A History of the Osterville Cut

Earlier this January of 2019, as I walked the shore from Cotuit’s town dock to Handy’s Point, I heard the dredge trimming off the western point of Sampson’s Island. Since that project ends this month, I finally felt motivated after years of procrastination to research the history of the Wianno Cut where the sand is being pumped to reinforce the eroded barrier beach behind the Cut’s western jetty.

The county dredge at Cotuit’s Town Dock, January 2019

The Cut is 120 years old now, but had been proposed, debated and planned for decades before it was finally dug out in 1898, delayed by the opposition of Cotuit residents led by some sea captains, my great-great grandfather Captain Thomas Chatfield among them. The Barnstable Patriot portrayed the arguments for and against the Cut as “Osterville vs. Cotuit.” But ultimately the Wianno Cut was built despite the opposition of those Cotuit residents who based their “remonstrances” on fears the Cut would interfere with the natural equilibrium of the currents that kept Cotuit’s channel open to commercial navigation.

The problems predicted by those percipient Cotuit opponents in the late 19th century may have taken a century to come true, so for them, here is a bit of a posthumous “I -told-you-so.”

The Current Project

The application for the current dredging project was filed by the owners of the island, the Massachusetts Audubon Society and The Barnstable Clean Water Coalition. It was opposed by some Cotuit residents, many of them my friends, and thanks to their push back the original plan to carve hundreds of feet off of the Cotuit end of the island was scaled back and approved to happen in phases. Their opposition to the current dredging is proof history can repeat itself. It’s pure amateur conjecture on my part that the Wianno Cut is the cause of Cotuit needing to dredge today. I believe regular dredging is a fact of coastal life on a shifting shoreline like Cape Cod’s. I’ve written in the past about the negative effects that the “armoring” of the coastline with jetties, groins, revetments and bulkheads that began in the late 19th century has had on the natural order of the Cape’s beaches.

Before I get into the history of the Wianno Cut, I should state my opinion in favor of the current dredging. The buildup of sand at the Cotuit end of Sampson’s Island has reached the point where boat traffic is dangerously congested on summer weekend’s. The growing spit is constricting the flow of fresh sea water into the bay, further reducing the water quality high inside of the estuary in places like North Bay and Prince’s Cove. This work won’t solve the water quality issue (according to Barnstable’s town manager, this project is expected to improve water quality by 12 percent) and it won’t address the shoaling channel from Cotuit out into the Sound. What it will accomplish is the construction of better nesting grounds for the terns and plovers, and it will send a lot of sand back to the Osterville end where it is badly needed to prevent Dead Neck from breaching and exposing the Seapuit River.

Tale of Two Working Ports

The history of the Wianno Cut begins after the Civil War. Cotuit was a moderately busy port before the war, probably due to its advantageous bearing relative to the island of Nantucket, a compass course which made for an easy, one-tack passage for a packet carrying freight, food, wood or the mail. Because Nantucket Sound’s prevailing winds blow from the southwest in the summer and from the northeast in the winter; a schooner could sail from Cotuit to Nantucket on an easy reach without tacking once and return again on the opposite tack at nearly the same point of sail. A skipper could trim his sails after leaving the harbor and not touch then again until landfall.

Coastal schooners would load up on cordwood logged from Osterville’s Grand Island and elsewhere around the village (see my paper on the Mashpee Wood Lot Rebellion). Wood was in high demand on Nantucket, which had been completely deforested in the 18th century and depended on a reliable supply of cord wood for heating and cooking.

Cotuit’s maritime economy was smaller than New Bedford or Nantucket’s, but because of its location, it was more active than Osterville’s. The waters off Cotuit’s shores are too shallow and shifting to accommodate a 350-ton whaling ship, and only catboats, small skiffs, and coastal schooners with centerboards could pass into the bay from the Sound without running aground.

Sandbars aside, Cotuitport (as it was known in the 19th century) was very much a seafaring village, with many of the townsmen shipping out aboard Nantucket whalers as captains, mates or boat steerers right up to the outbreak of the Civil War. Cotuit was an active port due to its famous oyster beds, the old Handy shipyard in Inner Harbor, and the town’s cadre of Captains who owned and sailed coastal schooners along the New England coast after the war. Those shallow-draft centerboard “tern” schooners were the best and least expensive way to move freight between New England’s ports before railroads, steamships and eventually trucks took their place and several Cotuit skippers owned and sailed their own schooners along the coast, anchoring them outside of the Bay in a deep water anchorage called Deep Hole.

Before the construction of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914, all coastal shipping had to skirt the treacherous shores of the outer Cape, thread the shoals between Monomoy Island and Nantucket’s Great Point, then stay far away from the rips and bars of Nantucket and Vineyard Sound.  Many schooners making the passage would wait at anchor for a fair tide through the Sound in Holmes Hole (Vineyard Haven), Tarpaulin Cove on Naushon Island, or off of Cotuit. Thousands of coasters passed by Cotuit every year on their way up and down the coast.

The coasters wisely stayed ashore in the winter. Shipping all but ceased when New England’s harbors were icebound, and a fleet of as many as two dozen schooners would spend the winter inside of Cotuit Bay awaiting the spring thaw. Smaller schooners, two-masters, would come into Cotuit Bay and tie up at the coal depot that used to be located where today’s Town Dock is, or at Hooper’s Landing, where a series of finger piers jutted out into the cove where the water was deep enough to dock a schooner for loading or unloading. Any shoaling of the channels would block those ships from ever entering the harbor again.

In the first half of the 19th century Osterville didn’t have as much of a maritime industry as Cotuit had. That village — though surrounded by water in East, West and North Bays and along the shores of Wianno Beach — was all but land-locked and had a very indirect and difficult way to Nantucket Sound which forced its sailors to endure a four-mile sail through North Bay and the Narrows in order to enter the Sound through Cotuit’s channel. Like Cotuit, Osterville had its own oyster industry, and the Crosby family was making a great reputation building boats including the famous Cape Cod cat boat. Osterville lay tantalizingly close to Nantucket Sound with only a very thin strip of sand standing between Eel River and West Bay and the rest of the wide open ocean.

From working ports to resorts

After the war the two villages slowly gained reputations as summer resorts. Cotuit was nicknamed the “Summer Harvard”because it was popular with the Brahmin intelligentsia and professors of that university who wanted a quiet place to work on their books and papers without the distractions of a formal summer social calendar. Osterville was also very popular with summer visitors, and a seasonal colony of its own began to emerge along the southern shore in Wianno and on Grand Island (which was renamed “Oyster Harbors” by its developers).

By the late 1870s both villages were enriched by an influx of summer residents from Boston and New York City. The pine barrens along the shores of the three bays must have been busy with the sounds of hammers and saws wielded by local men looking for work now that whaling and shipping were on the decline. The first cottages and mansions were built on the bluffs overlooking the water front, land scorned by the old sailors who avoided the water when they didn’t need to be on it. Acres of pine woods, useless for farming, were sold for a song. Cape Cod joined the Gilded Age.

One of the first summer homes in Cotuit was Colonel Charles Codman’s home, built on Bluff Point in 1870 in the Queen Anne/Single style from a design by the Boston architect John Sturgis. The Hotel Pines, which was located next to Codman’s estate on Bluff Point near Riley’s Beach, did a busy business in the summer, offering its guests cottages along Oceanview Avenue, and clambakes and sailing excursions in the bay aboard catboats sailed by one or another of the old whaling captains who were glad to regale them with tales of greasy luck and a dead whale or a stove boat.

The Santuit Hotel was one of the first summer resorts in Cotuit, overlooking the cove at Hooper’s Landing.

Across Cotuit Bay Osterville’s Grand Island, a former wood lot, was purchased by a New York developer with the intention of turning it into an exclusive enclave of summer homes. A Boston developer named Day bought up the land around Wianno and began building homes for Osterville’s first summer residents. By the end of the 19th century most of the south shore of Cape Cod had been transformed from that isolated, insular, almost inbred place described by Henry David Thoreau in Cape Cod, to a thriving and world famous summer resort. The new owners of the summer cottages wanted services and amenities like golf courses, yachts and yacht clubs. What good is a yacht if you can’t sail it in Nantucket Sound? The new summer people had the money, the influence, and the lawyers to get the things they wanted, and the local politicians and merchants who depended on their business were eager to help them.

A little geography lesson

The barrier that blocked Osterville from the sea is called Dead Neck. Behind it was what was then called “South Bay” (today’s West Bay), a shallow body of water teeming with oysters that was refreshed twice a day by the tidal currents flowing through the Seapuit River.

A “neck” is a colloquial term used on Cape Cod to describe a narrow or elongated strip of sand or land attached to the mainland. The Cape has many Necks: Catumet has Scraggy Neck.  Mashpee has its own Dead Neck at the eastern side of the entrance to Waquoit Bay. Wing’s Neck sticks out from Pocasset into Buzzards Bay. Until 1899 Osterville’s Dead Neck was a long strip of sand and grass attached to Wianno. It was a barrier beach that guarded Grand Island with the Seapuit River flowing behind it, and it blocked West Bay from the Sound with only 50 yards of sand and beach grass. The Seapuit River flowed into Cotuit Bay and out into the Sound through a shallow channel that divided the Cotuit end of Dead Neck from Sampson’s Island, a free-standing island that had stood at the head of Cotuit Bay for as long as cartographers had drawn charts of the local waters.

1876: Osterville petitions the LEGISLATURE

Decades of land-locked frustration in Osterville, and a general fondness for big civil works projects — it was the era of the Panama, Suez and Cape Cod Canals — came to a head in the 1870s when a petition “for authority to construct a … cut through the beach between the necks” was made to the Legislature by Orville D. Lovell of Osterville and 113 others” in 1876. No earlier mention of any proposal to cut through the spit can be found in the archives of the Barnstable Patriot, which is not to say the notion of cutting a shortcut into the sea hadn’t been thought of or discussed long before Lovell’s petition.

The Lovell petitioners (many Lovells were residents of Osterville and Cotuit) claimed such a cut “would greatly advance their business and convenience, and that this strip of beach was gradually washing away, and would within a few years leave such a passage by the natural action of the waves.”

When the Lovell Petition was made public, a second petition was filed by Capt. Thomas Chatfield,  and 43 other Cotuit residents who, according to the surveyor who 21 years later summarized their opposition in a report to the state’s Commission on Harbors:

“[The Cotuit opponents]…remonstrat[ed] against the petition by Mr. Lovell, stating that in their opinion the cutting of such a channel would prove an injury to the harbor of Cotuit; that it would lessen the current on the ebb tide; by which the Cotuit channel was kept open over the bar; and that it would make an island of Dead Neck, so called, and destroy the means of getting teams onto Grand Island, so called, which had lately been purchased by New York parties, who intended to erect buildings for summer residences there. The petition also stated that between twenty-five and thirty vessels winter at Cotuit annually, and required all the water then on the bar at average tides to pass in and out.”

The Massachusetts Senate referred the Lovell petition to the Commonwealth’s Commission of Harbors. The first hearings were conducted that winter of 1876 at the Statehouse. The Barnstable Patriot reported on the commission’s initial hearing  of February 22, 1876:

“The same committee heard the petition of O.D. Lovell and 113 others for permission to cut a channel between South Bay and Barnstable and Vineyard Sound. Representative Samuel Snow, gave some objections to the proposed legislation, as it would doubtless have considerable effect upon Osterville harbor by affording a new outlet to the waters of South Bay, and these results might be more injurious than beneficial. The channel would also require quite a bridge over it. There are several parties owning property on Osterville Island who might object to such an action, and to allow all parties full hearing the case was postponed until March 7. The length of the channel would be only about ten rods. The harbor commissioners will make a survey of the location before the next hearing.”

Nearly a year later, on February 6, 1877, the Patriot reported:

“The harbor commissioners have submitted their annual report to the Legislature. The inspection instituted by the Board seems to warrant the conclusion that the proposed cut through the narrow beach that separates the South Bay of the Cotuit Lagoons from Nantucket Sound at Osterville, if successfully made and maintained would reduce the depth to something like the same proportion; but that no essential change in the currents along the outside coast would occur.”

In 1877, after hearing arguments for and against the Cut, the Harbor Commissioners summarized the situation in their annual report of 1876, and carefully avoided taking a stand for or against, kicking the proverbial can down the road for further study:

Proposed Inlet at Osterville. A short time before the harbor committee of the Legislature of last year closed its hearings, the Board was requested to examine the project for an opening through the narrow beach that separates the South Bay of the Cotuit lagoons from Nantucket Sound. The parties petitioning for the privilege of making this cut, proposed to do the work at their own expense, and no objection would probably have been made by the committee had there been no remonstrants. These remonstrants represented that the entrance to Cotuit Port would probably be injured by the creation of a new outlet, not only because the flow of the tide through the present entrance would thus be reduced, but also because the currents along the outside beach and bar of Cotuit would be changed. An inspection instituted by the Board, seemed to warrant the conclusion that the cut, if successfully made and maintained, would reduce the flowage over Cotuit Bar, and tend to reduce the depth in something like the same proportion, but that no essential change in the currents along the outside coast would occur. Without a regular gauging of the tides in the lagoons, the amount of injury to the present entrance, which the creation of another opening would cause, cannot be estimated closely.”

Lovell’s Libel: The Case of the Cuckold’s Letters

Then, for some mysterious reason, the 1876 petition vanished from public view and wasn’t covered by the Barnstable Patriot. Perhaps Chatfield and the good Republicans of Cotuit had enough influence on Beacon Hill to get the Lovell Petition tabled.  Orville Lovell, who’s name led the initial petition, may have lost his zeal for the project because of the lawsuit he filed against his former good friend, Howard Marston.

According to the Barnstable Patriot, Lovell’s libel lawsuit was the talk of the town:

“It was rather a peculiar case, and for some time has been the social sensation of Barnstable. It seems Lovell and Marston — both married and middle-aged — were friends who took much pleasure in each other’s society, enjoying frequent yachting trips together. Some time ago Mr. Marston was greatly annoyed and perplexed at the frequent writing of anonymous letters to his wife. Mr. Marston made every effort to discover the author of these letters, but without success. He finally accused his friend Lovell with writing them, and wrote a note in which this charge was set forth. Lovell was very indignant at this accusation, and other means failing to give him satisfaction, he resorted to the courts and brought a suit for libel to recover $10,000 damages.”

Lovell’s victory against Marston’s cuckoldish libel  turned pyhrric when the jury returned a verdict in his favor but only awarded him $300 instead of the $10,000 in damages he requested. Because the court costs were $500, Lovell had to pay the court $200 out of his own pocket. The Barnstable Patriot wrote: “The plaintiff’s character is vindicated, but who wrote those anonymous letters becomes more mysterious than ever.”

1897: A Second Petition and passage of Chapter 483

The Lovell Petition may have fizzled out, but the appetite for the Cut stayed strong. Proponents renewed their efforts to dig through Dead Neck and two decades after the first attempt, a new petition was filed with the legislature in 1897 by Capt. Nathan E. West of Osterville and others. West was a sea captain who was born and raised in Mashpee and had been a sailor his entire life. His petition led to the quick passage by the legislature of Chapter 483 of the Acts of 1897 which authorized a survey to determine the feasibility and impacts of a cut to connect Osterville with the sea as well as the money to complete the cut if it was judged advisable.

Cotuit’s opposition to the plan was rekindled, led once again by the doughty Captain Chatfield, who with his good friend and former shipmate Captain Carlton B. Nickerson, made several trips to Boston to testify at the Commissioner’s hearings, always warning that messing with the beach would have dire consequences in the future for Cotuit.

The gist of Cotuit’s opposition to the Cut  was fear the the diversion of the tidal flow from West Bay directly into Nantucket Sound would reduce the velocity of the currents entering and leaving Cotuit Bay, leading to a gradual shoaling in of Cotuit’s channel.  But the Harbor Commission needed facts, not theories, so a civil engineer was hired and a full survey of the three Bays was conducted over the summer of 1897.

At the end of the summer the Commission held two separate hearings on the Cape: one in Cotuit on September 9, 1897, and a second a day later in Osterville. The Cotuit hearing was attended by 59 people including some summer residents. Osterville had a turn out of 66 people.

At the Cotuit hearing, held at Freedom Hall, the Commission learned “the average amount of business of Cotuit from oysters, quahaugs and cord word was about $22,000, to which must be added the proceeds of the sale of about 425 tons of coal and 150,000 feet of lumber.”

In it’s annual report, the Commission of Harbors said that at the Cotuit hearing:

“No voice was heard to express a desire for the proposed channel, if it were likely to result in shoaling Cotuit bar off the entrance to the harbor. The proposed channel would be used largely by fishing boats and pleasure yachts from Osterville, which are now obliged to sail down through North Bay, the Narrows and Cotuit Bay, a distance of 4 ½ miles, before entering the Sound.”

Osterville vs. Cotuit

Emotions ran high at the two hearings. That should be no surprise to anyone who has attended a recent planning board meeting, or tried to stop another private pier from being built over the public’s clam beds. Emotions at the 1897 hearings ran so high the Barnstable Patriot headlined its story about the project: “Osterville vs. Cotuit,” a sentiment I still hear today from some Cotuit skeptics who believe Cotuit’s sand is being dredged and pumped east to build up Osterville’s beaches at Cotuit’s expense.

The Barnstable Patriot, March 22, 1897

After the “Osterville vs. Cotuit” column, the next issue of the Patriot (March 29, 1897) published a letter from an anonymous writer and supporter of Osterville’s petition who took exception to the “Osterville vs. Cotuit” headline :

The civil engineer, Frank W. Hodgdon, conducted the study over the summer of 1897. He established tide gauges at various locations throughout the three bays, took bearings, made measurements and soundings and calculated gallons per second. He submitted his final report  to the Board of the Harbor and Land Commissioners on November 13, 1897. Hodgdon’s report makes for interesting reading as it provides a wealth of data about the condition of the coast and harbors in Cotuit and Osterville over 100 years ago. I’ve uploaded a PDF of his report which can be downloaded here.

Flow and Littoral Drift

The state Commission on Harbor’s annual report of 1897 summed up Cotuit’s concerns as follows: “There can be no doubt that the channels at the entrance of Cotuit harbor, such as they are, owe their preservation to the rapid current during the last half of ebb tide. If it shall be ascertained that the volume and velocity of the ebb tide will be unaffected by digging a cut of given dimensions from South Bay to the Sound, there will be safe reason to believe that such a cut can in no way do an injury to Cotuit harbor.”

While Cotuit’s opposition was mainly based on fears that cutting a new opening into West Bay would diminish the scouring effects of the currents flowing in and out of Cotuit Bay, there seems to be very little discussion of the concept of littoral drift, the beach sedimentation process where the action of wind, waves and current combine to move particles of sand not only perpendicularly, but laterally, moving sand from one spot on the beach to another depending on the prevailing patterns.  Littoral drift, when unimpeded by jetties or stone groins, leads to the shifting sands we see today on Chatham’s Monomoy Island. But build a perpendicular barrier like a groin or a jetty , and you’re going to starve your neighbor downstream. The Town of Sandwich has been claiming its beaches are now suffering from the impact of the two massive jetties at the end of the Cape Cod Canal, and in North Carolina, debate has raged for decades over the wisdom of building jetties to open up Oregon Inlet.

Groins along Seaview Avenue in Wianno, Osterville.

Jetties are used to keep inlets and channels open and slow down the sedimentation processes that could fill them in. Jetties block littoral drift, sometimes with disastrous consequences.  Look at some aerial photographs of inlets or beaches with jetties or groins, and it’s easy to see that such structures starve the adjacent beaches. In short, my personal theory, based on simply looking at what’s happening at each end of the island, is that Cotuit end of Dead Neck is filling in with sand carried west from Osterville’s end. Osterville’s end of Dead Neck isn’t replenished by the drift of sand coming from the east, blocked bu the Cut’s twin jetties.

Those jetties weren’t part of the original 1897 plan for the Cut. Initially the idea was to just buttress the sides of the new channel with wooden planks. Hodgdon warned in his report that unless steps were taken to protect the new cut, it would fill back in over time. He recommended two, 500-foot stone jetties to keep the Cut open.


Hodgdon considered two locations for the proposed cut. One was to the east of the present cut, where Eel River comes close to the Sound and is only cut off by a thin strip of land at the end of the River where present-day Sea View Avenue crosses it.  The second was at the root of Dead Neck where it joins the Wianno Beach at the current site of the cut. Hodgdon wrote in his final report that he believed that although the amount of sand that needed to be excavated would be about the same at either of the two locations, the superior choice was Dead Neck because it would be far easier for sailboats to pass through West Bay on their way to the Sound than it would for them to navigate the narrow, twisty snake of the appropriately named Eel River.

Hodgdon provided the Commission with two options — a 100-foot and a 175-foot wide channel — and they selected the less expensive, 100-foot version.

The project was approved by the Commission on Harbors, it was opened for bids, and construction commenced in 1899 under contract with George H. Cavanaugh. The Barnstable Patriot reported on February 5, 1900:

“Work under the contract with George H. Cavanaugh has been prosecuted steadily, with the exception of a short time when the Bay was frozen over. The timber jetties were completed in August [1899], and the excavation of the channel had progressed to such an extent that it was used for the passage of boats during the summer season. At present time the larger part of the channel has been excavated, and there is now nearly as great a depth of water through this channel as there is over the bar at the entrance to Cotuit harbor. Owing to the necessity for making some changes in the dredging plant, work has been discontinued until next spring,but it is expected that the channel will be navigable to its full width before the yachting season opens.

“It was deemed advisable to strengthen the outer end of the jetties with some riprap, and this was done during November. Three hundred and twenty-three tons of stone were deposited at a total cost of $969.

“Careful watch must be kept of the action of worms on the timber work, and the jetties should be reinforced with stone before the timber is so weakened as to be liable to destruction from heavy waves.”

The timber “jetties” first installed for the Osterville Cut

Source: E.M. Crosby Boatworks

IMPACT and Effects

Osterville finally had a front door of its own to the ocean. Within a few years the village’s yachting scene was flourishing. The Wianno Yacht Club was founded in 1901, and in 1913 the yachtsmen of Osterville asked H. Manley Crosby, owner of Crosby Yacht Building & Storage Company, to design a 25’ one-design sloop — the Wianno Senior — that they could race outside in Nantucket Sound.  Cotuit’s sailors were content to sail inside the bays in their flatbottomed skiffs, and when they founded their own yacht club in 1904 — the Cotuit Mosquito Yact Club — they went out of their way to make it an informal, youth-run club with no clubhouse or fancy trappings.

The first signs that the Cut and its jetties would upset nature’s balance began to be realized almost immediately. Marine charts from 1901 didn’t show the new cut. Sampson’s Island and the channel between it and Dead Neck (site of today’s Cupid’s/Pirate’s Coves) remained open as it had been for the previous 60 years (at least).

The first time the Cut appears on an official chart is the 1914 edition.  The water from West Bay that had once flowed in and out through the Seapuit River at Cotuit Bay now had a direct path to Nantucket Sound but Sampson’s Island and Dead Neck had merged at some point in time between the opening of the Cut and the publication of the chart 15 years later. The channel that separated them since at least 1850 was closed for good, never to open again.

The Popponesset Spit, jutting north from Mashpee to Rushy Marsh in Cotuit began to recede. A second island that had stood south of Sampson’s Island, southeast of Loop Beach — Skiff Island — vanished. The remaining piece of Sampson’s Island morphed and shrank and began to move westwards towards Cotuit exposing the glacial boulder now known as Submarine Rock. Were these changes all due to the Cut? Perhaps. Every hurricane and gale had its impact on the shoreline, and besides the jetties at the Cut, more and more stone was being dropped on nearly every beach facing Nantucket Sound as property owners tried to capture sand for themselves and protect their bluffs from eroding further.

The future

The dredging will probably need to be repeated every decade or two because no one is going to dismantle the jetties and plug the Wianno Cut back up. A study of the old charts shows the entrance to Cotuit Bay was historically much wider that it is now, almost to the point of exposing the inner harbor directly to the Sound. This current cycle of sedimentation is causing the shoreline to be starved of sand in some places (like Riley’s Beach) and pushing it into places where it wasn’t before (the delta of Little River at Handy’s Point for example). And the point of the island is sprouting strange appendages and revealing banks of thick mud have emerged to the total mystication of the old timers.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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