “use of the pier, constructed without a building permit in 1964, be stopped then and there.”

 The Patriot’s story about Kirk’s decision  said: “Judge Kirk’s ruling shuts off application for a special permit from the Town of Barnstable Appeals Board.” Yet despite the massive set back, the Harbor View did just that and made one final effort to gain a permit from the town zoning board of appeals  to preserve the pier. Denied unanimously five year before by the ZBA, they were denied again despite a new show  of support for the pier.

The sailing instructor at the Harbor View yacht club, James Ryan of Acton, wrote an impassioned and bitter letter to the editor of the Barnstable Patriot. He began by saying Judge Kirk should have disqualified himself from hearing the appeal because he was a “summer resident of the area.” (Kirk had a summer home in Centerville). Then Ryan described a malignant atmosphere of harassment and lies (and even anti-Semitism) by the opponents to the pier. Some of his claims included:

“Harborview Club and its members have been constantly harassed by those opposed to the club. The concern of those opposed is not with a zoning law, but to cause the failure of Harborview and eventual eviction of its members. They have charged us with polluting the waters, conducting noisy parties, trespassing on their properties, using obscene language, peering at them through binoculars, dirtying their beaches and other falsities. They have recently stooped to anti-Semitism. These self-appointed guardians and protectors of Cotuit Bay have, by their actions, done a disservice to the village of Cotuit. The Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club has, on several occasions, solicited funds from Cotuit Post Office box holders to pay the cost of litigation against Harborview.”

James Ryan, sailing instructor at the Harborview, in a a letter to the Barnstable Patriot, August 1969

After Judge Kirk issued his demolition order, the Barnstable Patriot wrote in an editorial published August 28, 1969:

“For about five years a battle royal has sputtered in Cotuit, as quiet, and sedate a little village as any in New England.

The bone of contention has been a pile of timbers extending  from the Harborview Club into the bay. This, summer a superior court judge decreed that the controversial pier must be torn down as it had been constructed without proper permit.

Arguments for and against retaining the pier were heard by Barnstable Appeals Board this week in a marathon session attended by a horde of opponents and proponents in the matter.

During debate of the issue one Cotuit resident declared that until now controversies in the community had been resolved among the villagers themselves. However, the battle of the pier has resulted in neighbors no longer speaking to each other, name calling and the collection of money for legal fees from the citizenry.

As a matter .of principle, he contended, the law in a town should be upheld without citizens having to reach into their own pockets.

It is a certainty that the gentleman from Cotuit would find many who support his theory.”

Editorial, Barnstable Patriot, August 28, 1969

On September 4, 1969, the lead story on the front page of  the Barnstable Patriot reviewed the long, sad history of that  “Battle Royal” and reported on the Harbor View’s final arguments in its August appearance before the ZBA.  So many people turned out to witness the hearing  that the meeting had to be moved from town hall  to the auditorium at Cape Cod Community College.

The three-hour long meeting opened with the club’s attorney, John Curley, Jr., arguing that unlike the 1964 hearing for variances to renovate and change the former Jenney home,  the  current application was to seek a permit for the pier, which had not been on the agenda five years before.  Curley’s arguments focused on the yacht club and recreational benefits  of the pier, not its commercial use by a for-profit corporation.

The Harbor View contingent  arrived with a petition signed by 90 names urging the pier be preserved,   two letters from  a current and former selectman who were in favor of the project, and testimony by the Falmouth Harbormaster who  said since it was nearly impossible to enforce sanitation regulations on the water, the harbor would be better served by onshore toilet facilities. Thirteen people in all  stood to speak on the Harbor View’s behalf.

Attorney Richard Anderson, representing the Higginses and Crawfords, argued the club was purely a commercial venture and quoted from the Harbor View’s promotional literature which stated: “Our magnificent new dock can accommodate your craft, even cabin cruisers.” Attorney John Alger, representing Cotuit realtor Helen MacLellan on the side of the plaintiffs,  disputed the Harbor View attorney’s claim that the pier had never been reviewed by the ZBA and said the hearing was not to determine “what recreational facilities should be available to children nor to determine if there is a shortage of piers in town, but rather to determine an issue of zoning.”

The Patriot’s article concluded: “Perhaps the most acute observation came from a native Cotuiter who commented on the impact the issue had on the village, bringing about a situation where neighbors and friends have become enemies and the breach created will be difficult to close.”

On October 30, 1969, the ZBA rejected the Harbor View’s proposal. One member of the board, Jean McKenzie Bearse of Centerville voted in favor, the other two members were opposed, saying in their decision that while they may have been inclined to grant the club its pier, their hands were tied by the state Supreme court’s decision.

And with that, the Harbor View Yacht Club’s fate was sealed. In the aftermath the Barnstable Patriots editor groused in an editorial titled “Never the Twain Shall Meet”

“Probably no village controversy in the past year has raised such dissension among neighbors as that of the pier at Harbor View Manor Club in Cotuit. The hearing in August routed more Cotuitites out of their oyster shells than any in some time, most of them strongly opposing the petition by the club to build another pier….”

“From beginning to end, the case of the Cotuit pier seems a paradox. At no time has there been greater demand for expansion of waterfront facilities than now. Yet a court orders one such accommodation torn down and the local appeals board cannot, in its opinion, legally accede to the request for building another in its place.

“Legality and logic appear at times to be much like east and west, and as the saying goes, never the twain shall meet.”

Editorial, Barnstable Patriot, November 6, 1969

In response, a leader of the anti-Harbor View contingent,  Dr. James Dunning of Cotuit, wrote a letter to the Patriot:

“Cotuit could easily fall prey to the intense commercial development that has occurred in other parts of the Cape. If this were to happen, Cotuit would lose it quiet village character. Its harbor waters would be polluted to the detriment of both the bathers and the oyster industry. Residents of Cotuit do not want this to happen. The many visitors and summer people we now entertain value the village just as it is. Conservatism and conservation have their place. We are glad the Supreme Court respects this concept.

“Second, the Harbor View dock was constructed without permit and in flagrant violation of zoning ordinances. Off-Cape money was forcing the development. We are justifiably afraid of such lawless tactics. We must resist them, as must all who respect law and order.”

Dr. James Dunning, letter to the editor, Barnstable Patriot, November 1969

The Harbor View still stands today with a very short, permanent pier in front of its beach. It is a private residence now, living on as a would-be marina and yacht club in the memory of those who lived through the first of what would be several brutal battles over piers on Cotuit’s shore.

Next: The Savery and Sobin Pier Fights  of the 70s

When a brand gets blamed

 It was just a normal event in the course of the modern world. Eight months later, that meeting had led to the infections of a quarter of a million people, give or take.

Reconstructing a Pandemic, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, The New Yorker 2020.12.15

I used to work in an office in the old Boston Exchange building across the street from the scene of the Boston Massacre — the old Statehouse. Once a day I would try to get my steps in and walk down to the harbor and around the New England Aquarium to check out the seals playing in their outdoor pool. The route took me down historic State Street and past the Boston Marriott Long Wharf. Early last March, while Bostonians fretted over the first reported cases of Covid 19, the news emerged that the first “super spreader event” had taken place inside that hotel at an internal sales conference hosted by Biogen, one of the biggest and oldest companies in a city known for its excellence in medicine and technology.

As the Boston Globe reported the story, it became evident that the Biogen conference had been a perfect storm of bad circumstances. Foreign employees coming into the country through Logan Airport, bringing with them the virus. Colleagues shaking hands, laughing and socializing. The irony that it happened because at an event hosted by a life sciences company only gave the story that man-bites-dog element reporters and editors love. When the Globe dug into the story it became apparent that Biogen’s meeting resulted in a lot of sick people and caused a flood of panicked Biogen employees to arrive at Massachusetts General Hospital seeking tests that simply weren’t available. All eyes were on the company.

Within days, though, the Biogen conference would be infamous, identified as an epicenter of the Massachusetts outbreak of Covid-19, with 70 of 92 coronavirus infections in the state linked to the conference as of Tuesday night, including employees and those who came into contact with them. 

How the Biogen leadership conference in Boston spread the coronavirus, The Boston Globe, 2020.03.10

The meeting was doubtlessly intended to be an important opportunity to get 175 senior leaders at the company company together in the same place to discuss the strategy and prospects for the coming year. There was no conspiracy, no sinister virus escaped from Biogen’s labs, just another meeting like most companies convene regularly, requiring their far-flung staff to get on planes and come together for a few days of speeches, workshops, buffet lunches and gala dinners.

Now Biogen is still in the news, as a cautionary tale, a true epidemiological detective story, a case study in what happens when humans get on airplanes, gather in rooms, breathe on one other and shake each other’s hands.

Every company I’ve worked at has done it, believing it was vital for morale and the corporate culture to get people off of conference calls and into the same room for a few days to build bonds and ensure everyone gets the same information, the same training, and some sort of team-building esprit de corps to break down internal barriers and make the senders of those emails, those voices on the conference call, tangible people and not just names and voices.

Thanks to Biogen, corporate events are dead for the time being. Replaced by the usually silly Zoom events where the participants do the Hollywood Squares thing and toast each other through the glass.

All the company could do was put a spokesman on the phone with the reporter to deny there had been internal discussions to cancel the conference the previous month, when Boston had its first case — a student from Wuhan — and “concerns about holding large gatherings were already circulating locally at least a week before the Biogen conference. The spokesman put on the record that Biogen, at the time of the meeting, had followed “national guidance on travel and in-person meetings.”

What has been the impact on the Biogen brand? A Boston Globe reader commented on the March 10 story about the impact of the conference:

“How about adding the greed and hubris of Biogen. February 26? An international conference in Boston? Have people lost their minds? And this was Biogen. Shouldn’t they know better? Testing is after the fact. Just imagine if this conference never took place like it should not have. How much safer we would be. Where was Mayor Greedy? Where was the Marriott? All counting their money while Biogen execs go conference hopping and infect the world.
They should be held criminally responsible. They are certainly morally so.
They have screwed us. Shame on them all. Such a greedy culture in Boston with this mayor.

Nine months later and Biogen continues to be blamed, most recently by a research paper published in Science, the paper which sparked The New Yorker’s story of December 15. From the abstract of that paper: “an international business conference, produced sustained community transmission and was exported, resulting in extensive regional, national, and international spread.

Now Biogen is on the hook for “hundreds of thousand of infections” according to The New Yorker. The result is a company that will long be associated with what happened at that harborside hotel in late February, and not for its research into finding a cure for Alzheimers.

Because patients rarely (if ever) ask their physician to prescribe them medicine from a specific pharmaceutical company, and because few physicians would avoid prescribing a drug because its manufacturer happened to host a meeting that spread a new virus, and because Biogen’s shareholders probably shrugged off the noise about that meeting and value the company on its financial fundamentals and the promise of its product pipeline, one can argue (from the point of view of crisis communications and brand reputation) that despite some negative associations between the name of the virus, the name of the company, and the name of the hotel, the best response the company could have made was no response other than an expression of concern for its employees’ health and to remind the press that at the time of the meeting there was no way the company could have foreseen that an ordinary meeting would be the source for an estimated 300,000 infections.

Companies have gone so far as to change their names after scandals and disasters. When the Exxon Valdez went on the rocks I stopped buying Exxon for a few weeks until I realized I was just as complicit driving a car that burned fossil fuels and my indignation over the fate of the oil covered sea otters was not going to change one of the largest companies in the world. I didn’t stop flying on TWA after Flight 800 blew up off the shores of Long Island in the mid-1990s. Nor did I boycott United after a baggage handler broke a YouTuber’s guitar and the musician wrote a viral song about it. I do however, continue to steer clear of a well known Mexican fast-food chain after reading too many stories about noroviruses and other food poisoning incidents. I don’t feel any particular ill-will towards the New England Patriots because of Aaron Hernandez’s murder conviction or Robert Kraft’s visit to a Florida rub-and-tug.

Barbara Tuchman wrote famously that history is the unfolding of miscalculation. I’d amend that to say that the yin and the yang of good luck and bad luck is just the luck of the draw. Take two leading companies founded by very smart scientists (Biogen’s founders won Nobel Prizes for their work), put their headquarters in the same city (Cambridge), and expose them to the same virus and one comes out the goat, and the other the salvation of humanity. Thus in the same week that Science published a research paper blaming Biogen’s conference for sickening 300,000 people, the FDA approved Moderna’s vaccination.

Crisis communications and reputation repair work begins by planning responses to hypothetical risks. Some of those risks have higher probabilities than others. Some are unique to an industry. Others are too far fetched to even consider. Those responses aren’t the canned statements and carefully massaged expressions of regret the poor corporate spokesperson has to offer a reporter, but are the solutions the company puts into place to fix the problem. Focus on the fix. Plan for the tangible actions that can be taken to solve a potential crisis, then one can worry about how to phrase the press release or who in the company will be making public statements to the media.

Learn by observing those companies that emerge from a crisis and try to determine what worked and what failed. When BP’s CEO blurted out he wished he could get his life back after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, he was a goner. When Steve Jobs argued that one of the original iPhone models had no reception problems despite evidence to the contrary, his halo lost some shine. Crisis communications isn’t about apologies, deflections of blame, or stonewalling the press. It’s about changing popular opinion as quickly as possible with clear, forward-looking solutions to very public problems. If, as in the case of Biogen, the crisis was caused by external factors beyond the company’s control, the appropriate response isn’t always “sorry”, but it needs to be a response that anticipates a future when the company may have good news to share, when its halo is shining and all is well with the world. To treat good news and bad news differently; to gush about the good and try to bury the bad; is just hypocrisy the press will seize on.

Biogen’s leadership doubtlessly hoped the tale of its meeting and the people who were subsequently sickened by coming into contact with some infected attendees would just go away. Hope is not a strategy. I think the company played its response correctly by acknowledging the event and not denying it, but also by not indulging in some contrived act of public contrition like a donation to a non-profit or posting of a YouTube video of the CEO wringing his hands with remorse while looking gravely concerned about an incident more due to bad luck and happenstance than bad decision making.

You aren’t the boss of me: motorcycle helmets, seat belts and masks

Elisabeth Rosenthal, writing in today’s (Nov. 19, 2020) New York Times, interviews Dr. Anthony S. Fauci. She asked the nation’s top virus expert Do you think we need a national policy like a national mask mandate?”


Dr. Fauci replied: “The only reason that I shy away from making a strong recommendation in that regard is that things that come from the national level down generally engender a lot of pushback from an already reluctant populace that doesn’t like to be told what to do. So you might wind up having the counter-effect of people pushing back even more.”

When I was a reporter in the statehouse press gallery in the mid 80’s Governor Michael Dukakis pushed for a mandatory seat belt law that was compared by some people to mandatory helmet laws for motorcyclists, and the warning labels that were beginning to festoon everything from step ladders to packs of cigarettes. Dukakis wasn’t a charismatic man of the people like Tip O’Neill. Dukakis was as charming as a book keeper at a funeral home, but he argued like a true technocrat that the cost to society of an unworn seat belt made it a matter for the commonwealth to step in and enact yet another law to relieve the rest of us from higher car insurance premiums and rising health care costs caused by some uninsured hog rider who wasn’t wearing his brain bucket when the back wheel of a semi rolled over his head.

I grew up riding in cars that didn’t have seat belts: big Plymouths and Buicks and Pontiacs from the late 1950s and a cute VW Beetle that appeared in the early 60s when Ralph Nader made his name with Unsafe At Any Speed. My father didn’t wear his seatbelt. Then again he also drank beer and smoked Salems when he was behind the wheel, eventually dying there one snowy March afternoon after running head on into a truck near the foot of the runway at Otis Air Force Base in Mashpee. In the 1970s new cars arrived equipped with seat belts and pressure switches and buzzers that nagged until the belts were secured. My father pulled out his wire cutters and starting ripping the devices out from underneath the front seat of his Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon where he stuffed his empty beer cans.

Back then motorcyclists were bitterly protesting the passage of mandatory helmet laws, holding loud rallies outside of statehouses and pushing the definition of “helmet” by wearing Prussian spiked pickelhaubes to freak out the citizenry as they bombed down the highway up to Laconia Bike Week for a weekend of rioting. Then life jackets became mandatory and I remember when a friend’s mother stood up at a meeting of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club and tried to propose a rule that all sailors and their crews be required to wear a life jacket at all times while racing. That fizzled when she was reminded that the only people who could propose a new rule and vote on it had to be single and under the age of 25.

Americans don’t like to be told what do by those faceless powers on high who know what’s best for them. They never have and never will. Most of us are descended from malcontents, scofflaws and miscreants who were either kicked out of their homeland for being contrarian dickheads or who fled capricious rules and taxes for the promised land of rugged individualism: America. In the earliest years of the new nation, tenuously glued together by a lofty Constitution but still figuring out specific laws, the notion of an omnipotent central authority — whether a king or a committee — made for a vigorous debate between those who demanded they hang onto their local authority and the priority of states’ rights over those of a central Federal overseer. That debate still rages, and has been a common thread of contention for most of American history, never more stark than the antebellum years of westward expansion and the wrenching debates over whether or not each new state would be for, or against, slavery. Hence the infamous Missouri Compromise and the nation’s gradual descent into outright rebellion and succession as the southern states exercised their right to kick up a fuss and follow their own drumbeat.

So how did masks become an icon for civil disobedience and the greater good? I wear a mask in public (one of those neck gaiter things) and I put it on whenever I enter a store, go into the post office etc.. I also wear it during my daily walks around the village, tugging it up before I get too close to an oncoming pedestrian, then pulling it back down when I’m well past them. This simple act, visible from 100 yards away, feels to me like tipping my hat to a stranger as we stroll by one another on the boulevard. Except instead of a top hat or bowler I do it with a mask. Am I offended if they don’t do the same? Not especially. I view mask wearing as a courtesy more than a preventative, an act of sparing the other person my exhalations versus the inhalation of theirs. If I was really freaked out by the prospect of inhaling some infectious miasma I’d go full biohazard.

I see your puny N95 and raise you

Would it make a difference if our lame duck President magically reversed course and issued an executive order tommorrow that all Americans must wear a mask at all times in public or risk being fined? I can see some iconoclastic rugged individuals who fly Don’t Tread on Me flags and clutch their rifles and handguns with white knuckles being very upset at the chutzpah of some Beltway bureaucrats telling them what to do. Even if the Mango Mussolini was the one giving them the advice, some people are always going to chafe under authority of any kind and get tight faced with raised hackles if told to respect that authority.

The right to be pissed off, disagree, and throw a revolution is very much a part of the American tradition. Both the left and the right alike have an abiding reverence of this tradition: to push back, to speak up, to fight the power. Thoreau, the spiritual light behind Massachusetts’ tradition of Unitarian progressiveness, the godfather of civil disobedience and nonviolence who inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King wrote : “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Henry David’s fellow Concord goo-goo — Ralph Waldo Emerson — counselled in his transcendental self-help guide, the essay Self-Reliance: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”

But inevitably there comes a situation where being an obstinate individual results in the Typhoid Mary phenomenon where the scofflaw gets arrested and restrained from making other people sick. Does a guy on a Harley Davidson pose a threat whether he wears a helmet or not? Mary Mallan killed a few wealthy families with her asymptomatic typhus because she insisted on her right earn a living as their cook. Eventually she was clapped into irons and spent her remaining years in prison.

Getting back to the middle and agreeing on a common cause in America seems to be our national priority following the election. What this country needs most is a return of moderates as the governing force for compromise between the nut jobs on either end of the spectrum. Let those wingnuts on the fringe carry on their Twitter slap fights and Facebook meme wars: there’s going to be a fringe element no matter what, and all of it is bullshit as long as there are bots and sockpuppets and troll accounts with no measure of authentication.

Tune out the anarchists and fascists alike and if our future sanity means we all need to take a knee before the law or just follow the good old Golden Rule then so be it. Agree to disagree, but also understand it was a tradition in this country that led President Trump to never issue a single national policy for the pandemic. Leaving the states to their own devices is rooted in the earliest years of the republic, when America was a confederation of independently governed state. For a certain segment of society, its not the law but the presumption of distant lawmakers claiming to know what’s best for them that makes them pull a Cartman, flip them off, and say “Make me. I dare you.”

The supremacy of the individual in America versus the herd is alive and well and not going to bend a knee to the collective. Brats are going to be brats. Humor them. Be patient with them. Let them be onery.

The Left needs to confront its Nannyism and the use of over-regulation and attitudes of knowing what’s best for us, and realize a lot of people on the Right view them like a bunch of smug know-it-all nannies who are a bane on society like a toe nail fungus that persists and persists. Hell, I feel it every time I walk down the lane to the beach to use my boat. That formerly serene walk is now spoiled by dozens of signs ruining the scenery around the most scenic spot in Cotuit — Hooper’s Landing — each one creeping in over time to join the usual no-parking signs, a visual testimonial to the rise in rules and regulations that seems to have started in the early 80s when my generation turned into helicopter parents and electronically leashed our kids with cellphones. No dinghies on the beach after November 15. No dogs on the beach between Memorial Day and Labor Day. No smoking. No windsurfing. No refueling of boats. No parking. All are well-intended and were doubtlessly proposed, debated and passed by some elected town officials getting pressure from an upset citizen. But the net effect is a proliferation of rules issued by the no-fun-committee which we all must obey. The bureaucrats are winning and gone are the days when the rules were few and the latitude wide. Some people may even want more rules and more warnings stuck on their tools and ladders, but do they really give a hoot if their nightly bottle of wine might pose a threat to them according to the State of California?

The point of all this? Embrace the contradiction of being true to your self while fitting into a society founded on laws, mutual respect and a sense of common cause. Learn when its time to dig in and when its time to concede. And wear a mask, sit up straight, and eat your peas.