Remembering Cotuit Bay the Way it Was and Why We Need to Clean it Up

I’ve been thinking about this post for months. The idea came to me while listening to the local NPR affiliate — WCAI in Woods Hole — when a local environmentalist said something to the effect that the biggest risk to saving the coastal environment was the passing of the last generation to remember what was and what has been lost.

I guess I am the youngest of that generation — people who knew Cape Cod in the early sixties and have memories of what it was like to have harbors with clear water, eelgrass, and a much richer set of shellfish and fish. Pardon the jeremiad, but this is an issue that’s bothered me since my teens, when the Rape of the Cape was underway. It makes me resent the town planners who let it happen, the developers and real estate people who did it for the money, the oblivious newcomers who tear down old houses, drive jetskis, and have no clue what was once here. Beefing about it seems futile, but I’m tired of feeling pissed off and want to do something.

Here’s a start for what it’s worth.

I was six years old in 1964 when I caught my first fish. Somewhere there is a black and white picture of me holding it up like a trophy, a skinny little kid in a baggy bathing suit with goosebumps and pruned fingertips.

I’d spent every one of my six summers here in Cotuit. My grandfather, Henry, owned a lapstrake Lyman runabout with a Johnson outboard motor that was prone to popping its shear pin if the prop was run in shallow water. He’d drive the family to the island at the bottom of the harbor for picnics and swims. My grandmother, Nellie, collected shells, prizing the orange scallop shells she would arrange over the winter into shell wreaths and sailor’s valentines.

I’d play in the sand while a driftwood fire burned down in a sand pit above the high water line. My father and grandfather would grill Maple Leaf hot dogs from the Coop and drink Carling Black Label. I was given a bottle of Orange Crush that wasn’t orange, but white and opaque. I hated Moxie then, but love it today. Sunscreen hadn’t been invented yet. Suntan lotion made you tan, not keep you white. The beach used to smell of gasoline and Coppertone.

After lunch we men would leave my mother and grandmother on the beach and motor to the flats by Grand Island near the opening of the Seapuit River and fish for scup with drop lines baited with quahogs.  I’d sit with my chin on the Lyman’s gunwale while my father and grandfather talked about business and politics. I’d look down through the water at waving fronds of eel grass and patches of yellow sand, waiting for something to bite the hook. Horseshoe crabs would cruise like tanks through the grass, along with hermit crabs, shoals of mummichog minnows and shiners, and sometimes even baby sand sharks.

Once I caught a puffer fish (the only one I’ve ever seen on the Cape and which I doubt I’ll ever see again) which my grandfather tickled to puff up before unhooking and tossing it back overboard. Sea Robins frightened me, as did eels.

My favorite photograph from those days was the one of me,  holding that first fish — a six-inch silver shiner — one I always suspected my grandfather put on the hook while swimming silently under the motorboat. He had a neat trick of being able to smoke while swimming, and submerging with the cigarette reversed inside of his mouth, surfacing and then flipping it back out, still lit.

We would clam at low tide for steamers, moving into the deeper water for quahogs in the mud. I hated quahogging. We did it barefoot, with our toes, popping under to dig out the clams when our feet found something hard. I was very phobic about anything touching my feet, and if a crab nipped me I’d fly thrashing and splashing out of the water back to the beach. My father would tease me and I would feel horrible and even cry. I was fine when the water was clear and I could see the bottom, but the rooting around always made it cloud up and it was what I couldn’t see that terrified me.

Scallops would dart along, fast swimmers, with rows of neon blue pinpoint eyes, dozens of them, along their soft mantle.

The scup were everywhere inside of the bay in iridescent schools that roamed the channels and taught most little kids how to fish. A little more advanced were the flounder — the summer fluke — that lay flat in the sand off of Codman’s and Handy’s point.

Inside, along the edges of the channels, I recall rows of dead saplings set in the mud to mark the limits of the Cotuit Oyster Company’s shellfish grants. The incongruity of those trees were explained to my gullible self as “water trees” by my constantly teasing father and grandfather who also had me believing that oyster crackers were used to catch oysters. The channel markers were wooden casks painted red or green and I was taught the mnemonic “Red Right Returning” and “BPOE” or “Best People On Earth” or “Black to Port On Entering” to learn which side was which.  I was taught to find the direction of the wind by turning until I heard the same rushing noise in both ears and by the direction the boats pointed at their moorings. Only Landlubbers wet their fingers and held them aloft.

If another boat passed everyone would wave.

There were  no more than two or three dozen boats moored in the entire Bay at the peak of the summer season. Some classic wooden Crosby Stripers owned by the townies, a few wooden Mackenzie bass boats with stern tillers for navigating the rips, Wianno Seniors, some massive antique Crosby Catboats, and the fleet of Cotuit Skiffs. Fiberglas was just making its first appearance and I remember it being dismissed by my father and grandfather as treasonous.

The bluffs were covered with tall pine trees. A few shingled summer mansions — some dating back to the Civil War like Colonel Codman’s and Mark de Wolfe’s — gleamed out of reach behind green lawns along the shore. In the evening, the staffs of those mansions would come down to the piers and fish in their black and white maids and butlers uniforms. Riley’s Beach in Cotuit was reserved for servants.  It remained that way only for a few more years, and then Riley’s was filled with white people and the servants didn’t fish from the docks any longer.

I remember when John F. Kennedy and Jackie came to the island one afternoon in the presidential yacht, The Black Pearl.  He wore Wayfarers and took his shirt off and smoked a cigar while lounging and smiling in a chair on the stern. My father and grandfather were Republicans and said mean things about him while I listened, very offended because I had bought into the entire Camelot myth  and had a secret crush on Caroline whom I intended to marry.

A man kept a pet Arctic Tern on a string and brought it to sailing lessons. That bird was more amazing to me than the lunar landing that summer.

At home, tap water was talked about as being very sweet and different from what we knew from the Boston suburbs.  There were no houses between Santuit and the Cape Cod Canal — a distance of ten miles. Just scrub pines and kettleponds.

Now there are thousands of little rundown houses in developments with names like Landsdown, Holly Acres, and BayView Shores. No one remembers the old lost place names like Farmersville anymore.

I indulge in this reminiscence to point out that I am indeed probably the last generation with a sense of what has been lost on Cape Cod.  Time erases memories, and just as I may be the last of a generation to remember Cotuit Bay when it was healthy and pristine, there was doubtlessly an even more pristine version in the 1930s before the Army paved the beaches in North Bay at Camp Candoit and began the ruination of the oyster beds. My grandparents knew a Cotuit with unpaved roads. I knew a Cotuit with eelgrass, pufferfish, and scup.

The harbor is dead now. The eel grass is gone, the bottom is barren, lifeless, populated only by spider crabs and worms. Some fish still swim into the harbor from time to time — a few menhaden late in the summer, some striped bass and bluefish, and a few remaining herring on their way up to the ponds to spawn, but not much else. The steamers are harder to find. The quahogs are farmed and transplanted from fouled areas to cleaner ones. The beaches have been closed because of fecal coliform pollution — a polite way of saying “shit.”

What killed it all? I guess the cause and effect begins with the Kennedy’s attracting a horde of tourism to the area in the early 60s. The locals, sitting on acres of “useless” scrub pine forest, seized their chance and sold off the interior of the Cape — in South Sandwich, Marston’s Mills and Mashpee — and by 1975 the Rape of the Cape was underway, with subdivisions going in all over. The old topography of miles of forests dotted with pristine fresh water ponds, linked together by lonely roads connecting old villages like Waquoit, Cotuit, Osterville and Centerville was transformed into quarter-acre lots and little identical houses, each with their own cesspool.

Those cesspools leach into the glacial sand which sits atop a big common lens of fresh water. All the feces, all the urine, all the lawn fertilizer, dog poo, old crankcase oil, flushed pills, road runoff and god-knows-what began a slow journey towards the sea. My cesspool was doing the same. I am as guilty as anyone every time I flush.

Now the bill is due. The eel grass died a decade ago and there’s no escaping the death of the bays. Each May sees big noxious mats of algae and slime bubble up from the bottom. Red tide and fecal coliform alerts close shellfish beds and beaches.  The warnings that Cape Cod was going to become the next Florida, Chesapeake Bay or Long Island have come true.

The solution is to stop flushing nitrogen into the estuaries.  The Conservation Law Foundation is suing the Federal Environmental Protection Agency for not enforcing the the Clean Water Act. The CLF sued the City of Boston and successfully cleaned up Boston Harbor, once home to flounder with tumors. That means the old model of flushing our pee and poop into the ground is going to come to an end. What replaces it will be some sort of sewage treatment system. The question is whether that system will be massive and cross town lines, or be more localized. But it will happen and it will cost billions of dollars.

There are a lot of people upset about the prospect of paying that money to connect their homes to what will be the biggest infrastructure project in the history of the Cape. Some of these people dispute the science and like to blame atmospheric nitrogen or indulge in some other form of denial. Others are making the issue a political one and want the solutions defined locally and not regionally.

Most of Cape Cod’s residents have no memory of what once was;  no memory of those lost years of a Cape Cod with clear water and lively beds of eel grass harboring a wide array of species and life. If you want to experience the Cape of the 1960s, then get to Menemsha Pond or Cape Pogue on Martha’s Vineyard before it is too late. It reminded me of what has been lost when I fished there a few years ago, and made me all the more determined to see it return for my grandchildren.

The Rape of the Cape happened under our very noses over the last thirty years, and now the bill is due. We were warned and we ignored it.  The sad part is I suspect most people now here have no basis for comparison and the bay they know today is the only bay they’ve known.

Here’s some links. If you want to do something, get involved. Don’t use fertilizer on your lawn. Get pissed off when you see a ChemLawn truck. Think about what price is paid for a green golf course. Pick up your dog’s poop from the sand. Take your hazardous waste and old pills to the special collection days at the landfill. Support the Conservation Law Foundation. Study t and don’t let the science denial wingnuts and gadflies dominate the public discussion. Tell your local town councilors how you feel. Read up on nitrogen. And get yourself to Menemsha Pond to take a long hard look at the condition of the water there. That’s what we’ve lost and what we need to regain.


  • Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative


Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

13 thoughts on “Remembering Cotuit Bay the Way it Was and Why We Need to Clean it Up”

  1. Brilliant, David, and beautifully written. We have sworn off Scott’s fertilizer, cut the grass at four inches with a mulching mower, never pick it up and, by golly, it’s still green. But that is small potatoes compared with our, and everyone else’s, septic system. However, sewering will be a political donnybrook unlike any we have seen in these parts before.

  2. Great post…reminded me of my childhood in northern Michigan…fishing on the lakes and streams…there was an oil rush in the 80’s where we used to go and some of my favorite places were destroyed because of it…one was this beautiful beaver pond, where I used to canoe and fish by myself…I thought I was a million miles away from everyone…now my kids will be spending time on Martha’s Vineyard and I hope that places like Menemsha can be saved

    we have to fight to make sure our children and grandchildren can enjoy some of the natural beauty that we were so fortunate to enjoy

  3. Sewer& treatment systems are the biggest solution. Lake Washington in Seattle is a tremendous success story as a result of same…I remember seeing puffer fish @ Oregon beach, when there was an Oregon beach w/ great clamming…Didn’t some combination of beach groynes & winter storms eradicate that treasure? The bill is truly due…

  4. I’m probably one of the last people to drag for scallops in North Bay — had a dredge made up by a welder in Hyannis and now it is hanging useless in the cellar. Also I used to like to fly fish for stripers on the outgoing in East Bay. Can’t do that any more because of all the green slime fouling the line.

    One cold April years ago I did real well handlining for flounder in Cotuit Bay.

    The accelerated pace of all these changes is so alarming.

    1. The last scallop harvest I recall was twenty years ago. Now they are completely gone and the inshore waters of Nantucket Sound, off of Dead Neck and Oregon, where a few brave patches of eel grass persisted, are now looking as dead as the harbors.

  5. I don’t remember eel grass or live scallops sadly. I do remember finding Horseshoe Crabs alive and being scared of their ice pick like tails and curious about the Horseshoe Crab’s long sacks of eggs all over the harbor. I then remember seeing dead Horseshoe Crabs and now I cannot remember when I saw the last dead Horseshoe Crab. I do remember jimmy dean lean, brown backed men on flat bottomed clamming skiffs working the harbor in summer, now long gone. I remember Caribbean green water from the middle of september to the middle of June. Mid-summer was a lake brown color that was still cool when the wind blew from a northerly direction. Now when I visit mid-summer the water is a yellow brown, eighty five degree goo full of frisbee sized, stinging jelly fish. I remember mite bites as a kid from mid-summer swimming lessons at Ropes beach but it became such a problem that barnstable closed the beach and stopped posting life guards at Ropes. I am assuming the mites still lurk. I felt privileged to harvest oysters from what must have been the last genetically original beds in the bays-thanks Peter- and thanks to Dick Lord I spent summers digging for all the steamers you could eat and making clam chowder with skim milk which keeps the flavor and sweetness of the soft shell clams. Even back then we came home with black mustaches-Got Muck?- from venturing into the middle of cupid’s cove for quahogs for Clams Casino. How long has it been since you could clam in Cupids Cove?

    I am so sorry that I just missed out on the memories of what it must have been like to experience Cotuit Bay all blue and green and clear and full of marine life. One year while Toph and I wintered in Cotuit-the prozac winter-we dreamed of blowing up the bridge over Shoetring Bay and gating Putnam and Old Post Roads. Your brother was our go to guy for logistics on that mission.

    I am so glad, David, that you think there is something we can do about this dramatic change but “Remember the Light Brigade”.

    1. Well said Marta, I do believe it can be repaired but never completely fixed. The problem in the end is population and there’s nothing that can be done about that. The harbors are heavily used by hordes of motorboats, some of which still expel oil from their two-stroke engines, there are five times the number of moorings and mushrooms in the mud, toxic bottom paint flaking off the hulls, the use of pressure-treated wood on pier pilings and bulkheads, groins and jetties ….

      I can go on and on but am determined to advocate when I can for some strict measures. I feel for the average Joe in Marstons Mills who is facing a big bill to connect his house to a sewer pipe, but the sooner we get away from septic tanks and to a nitrogen removal model, the faster the estuaries can begin the long road back.

  6. Inspired writing, Dave.
    I feel the same way about my beloved Azusa Canyon and its remaining hoals of wild rainbow troutwhich carry the genes of once free ocean swimming steelheads.
    beautiful post. I hope Fish is as inspired as you are about the Cape.
    best wishes,

  7. Too true–the same thing happened on Long Island, as you rightly point out. All those selfish yuppies and Goldman Sachs partners screwing up the aquifer just because they want greener lawns and bigger homes with more toilets. Tragic. Well-written, as always, David. Thanks.

  8. Great insights….spent summers in Cotuit and observed the same issues you have identified. Too many McMansions and expanses of green grass that are not supposed to be on Cape Cod….the Back Bay Bridge is another lost treasure where we could fish snapper blues and blue crabs… more. They are all lost to the ravages of greed, development and those who have made Cotuit into “The Hamptons”

    I attended a Cotuit Kettleers game with my son and observed all the $$$$ on display….people who bought their way there who never knew the real Cotuit or what Cape Cod really was when my Dad had bought land there back in 1947.

    I wanted to tell them to get the he’ll outta my town…..the way the Cape has been ruined by $$$$ is criminal.

  9. David: This sure brought back memories and paints a sad picture of the state of the bay today.

    I remember all the things you mentioned, plus I would add that the scup fishing used to be terrific. When we lived in the Cowyard, often times after work I would simply go down to our dock, dig a quohaug for bait and catch my supper, all in the time it took to savor my after work Black Label (or when brother Tom was around the Ballantine Ale – yukky stuff).

    Some of the best dinners we ever had involved all locally caught seafood – locally as in the Cowyard and North Bay. Sadly there’s not much there any more. I especially miss the fall scallops.

    Thanks for your good work in bringing all this to our attention.

    Let’s hope it’s not too late for our Bay.


  10. Reading your narrative brought great memories flooding into my head. I began summering in Cotuit the year I was born, 1939. Everything you mention that has either disappeared or has been greatly diminished is cause for great sadness indeed.
    I certainly remember well fishing for scup and flounder, digging for clams (before a license was required!) and soaking up the fabulous life that was July and August in Cotuit. I also remember the terrible hurricanes of those years and lived through hurricane Carol in 1954 when our house was surrounded on all sides by 6 feet of water.

    I spent those years in the Mark Howe house and eventually wound up owning and selling it in 1995. But, even though I no longer live there, I do occasionally visit that magical place. Cotuit Bay may be have been ecologically ruined but it is still the most beautiful little bay in the world. And it is wonderful to see the Cotuit Oyster Company thriving under the aegis of Chris Gargiulo. In the 40 s, Henry Robbins was the ceo and what an oyster operation he ran. And, let s not forget the amazing Gifford clam bakes!

    Thus, they may have taken our beloved Cotuit away but they can never take our memories.

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