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.
A brief history of how Cotuit replaced a private pier with a public one.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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’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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.”
 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.
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.