Wednesday, May 19, 2010

In My Footsteps: Trip 46: Wellfleet, Mass. - Part Two

In My Footsteps
Christopher Setterlund

Trip 46: Wellfleet, Mass. – Part Two
April 28, 2010

            My second journey through Wellfleet had just as much to do with what was there as with what used to be there.  Wellfleet is the setting of two of the most fascinating Cape Cod legends.  Neither the Chequesset Inn nor Billingsgate Island still exist but their presence is still felt all over this town.  
-->           Billingsgate Island, now known as Billingsgate Shoal, is an article in and of itself.  I first became acquainted with this Cape Cod legend while at 4 C’s.  In my research for an article on erosion I came across this one-time small island community located a mile south of Jeremy Point.  At its peak in the 17th century Billingsgate Island was approximately sixty acres in size.  At one point in the mid-1800’s the island had thirty homes, a schoolhouse, a lighthouse(left), and even a baseball team.  The lighthouse was originally built in 1822 and was rebuilt twice before finally being destroyed due to erosion in 1915.
           The erosion of the island was exacerbated by the fact that the inhabitants removed the trees holding the land together and allowed their livestock to graze on the land removing much of the beach grass.  After the island was virtually deserted around the time of World War I due to the extensive erosion many of the structures were floated off the island and reestablished in Wellfleet, Brewster, and West Barnstable.  Today all that remains of Billingsgate Island is a large sandbar at low tide with pieces of the lighthouse foundation and a scattering of bricks still to be found. 
Billingsgate’s remains are accessible at low tide and the area is large enough for shellfishing and picnicking, but that’s about it.  The legend of this once thriving island community still lives throughout Wellfleet as many of the island’s homes ended up here.  It is said that Holbrook Avenue near Wellfleet Harbor is one hotspot for finding former Billingsgate homes.  Although in my research I found out that many of the homes on Holbrook are from Bound Brook Island near Wellfleet as well.  The guessing is half the fun.  The only spot that I know for certain once resided on Billingsgate Island now exists as part of the Wicked Oyster restaurant at 50 Main Street in Wellfleet as it is mentioned in its history.  
The Chequesset Inn(right, above) has a history as rich as Billingsgate.  It was an incredible luxury resort built in 1902 on the 400-foot Mercantile Wharf that was comprised of sixty-two rooms.  The resort helped make Wellfleet a huge tourist destination but the rough waters of the harbor ended up claiming the Chequesset Inn in 1934.  A cold winter filled the harbor with ice and these chunks ravaged the pier’s pilings until the Mercantile Wharf collapsed during one particular winter storm.  The Inn was taken down shortly thereafter as was the pier.  There is a marker on the curve of Kendrick Avenue designating where the Mercantile Wharf jutted out into the harbor.  To the east is Mayo Beach and to the west of the marker are the Wellfleeter Condos, it is a very awe-inspiring feeling to stand at the edge of the water knowing what used to be there seventy-five years ago(right, below).  At low tide it is still possible to see the tops of what remains of the pilings that once made up Mercantile Wharf.
            Mayo Beach, located next to Wellfleet Harbor, is a great beach with several great views.  To the east is the harbor while the Wellfleet Breakwater Beach is to the southeast and Jeremy Point and Great Island stretch out to the southwest; it is easy to become mesmerized by this unique area of Cape Cod.  There is another great spot to check out along Mayo Beach when you look inward away from the water. 
The parking lot is a sort of semi-circle of asphalt and in the middle is a grassy area containing a very old oyster shack(left).  The eight by ten cedar shack, built in 1935, once belonged to a man named Earle Rich and was moved to Mayo Beach in November.  It had originated along Duck Creek’s railroad bridge since back then oysters were sent to Boston and New York by train.  It is a great piece of Cape Cod history that is very accessible; these shacks once covered the shores along most of the Cape as little as sixty years ago.
The Wellfleet Town Pier is a great spot to have lunch and just watch the fishermen and average boaters come in and out of the harbor.  Holbrook Avenue, the supposed resting place of many Billingsgate Island homes sits only a few hundred yards north for some perspective.  It is incredible for me to imagine how the actual lay of the land along the harbor has remained basically the same over the past hundred years and yet how much it has changed.
            Only a hundred years ago there was a huge resort stretching out into the water and Billingsgate Island still existed, although it was only inhabited by a lighthouse keeper and a few brave souls that spent days at a time alone shellfishing.  What happened to the Chequesset Inn and Billingsgate is a prime example of the fury of the sea.  It is possible that thousands of years from now people will be speaking of Cape Cod in the same way I am speaking of Billingsgate now; a once thriving community that the ocean reclaimed.
The histories of these two Cape legends can be found at the Wellfleet Historical Society, the Nickerson Room at Cape Cod Community College, along with the Wellfleet book in the Images of America series.  These stories are fascinating, and not that well known with all of the hundreds of other more famous stories in Cape Cod history.  I highly recommend visiting Wellfleet and taking a look at where the Chequesset Inn once stood.  Or, if you are truly adventurous you could sail out to Billingsgate Shoal and stand where a once thriving community once stood.  That is definitely on my agenda at some point in the future.  Have fun and happy traveling!

     My first book, In My Footsteps: A Cape Cod Travel Guide, is now available at,, and, soon to be in stores everywhere!  Follow me on Twitter!

Directions: Mayo Beach: From Rt. 6 heading north turn left onto Main Street.  Turn left at E. Commercial Street, continue onto Commercial Street, continue onto Kendrick Avenue.  Mayo Beach is on the left.  The marker for Chequesset Inn is on the curve next to Wellfleeter Condos.
            A Story of Billingsgate Island
            History of Billingsgate Lighthouse
            The Wicked Oyster Restaurant
Billingsgate Light photo found here: Smithsonian National Museum of American History
Chequesset Inn photo found here:  Google Books: Wellfleet: A Cape Cod Village


zoommer said...

what a great story. Really wow. And thanks for that. Hope you'll go on posting things like that.
I'm planning a photo trip to the USA and wil defenetely come to the Cape and spend some time in Wellfleet. Then I'll do some photos of the places you've mentioned. Your text really gave the feel of owe and facination

Christopher Setterlund said...

Glad you liked it, I am hoping to get out to Billingsgate Shoal at some point, but the other places are very easy to find.