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

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

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

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

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

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

Cotuit Town Dock today

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

 Captain Nickerson builds a wharf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shedd Pier Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update 2021.03.03:

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

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

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

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

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

The natives grow restless

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

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

Loading cordwood for Nantucket, c. 1880

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The landing with no beach

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

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

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

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

Barnstable Patriot, January 27, 1896

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

The Shedd Pier expands

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

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

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

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

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

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

A stranger comes to town

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

Harry D. Haight, Oyster Entrepreneur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heave Short!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From “Heave Short!” by Charles Pendexter Durrell

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

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

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

From “Heave Short!”, illustration by Harold Brett

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

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

You won’t have Harry Haight to kick around anymore

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

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

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

End of an era

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

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

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

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

A Dock for a Dock

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

“To the Selectmen of Barnstable:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing pieces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1: A Village Allergic to Docks

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

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

David Churbuck

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

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

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

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

The First Docks

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

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

Braddock Crocker’s pier, built 1797

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

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

The Harbor View Club

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

The Jenney House in modern times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too Many Boats Too Many Gulls

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

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

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

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

Frances X. Schmid, The Barnstable Patriot, August 1966

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editorial, Barnstable Patriot, August 28, 1969

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editorial, Barnstable Patriot, November 6, 1969

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

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

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

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

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

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

An October Blow

I read a depressing story in the New York Times yesterday about the sick trees of Massachusetts, beset with borers, weevils and fungi, getting hammered as the climate changes and local nurseries have started to offer species from the mid-Atlantic region instead of the native hardwoods and pines that have been here for 10,000 years.

The late Paul Noonan told me the old timers in Cotuit said summer always ended in October with a big blow from the southwest. I guess that happened yesterday. The morning was calm enough to make me guilty about not going for a row and one of the Ospreys was still complaining atop the tall pine tree in the woods behind the shop, and once again I fretted a bit that the birds usually decamp for South America the third week of September and have shown no signs of migrating like the rest of the flock. I knew it was going to get windy, with gusts forecasted to reach 50 mph, and that’s exactly how it blew all day, just like it does every October when the humidity suddenly vanishes and the cricket in the shop starts to chirp slower and slower with the coming cold.

I don’t imagine the ospreys picked the day of gale to fly straight into the face of the cold front coming at us from where they are going, and I wasn’t surprised the morning after the gale when I went outside to discover them still in residence, after a long stormy night when I pictured them gritting their big beaks, menhaden-ripping talons locked around a tossing branch, facing into the tempest like pirates pissing to windward after the sun went down and the winds built up to their grand finale.

The gusts had been building every minute or so, holding their breath at the peak then subsiding and letting the shaken trees compose themselves before the next one built up and swept over the yard. Around dinnertime one gust kept building and building and went from a Force 8 on the Beaufort Scale to a Force 11 on the Nigel Tufnel scale, shaking the old house, its window frames and iron sash slugs clattering and bonging in the walls, the flimsy, sill-rotted frame of the sail loft and boat shop creaking like the end was near.

Then a big bang as a huge limb of honey locust, tree turds and all came down in the back garden, just missing the roof of the loft and the double doors at the end of the shop. My neighbor Phil’s cars weren’t so lucky and this morning we agreed it’s time for the old tree to be cut down. Honey Locusts only live 120 years or so, and this one is massive and has been shedding limbs the past few seasons. Even though the last arborist to work on the tree rigged some steel cables, the one that suspended last night’s victim got unhooked and the result is a mess of seed pods, broken branches and leaves.

Drive-in Dead

In which I go to a “Dead” concert at a Cape Cod drive in

The last time I saw the Grateful Dead play was sometime in the early 90, shortly before Jerry Garcia’s death. Since then I’ve never been bothered to go to any of the post-Dead bands’ concerts by the likes of Dead & Co, Further, Phil Lesh and Friends, Bobby and the Midnights … I never was a fan of tribute bands and getting me to pull out my wallet to pay current ticket prices only happens if the band is sort of still together and I’m buying the tickets as a present for my wife who is far more of a true fan of the music than I am.

Early last week I caught the news that the Dark Star Orchestra would be playing two shows on Friday and Saturday nights at the old Yarmouth Drive-In on Route 28 here on Cape Cod. $150 bought me the right to show up in a vehicle with up to four people, so I bought the tickets and told my wife and son we were going. Was it a responsible thing to do with Covid cases on the rise here in Massachusetts? Would it be fun or a pain in the ass? Would the band be any good?

Who cares. It was the first weekend of the fall, the weather was great, and seriously, it’s not like the social calendar is crowded with other competition for my leisure time.

Got to love a faux lighthouse

The band was great. The facility was well run and we were directed at our “suite” staked out by wooden posts and ropes in the fourth row and slightly to the right. The crowd was in the spirit, tons of tie-dye shirts, battery powered blinking lights, glow sticks and clouds of marijuana everywhere.

We backed in, opened the rear lid of the SUV, and hung out in the back of the car or on the bumper. Two sets and three hours later, I predicted two out of the last three songs — Stella Blue, Sugar Magnolia, and an encore of US Blues. Son and wife looked at me like a wizard when I announced “we are outta here” and loaded up the car for an early exit before the usual traffic jam. We listened to US Blues on the radio (Your Car is the PA!) as we cruised down a deserted Route 28 under a rising moon, past the t-shirt shops and mini-golf courses towards home.

I’d do it again — the drive-in concert experience that is. When the band said these were their first concerts since February I was sad for all those musicians who are grounded by the quarantine. Hats off to the promoter who figured out the drive-in solution, but still it felt sad to consider that the Yarmouth Drive-In claims to be the biggest live music venue in New England this summer.

Circumnavigating Grand Island

In the mid 1990s I purchased a single scull to row around Cotuit Bay. I built a rack for it on the back fence and painted the blades of the two oars with the same green-yellow-white palette used by my grandmother to help my color-blind grandfather pick out my father’s skiff from the rest of the fleet. Every weekend morning when I was home from NYC I would wake up at dawn, put on a pair of rowing shorts that were more likely than not still wet from the last row, slip on some rubber clogs and slip out the back door to lift the boat from its rack and swing it up and onto my head for the walk down Main Street and Old Shore Road to the harbor.

I’d pretend to laugh if someone I knew drove up the hill and rolled down their window to say “Nice hat!”

If I was lucky the tide would be high, otherwise I’d have to kick off the clogs and squish through the primordial clam mud, 40-lbs. and 29-feet of racing shell held high overhead with locked arms, grimacing as I stepped on broken clam shells and the black goo squirted between my toes before I could reach enough water to roll the hull out and down with a splash. The ladies of the Cotuit Rowing Club would wave as they rigged their oars in a four. Fishermen would look at me suspiciously as they backed their trailers down the ramp and checked out the fat guy with the too-tight shorts about to climb onto an impossibly skinny boat.

I’d set off on flat calm waters as the sun topped the pine trees on Grand Island, heading across Cotuit Bay, picking my way carefully out of the anchorage and down the fairway to open water where I’d turn the bow to point down the long straightaway into North Bay, lining up the narrow stern with the steeple of the Masonic Temple next door to Freedom Hall.

Ten strokes, starting with short quarter, half, then three-quarter length slides up and down the tracks on the rolling seat to get the boat moving, settling down to full strokes and lengthening every catch and drive as I started to sweat in the morning humidity. Turn around on the tenth stroke, take a quick snapshot over my shoulder for any obstacles like moorings, channel markers, fishermen cruising out to the Sound without any navigation lights, or other rowers, kayakers or paddleboarders who might not see me paddling away. Then counting off ten more stokes, looking backwards and upsetting the boat a bit, readjusting the course by pressing down on one foot more than the other.

Having plowed a borrowed Alden Ocean Shell double into a moored Boston Whaler, and rowed a borrowed Grahame King-built double head-on into another boat at a regatta on the Charles River, my paranoia of rowing backwards without the guidance of a front-facing coxswain is deep and abiding.

The first leg from the cove at Ropes Beach through Inner Harbor to the Narrows is about 1000 meters. On the ergometer each stroke is typically counted as ten meters, so ten strokes can cover 100 meters. a distance long enough that a backwards glance is only enough to see if the next ten strokes can be hard ones, or if the bow is pointed at a dock and needs to start curving to port on the third stroke to thread the gap between the red channel can and the float at the end of the pier. I stay out of the channel at all times, preferring to hug the shore and find the gap there between any anchored boats and the beach. That way, if I flip the boat I wind up in waist deep water, a good thing if the water temperature is under 50 degrees and hypothermia becomes a fear.

10,000 meters of some of the best rowing water there is.

Then the transit of North Bay, the designated water skiing area, where everyone pushes the throttles down to the deck and relieves the boredom of the 6 mph speed limits in effect everywhere else in the Three Bay estuary. Fast motorboats can generate huge tsunami wakes that come at a rower from the side, lifting you three feet up, oars wildly swinging in the air, rolling you into the trough where the next wave washes over the boat and soaks one’s lower body in green water. Some motorboaters get enraged when a sculler paralleling the channel passes them on the right and pulls away. Once they hit North Bay they want to get away from me like an old lady passing a hedge fund princeling riding his $20,000 Colnago down the middle of Main Street, and take off with a roar and a big fart of two-stroke outboard exhaust for me to inhale on the next stroke.

Still, I catch up to them again within a mile when they leave the bay and hit the channel into Osterville and the boat yards. That’s where careful navigation is needed, threading through moorings off of the fourth hole of the Wianno Club golf course before sliding down the main channel between the boat yards and gas docks. The drawbridge is always tricky because the current accelerates under the span and its best to stay out of the center and take the shoreside arch in case another boat is coming around the corner from the Wianno Yacht Club.

Yesterday, as I rowed into West Bay, I realized the winds had shifted and started to swing back towards the usual southwest direction it blows from most of the summer. The gusts left over from Hurricane Teddy (which passed well to the east of Chatham the day before on its way to Canada) were shrieking in the late afternoon sunshine, kicking up a jagged chop as I popped out from under the draw bridge. Fetch and shadow is the trick to open water rowing. Fetch being the amount of open water that the wind has to work with to churn up any waves. The more fetch there is, the higher the waves. The wind shadow is the calm area in the lee, or downwind side of any land mass, usually extending out five to ten times the height of the land and trees. When transiting West Bay, a shallow body of water bisected by a busy channel, sometimes the trick isn’t to take the shortest line to the head of the bay, but to tough out a few minutes of taking the waves on the beam, the boat rolling a lot in the chop, just to gain the strip of calm water beneath the verdant mansions on Oyster Harbor’s eastern shore.

I was pooped by the time I sculled up to the entrance of the Osterville Cut, the man-made ditch flanked by stone jetties that divides the barrier beach of Dead Neck from the Osterville mainland. A big swell was infiltrating the bay through the channel out into Nantucket Sound, putting the wherry to its first big test since I launched it in mid-August, rolling me around enough to make me a bit queasy as I crossed the sandbar at the entrance to the Seapuit River, a shallow area the colonists called the “Wading Place” because they could drive their cattle across at low tide to graze on the island’s salt hay.

I waited for a couple of motorboats to make their intentions known, then zipped across the Seapuit to Dead Neck, beached the bow and hopped out, ancient bones and sore muscles making me hobble around on the beach while I drank some water and pulled out the pump to empty the wherry (which still leaks a bit, but had been taking an occasional wave over the side as I crossed the bay and took the wind broadside).

The Seapuit River is my favorite stretch in the entire 10,000 meter row. The sand dunes of Dead Neck block the worst of the wind, the river is too narrow for any chop to build up, and this time of year, when the water begins to clear, it’s a pleasure to skim over the shallows near the beach grass and get a clear stretch of water for some hard speed work.

My buddy Steve and I agree the worst part of the row is the end of the river where it enters Cotuit Bay near Cupid’s Cove, the ancient harbor entrance that silted over after the Osterville Cut was built in the early 1900s. On a southwest wind there’s a lot of fetch across lower Cotuit Bay and white caps build up over the shallows before crashing into the shoreline of Oyster Harbors where they bounce back into the next set of waves, creating a vicious chop that has to be transited broadside. I’ve had some dicey moments in my Empacher over the years, filling the cockpit with water and rolling so hard my knuckles would get smashed on the gunwales, but in the wherry the ride was bearable, I just had to grit my teeth and “sky” my blades high in the air during the recovery to keep them from spanking the tops of the waves.

And then, with the end in sight, it was a matter of getting through the Cotuit Oyster Company’s grant, covered with little black buoys, across the main channel, and back into the mooring field off of Ropes Beach.

I pulled ashore next to the boat ramp, pumped out the boat to lighten the load, picked up the stern and set the green hull into the trolley I made out of PVC pipe and wheelbarrow tires. I had circumnavigated the Three Bays estuary for the first time in who-knows-how-long, something I hadn’t realized I missed until I finished it. Ten years ago, when I was competing as a “senior master” in fall regattas from the Green Mountain Head (my favorite) to the Head of the Charles (the most prestigious), I was rowing around the island five or six times a week, timing myself from the drawbridge to home because that’s roughly the same distance as the Head of the Charles course. In those days I could make the entire 9,250 meter row in 40 minutes. It took me over an hour this week. As Charlie Clapp says, “The older we get, the faster we were.”

As I strap the boat into the trolley and make it ready to be dragged up the hill to the house, every time without fail, someone stops their car, gets out and walks down the boat ramp to admire the boat and ask me if I built it, an indication I suppose of the boat’s unfinished condition and people’s fascination with home built boats in this era of plastic kayaks. I haven’t cleaned up the wooden frame since assembling the boat, so bits of dried epoxy and smears of paint need to be chipped and scraped off before I can consider varnishing the red cedar. Right now the wood is protected with a coat of teak oil, but I think later this fall I’ll put some time into finishing the boat properly before suspending her from the rafters of the garage in a kayak/canoe sling I purchased on Amazon.

Every row in the boat is an opportunity to tune the rig a little bit to make it row easier and smoother. I’ve had two Olympic rowers — Charlie Clapp and John Bigelow — take a look at the setup of the riggers, slide, foot stretchers and oarlocks. Both agree I needed to get my weight lower and the oarlocks higher. Once all the adjustments are made and I know I won’t be trimming any wood to get thing exactly right, then I can declare the boat finished and spend some time with a can of varnish to make her gleam.

An expert opinion on cutting away the masts during a shipwreck

Last November, just as I started writing the first draft of The Wrecks and War of Bethuel Handy, I made a pilgrimage to Mystic Seaport to spend some time aboard the last surviving whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan.  I pestered the docent who was standing by the ship’s wheel with all sorts of questions about the restoration project that resulted in the Morgan making a cruise up the New England coast  during the summer of 2014. I was in Provincetown  when the ship came into the harbor under sail and was in awe of seeing such a mythical ship alive again.

I watched a few videos about the restoration and the cruise, and paid close attention to the words of the Morgan‘s captain, Kip Files, as he described the process of wearing ship, or tacking.

Captain Kip Files and the Charles W. Morgan, via Mystic Seaport

A few weeks ago I hunted him down on LinkedIn and asked him, as the only living captain of a whaling ship, what he thought of Bethuel Handy’s options as the Phoenix went ashore on Elbow Island in the Sea of Okhotsk during a mid-October blizzard. He kindly replied and asked for more information — which I pulled together from my research and sent to him last night. Here’s what he had to say about Bethuel’s options at 4 am on October 11, 1858 off the coast of Siberia:

“Interesting story. Very tuff situation.  There is no true way to get off a lee shore. Every time would be different as the shore, waves, current and wind would hardly be the same. It is something an experienced captain would take all his years of knowledge of sailing and his particular vessel to give it a try. having only one anchor made his job more difficult. . There would be no helm ( steering by rudder) until the vessel had some way on. Even then in those seas it would be a miracle if it responded at all. you would need lots of movement by the rudder for it to respond.

 Cutting away the mast. I do not think there would be time. Desperate move not knowing were they would fall. They are built to stay in place just cutting them might force them thru the deck. I have never known anyone to do this but it is possible. I am going to read this again. Hard to get what is going thru the captains mind. Logs don’t reflect it well as they show no emotion on purpose.  Do you have the lat and long of were this happened? I might have a better feel for what was happening.  I do know that the class of whaling ship are pretty handy. They sail a lot better than shore side experts give them credit. 


I’m really looking forward to his reaction after he reads the sailing instructions for the Gulf of Uda and the Shantar Islands.  It sounds like sailing in hell to me.

Foreword to The Wreck and War of Bethuel G. Handy

Here is the foreword to my book about Bethuel Gifford’s and Thomas Chatfield’s adventures. A download link for a PDF version of the first chapter — the wreck of the whaling ship Phoenix is at the bottom of this post. Enjoy. Comments and criticism most appreciated.

The shoreline of an island in the Shantar Archipelago


I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.                                                            Herman Melville, Moby Dick


They were the sort of  men who clubbed baby seals, tattooed their faces during drunken benders, spread syphilis throughout Polynesia, and carved pornography into the teeth of dead sperm whales. They were fugitive alcoholics shaking in their bunks with delirium tremens,  greenhorn farm boys keen for an adventure, negroes and Wampanoags and descendants of Hessian mercenaries stranded by the defeated British Army.  They were controlled by acerbic mates from bleak Cape Cod villages who kept to themselves, mostly brothers and cousins, nephews and uncles, and were fast with their fists to keep the scum from rising up from the mephitic stench of the forecastle to mutiny on the high seas.

The first thing that happened to them when the pilot was sent ashore and the ship cleared Gay Head was the collection of their knives so the captain could snap off their points in a seam of the deck, blunting them to reduce the number of stabbings. They were divided into watches and picked by the mates in a quick draft to sit in one of the five whaleboats. The Captain had one, the chief or first mate another, and so on down to the fourth mate. Each whaleboat carried six men. The mates and captain steered. The other five pulled an oar. The harpooner pulled the bow oar because he did his work from the prow of the light boat, bracing his knee in a semicircle cut into the thwart, reaching behind to his right to lift a harpoon from its split oak crutch.

Once a whale was struck, the harpooner and the mate swapped ends, rushing to pass the other and take their place while the whale ran, sounding deep and taking fathoms of line with it. Then the harpooner took the tiller and became the boatsteerer and the mate lifted a long lance and prepared to kill the leviathan by stabbing it in the heart and lungs until it expelled a geyser of dark red blood through its spout.

They were butchers who could cut up a whale and convert it into oil. They worked in gore, slipped on decks marinated in fat and blood, and lost their sense of smell  as the fishy stench of whale shit and blood festered out of the woodgrain in the tropical heat. If they fell from the rigging, dislocated a shoulder, or sliced themselves open flensing blubber from a whale they had to heal on their own. If their muscles ached and their teeth became loose then they were scorbutic and began to die in the absence of fresh fruit and vegetables, barely subsisting on a diet of salted meat and dry crackers.

They were men who voyaged into the void of the ocean for three years at a time, self-contained in their 100-foot ships, self-sufficient with enough rations and water to keep them alive for months without going ashore. They sailed into the blank spaces on the charts, to places no hydrographer had surveyed, coming upon indigenous people who gawked at the tall ships cruising into idyllic atolls and Arctic straits, corrupting them with bottles of rum and firearms, then inevitably fighting them and leaving them to die with some new pestilence.

They sailed  to the antipodes where they could be beastly men far from the judgment of those they left behind.

They were whalers and they were fortune seekers a hot for a dollar as any prospector or ambitious American. They were the operators of the most complicated and highly engineered machines in existence: tall ships built to survive the caprices of the sea.  In those ships they prospered, and many died. In those ships they explored lands as alien as the planets they navigated by.

They were equivalent to  astronauts as they explored the blank spaces around the edges of the known world. Their space capsule was made of oak and pine; tar,  hemp and canvas; 100-foot, three-masted abattoirs that announced themselves by their stench wafting on the wind long before the emerged over the horizon.

They guessed where they were all the time, sailing with only a rough  idea of where they were and where they were going, but never exactly  sure until they sighted a known landmark. They existed as lost men lost in the void of the true blue sea.

They lived with doubt whenever they sailed. They rarely stopped, only going ashore and anchoring in ports where water and food could be found or bought,  and oil and bone could be sold. If they stopped then some would run away, undone by the constant anxiety of the endless blue water passages through doldrums and cyclones. They fled and hid until the ship sailed away, emerging from their hiding places to stand on the beach, new men becoming shuffling, sun-burned beachcombers and Crusoe’s beneaped and stranded  far from home.

The ones who stayed aboard placed their trust and lives in the abilities of the aloof figure who stood alone and unapproachable at the windward shrouds by the wheel. He was the only man aboard other than the mate, who had  the knowledge and the tools to find and measure the angles of the  sun and the moon and the stars. He was the only man who could calculate and note  in the ship’s log, with the shaky confidence of a scientist who doubts his tools — his hand wound chronometer gimballed in a box, the fogged, cracked glass of the  eyepiece of his spray warped    wood and ivory quadrant – the daily position of the ship. That made him the Master of the ship, the diviner of the celestial mysteries, the holder of the knowledge that made him king of the floating kingdom and kept his three dozen illiterate subjects obedient and at bay in their miserable lair under the deck of the ship’s bluff bow.

They were fugitives from justice, raging alcoholics, Wampanoag Indians in debt to English merchants, runaway slaves, green farm boys, and romantic dandies flunked out of college. They lived like scorbutic  troglodytes in narrow bunks, the walls of the ship oozing green mold in the tropics, stinking up the fug filled stagnant air with their coughs and their flatulence. They never bathed. Knowing how to swim only prolonged their agony should they fall overboard because the ship never stopped, and even if they were lucky enough to grab a line trailing astern, there was no way they could pull themselves back aboard. They deserted the first chance they could;  preferring to take their chances ashore with cannibals than remain aboard another day. They fled the ships  if their captain was foolish enough to come into a port and give them an option to run away but  most captains were too short-handed to offer them that temptation. So they stayed at sea for months at a time, never sure of where they were, depending on the captain’s incantations and formulas to There were no drugs to soothe the constant anxiety of life aboard a wooden sailing ship with no EPIRB beacons, no radios, no GPS plotters, not even charts of the oceans because in some cases they were the first men to visit the strange islands of the South Pacific or the desolate barren coasts of the arctic.

They drank out of desperation to numb themselves long enough to endure. They persevered if they didn’t desert and rode out the will of the sea and the temper of the captain until their ordeal was finally over and they were lucky to walk away with a sliver sized  share of the profits, barely enough to pay off their debts to the ship and to pay for a bender in a New Bedford brothel. They found themselves aboard again the following fall for lack of any other place to go in the society of the land.

These were the sort of  men that  Bethuel Gifford Handy, Jr. — 29 years-old and the eldest son of the Handy-Nickerson clans of Cotuit Port —  was in command of in the spring of 1858, on the Nantucket whaling ship Phoenix, as she tacked back and forth off the shores of Honolulu, her first captain going ashore all worn out and ill and incapable of command. Handy had shipped out two years before as the first mate of the Phoenix.  Now, on only his second whaling voyage, he was in command of 36 men desperate to follow their former captain ashore and be free from the fear of the summer ahead in the Russian Sea of Okhotsk, the worst waters on the planet, a sea covered by ice three-quarters of the year and fog the rest. A  bitterly cold stark place with rough shores with no ports, no charts, no brothels, nothing but sullen natives, deranged Russians on the edge of civilization, and vast herds of right whales congregating in the kitchen of the Pacific to feast on tons of microscopic plankton. They wouldn’t be alone. There would be hundreds of other ships, identical to their own, all of them  three-masted, tall ships painted black with sheer sides and blunt bows, floating factory ships designed to hunt, chase, kill and butcher the largest animals on the planet.


Download link for Chapter One:

Chapter One The Wreck and War of Bethuel Gifford: The Wreck

The Wreck and War of Bethuel G. Handy

One man’s adventures from the Gold Rush through a Siberian shipwreck to the Battle of New Orleans

Bethuel Handy was my great-great-grandmother Florentine’s big brother. He was born in Cotuit on Cape Cod in 1829 and was 74 years old when he died in 1904. I knew very little about him when I was growing up save for two detailed mentions in my great-great grandfather’s reminscences.

The first event occurred in October 1858 in the Sea of Okhotsk amongst the Shantar Islands, a wild archipelago that teems with bowhead whales, pilot whales,* beluga whales, killer whales, sea lions, Siberian tigers and Kamchatka brown bears. Bethuel was 29 years old and had been the captain of the Nantucket whaling ship Phoenix for all of six months after the ship’s original master, Joseph Hinckley of Centerville, fell ill just before she sailed from Hawaii to the frozen Russian sea in April of that year. It was his first command. He had been on only one other whaling voyage and now was captain of his second. The first was on his Uncle Horace Nickerson’s ship, the Massachusetts, and that is the second mention of Bethuel made by his brother-in-law, Thomas Chatfield.

Chatfield wrote an account of his life’s adventures for his four daughters in 1905.   Bethuel’s death may have caused the women to press their father to write down his sea stories  before he too slipped his hawser. So he wrote his autobiography and Bethuel did not, which meant all the family legend and lore of the Gold Rush, about whaling in the Pacific, capturing Confederate blockade runners off the Florida Keys were but one man’s version of events which only hinted at what Bethuel experienced in those same tumultous times.

For some reason no one in the family thought it worth disclosing that Bethuel married Thomas’s sister Mary.  I didn’t fully grasp the strangeness of that double-brother-in-law relationship until I subscribed to Ancestry.com and started building the family tree.  Thomas married Florentine Handy first, and then a few years later, Bethuel Handy married Mary Chatfield, the only girl in a family of ten btothers.  So I started musing about that kind of family dynamic and how uncommon it is, and how perhaps the isolation of Cotuit Port in the mid-19th century and  biological urges to mate with a new member of the gene pool from outside of the community, as well as the expediency of available eligible spouses at a time when a whaling voyage lasted three or more years, and well……it just seemed really weird to me for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on.

So I decided to learn more about Bethuel Handy. For the past five years I’ve been digging through the archives of the Nantucket Historical Association, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the California Daily Alta, and talking to Handy’s descendants to find out what documents he may have left behind. The result was startling. Among the things I learned after a lifetime of hearing one version of events, were some startling truths that my family didn’t know. To wit:

  • Chatfield ran away from his home in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson in 1847 when he was sixteen years old. He had been working at a textile mill on Moodna Creek since the age of 12, forced into child labor by his father Nicholas, a destitute tanner with 11 children who had been expelled from England for refusing to pay a tax to the Church of England. When he met two brothers on a schooner from Cotuit at the quay of Albany he lied and told them his name was “John Thomas” and that he was recently arrived from England in search of his family, whom he had been told were somewhere along the Hudson, but now were apparently in Boston.
  • Chatfield maintained that alias and fictional story for years in Cotuit after he was taken in the Nickerson clan — Bethuel’s mother’s side of the family.  Bethuel learned the truth about his future brother-in-law in San Francisco during the Gold Rush when he happened to meet some sailors from the Massachusetts who knew Chatfield’s true identity. He confronted Chatfield about this fact back in Cotuit in the spring of 1853, and forbid the young man from marrying his sister Florentine until he returned to Cornwall to prove that he wasn’t a fugitive from justice.
  • Bethuel told the full story of his wreck in the Sea of Okhotsk to a reporter at the San Francisco newspaper, the Daily Alta, in 1859
  • Bethuel’s experiences at a Russian fort over the winter of 1858-59 were shared by a young deserter from another ship, Daniel Weston Hall, who published an account of that winter in Siberia in a book Arctic Rovings
  • Bethuel’s experience as a volunteer office in the Union Navy during the Civil War was very different from Chatfield’s. Bethuel was assigned to a gunboat that was part of Admiral David Farragut’s assault and capture of New Orleans and siege of Vicksburg.
  • Bethuel was so unsettled by his wartime experience on the Mississippi River that he had a religious experience involving a promise to God to get baptized at the earliest opportunity should he survive the carnage aboard the gunship USS Wissahickon. When the ship was pulled out of the battleline by Farragut and sent to Philadelphia for repairs, Bethuel missed orders assigning him to a new ship. His excuse?  He was getting baptized. He was demoted as a result, and in a fit of anger resigned, leaving the service in 1862.

The revelations of this research convinced me it was worthy of a book. For the longest time I struggled to find the best way to tell Bethuel’s story.  Was it fodder for a novel? How could I fully explore the fascinating relationship between him and Chatfield on the basis of a few scanty newspaper clippings and ship logs? In the end I decided to first write the story as a diligently researched and attributed work of history, inserting my novelistic projections of the emotional lives of the two brothers-in-law where appropriate, but hewing closely to the factual footnoting and sourcing on the first draft.

I began writing in November of 2019 and finished the first draft in 100 days. Now, during the social distancing phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m revising the manuscript, taking a machete to the text and removing the redundancies, re-ordering the chapter structure, and inserting — where it feels honestly appropriate — my own speculations into the untold story of these two men and their wives during a period of incredible change in society. These men were born at a time when they weren’t expected to live past 50 years. They were the last master mariners in the age of sail and experienced warfare aboard steam powered ships in a brutal war that introduced machines to warfare for the first time. They were true 49’ers — experiencing the phenomenon of the California Gold Rush first hand as young men. They were whalers at the peak of the golden age of that messy, profitable industry, capable of sailing tens of thousands of miles to the antipodes to hunt and massacre the biggest animals on the planet.  They lived dangerous lives, lives of uncertainty and fear with none of the conveniences we know today. No charts. No GPS. No engines. No communications. They lived most of their marriages apart from their wives, coming home long enough to impregnate those poor women with another baby, a child that would be born while they were at sea.  They were the generation that had to adapt to huge change — born in a world of candle light and wooden ships, dying in a world of telephones, electric light, automobiles and flight. They had no safety net. No social security. No medicine. Nothing but themselves and their knowledge of the sea and the stars.

And as I, along with the rest of the world, found myself contemplating my mortality as the killer virus threatened my ability to have a dinner out with my wife, I began to project myself into the minds of two very different men who lived parallel lives bound together by more than friendship and I wondered why one, the native son of Cotuit, Bethuel Handy, vanished from the village after the Civil War; and why the other, Chatfield, a fugitive who arrived in Cotuit a stranger under an alias, transformed himself from a brawling runaway into the cliche of the old salt, celebrated for his civic commitments, his Masonry, and his life simply because he wrote it down.

Anyway, as usual I digress. I thought I’d publish some of the first draft here in installments over the coming weeks. I don’t know what will happen to this work, eventually I’ll ask an agent to give it a look and seek out a publisher. But I know it is far from done, and won’t be done in my mind until I get myself to the Shantar Islands to see, with my own eyes, the place where two young men made their fortune and misfortune so far from home. I feel it’s time that Bethuel Handy get credit for an act of heroism on a level with Ernest Shackleton’s.

What follows is an account of Bethuel Handy’s wreck: Continue reading “The Wreck and War of Bethuel G. Handy”

Bait & Tackle

It’s the end of July and time to start obsessing about bonito on the fly rod. Why I chase these tiny tuna is beyond me, other than the thrill of occasionally hooking one and the feeling like I’ve dipped my arms in electricity as the fish takes off like a nuclear torpedo and the fact that the sushi grade meat makes for great spicy tuna hand rolls. Other than that it’s an exercise in madness as the crazed schools erupt exactly where I’m not, and the other deranged fishermen fire up their outboards and fruitlessly chase the fish where they were, not where they’re going.

Dave’s Bait & Tackle

I had to clean up my collection of fishing rods a few weeks ago to get them ready for the visit of my two sons and son-in-law. That triggered a bout of obsessive compulsive washing, waxing, greasing, and repairs that in turn led to a long overdue sorting of lures, weights, and flies. All the lures I have scavenged from the flotsam of Dead Neck during my annual fall clean up needed to be cleaned up and get equipped with new hooks. Wire leaders needed to be untangled, fluke rigs needed to be tied, and before I knew it my boat shop had been turned into a bait and tackle store cluttered with boxes of fresh treble hooks, new bucktail jigs, split ring pliers, nail knot tools, stacks of Plano plastic boxes, my old surf bag, crimps, swivels, snap hooks, hook sharpeners, spools of flourocarbon leader material, and some massive wooden plugs the size of my feet.

I’m a big believer in giving my fishing tackle business to local shops. I invested in a new ultra-light spinning rod in June from my friend Peter Jenkins, waiting patiently for exactly the right reel to come back in stock (a Van Staal VR-50) before driving to Newport, RI to pick it up and catch up with Peter who’s an old friend from way back in the early Reel-Time.com days, and who bore witness to my one and only catch of a Spanish mackerel on the fly. I could have saved myself the trip and ordered the thing online from Peter’s shop — The Saltwater Edge — but it was far more satisfying to drive there on a beautiful June Saturday and actually watch him spool it up with some braided line.

But when it comes to the little stuff that I need a lot of — hooks in all their various sizes and configurations, tools and the hardware that a good fishing rigger needs — I have no problems turning to Amazon and getting precisely what I need rather than compromising in the aisles of my local bait shop. Compounding the problem is the lack of a decent bait and tackle in my neck of the woods here on the Cape. SportsPort used to be my second home back when Karen ran it, but a trip to Hyannis in the summer is a terrible thing and there simply isn’t enough room in any store — save the big box fishing places like Cabela’s — to stock everything I need.

What’s old is new again

Over the course of the past two weeks I’ve been sitting in my great-great-grandfather’s old captain’s chair on the threshold of the boat shop, looking out at the garden while the local family of ospreys screech and the hummingbirds have territorial dog fights around the feeder, sitting there popping off old rusty tetanus hooks and splitting over tiny stainless steel split rings, trying my best after a couple IPAs not to hook myself as I revive about $1000 worth of plugs.

Deadly Dicks, Swedish Pimples (which live in a box labelled “Pimple Dicks”) Kast-Masters, Ballistic Missiles, Atom Poppers, bucktails, circle hooks, Yozuri minnows, Hopkins spoons, Rapalas, Rattle-Traps ….. it’s been said that most fishing lures are designed to hook the buyer before the fish, and given the extent of my collection I won’t be buying any new ones any time soon. Funny, but the most effective and versatile thing is the probably the most traditional: the bucktail jig, a lead head with a hook, wrapped with a skirt of deer hair. Everything eventually eats a bucktail.

After the re-hooking and restoration of the lures, I turned to the fly rods. Lines needed to be replaced or cleaned. A dozen boxes of flies for everything from offshore fishing to bonefish on the Bahamian flats needed to be sorted or cleaned to rid them of the stink of chipmunk pee. I shook one flyrod case and a family of mice dropped out. Next time I’m wearing a respirator to spare myself some toxic hantavirus.

I tied my own leaders up by knotting together 30-lb, 20-lb, and 10-lb flourcarbon leaders. That forced me to relearn all the fishing knots I forget every year and so I sat with a YouTube demo running on my phone in my lap as my arthritic sausage fingers struggled with the nearly invisible pieces of expensive monofilament. Kreh’s Loop, Homer Rhodes, Palomar, Albright, improved cinch ….. rigging has always been my favorite job on a fishing expedition to the point where I rather be tying rigs and setting spreads than actually fishing. They say a good rigger is priceless in big game fishing tournaments, and I’ve watched some Florida pros rig live baits under kites and then threaten predacious seagulls with death-by-shotgun if they dare try to pick off a precious Goggle Eye.

It’s been said that most fish are caught the night before — meaning it pays to be prepared before actually wetting a line. Hooks have to be sharpened. Rigs specific to the fish one is likely to encounter need to be tied up with dropper loops for teasers, and bait hooks snelled onto hi-lo rigs. I guess that’s the part I like the most. The tying of flies, the inventory of materials, the boxes, the bins, the little tools and glues and tiny swivels……it’s all just a very OCD exercise that goes out the window when I actually get on the water make that first cast and holler “Fish On!” even when I’m fishing by myself.

So who knows what this coming late summer season will bring. I live on some of the best fishing water in the world, the northernmost point for tropical species like King Mackerel, Mahi-Mahi, Atlantic Bonito (and manatees), a peninsula named after the fish that made Massachusetts great once upon a time.

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