Friday, March 27, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Billingsgate Island

     Time gives and time takes away. Throughout history people, places, and things arrive and disappear, some lost to history. This is no different on Cape Cod. When driving along the main streets and back roads longtime residents often remark of what used to be where and who used to live there. Losing a building is common, but an entire community? That is something far more rare. It happened 150 years ago in Provincetown at Long Point when the majority of the settlement was floated across the harbor to make up some of the homes along Commercial and Bradford Streets. However Long Point itself still exists. Another community was lost to time about a century ago. This was different. This was nature reclaiming the land it stood on. Shoreline change and erosion is nothing new. This is the story of Cape Cod’s ‘Atlantis.’ This is the story of Billingsgate Island.

     Today Billingsgate is a shoal, and a footnote in Cape Cod history. For many decades though it was a bustling community. Located approximately three miles west of Eastham's Sunken Meadow Beach, just south of Jeremy Point, sat Billingsgate Island. At its peak size the island encompassed roughly 60 acres of land. For comparison the small island of Muskeget, just off of Nantucket, is roughly 292 acres in size and just over a mile across at its widest. Noted by the Pilgrims on their journey from Provincetown to Plymouth its first known European inhabitants were Mayflower passenger Constance Hopkins and her husband Nicholas Snow in the 1640’s.
     During the first quarter of the 18th century Billingsgate, along with neighboring Great Island, were made the headquarters of the fishing and whaling industry in the area. In 1721 Billingsgate was designated a parish and officially the North Precinct of Eastham. At the time there were many complaints by the people of mainland Eastham about fishermen and whalers sneaking to the town commons and cutting down trees to be used on the island. Billingsgate became part of the new town of Wellfleet when it separated itself from Eastham in May 1763.
     The peak of Billingsgate was the mid-19th century. It was a prosperous fishing village which would be inhabited during the warmer months by as many as 80 people. The population of the island began to grow in 1821 when a salt works was constructed and in 1822 when the Federal government bought four acres of land for $100 ($2,200 in 2020) upon which a lighthouse was built. The first keeper was William Moore and he would remain on the island year-round, sometimes alone for months at a time in winter. In the decades following the construction of the lighthouse the island would grow to include thirty homes, a schoolhouse, a store, oil works, and a baseball team which would row across the bay to play other teams from the Outer Cape. It was a paradise out of a storybook.
     However, not too long after the lighthouse was built it became apparent that something was happening to the island. The same erosion which batters the coastline today was slowly chipping away at Billingsgate. As early as 1850, in a report by then-lighthouse keeper Francis Krogman, it was noted that the island was ‘washing away very fast.’ An 1854 storm damaged the lighthouse so badly that $14,000 ($426,000 in 2020) was appropriated for the construction of a new one, located further to the north on higher ground, which was completed in September 1858.
1871 Map of Cape Cod with Billingsgate Island circled
(National Public Domain Archives)

     In 1863 it was noted that at high tide the island stood only 13-feet above sea level. With one eye on the booming fishing and whaling industries and the other on the creeping erosion the community would continue to thrive into the latter half of the 19th century. The eroding shores created dangerous shoals around Billingsgate, leading to several ships running aground. This included the schooner S & E Corson from Philadelphia which sunk in April 1879 with its cargo of coal. In 1888, with erosion threatening the lighthouse, a 1,000-foot sea wall and bulkhead was constructed to try to buy some time. It ended up doing the opposite and speeding up the erosion.

     Slowly but surely the fishermen and their families left Billingsgate. The homes would be taken down and floated across the bay to be resurrected in the towns along the Outer Cape. The twenty-by-twenty-foot schoolhouse would be taken down around the turn of the 20th century when only about six families remained on the island. Despite the mass exodus some still saw Billingsgate as an attractive destination. This included Dr. Maurice Richardson of Boston who paid a total of $785 ($24,400 in 2020) for two lots on the island and built a summer home there in 1897.
Billingsgate Lighthouse circa 1897

     The 20th century saw the demise of Billingsgate Island. A 600-foot breakwater built in 1905 failed to stem the tide. The homes which had dotted the land had been moved, only oyster shacks and hunting camps remained. The lighthouse would crumble in a storm on the day after Christmas in 1915 and be replaced by a skeleton light fixture on a tripod. Around this same time, after his death, the summer home of Dr. Richardson was taken down. The last keeper of the light, Henry Daniels, would spend three nearly-uninterrupted years on the disappearing land mass at the same time guarding the valuable oyster beds from 1917-1920. The island remained a haven for shellfishing, but these were mostly day-trips from the mainland as it shrunk to a mere 5 acres by the 1920’s.

     The natural process of erosion never ceases and in December 1932 the skeleton lighthouse had fallen due to the high tides. It was replaced by a lighted bell buoy. The breakwater was dismantled in 1935 to be used for repair work at Wellfleet Harbor. In 1942 the tides would submerge the entire island for the first time, officially ending Billingsgate Island and creating Billingsgate Shoal. In the years after its loss fishermen asked for a new lighthouse to be built at the tip of Jeremy Point to aide in navigation, however that never occurred.
Present-day coordinated of where Billingsgate Lighthouse stood circa 1853
(Google Maps)

     Today Cape Cod’s ‘Atlantis’ still lives on in photographs, the homes which are dotted around Wellfleet and surrounding areas, artifacts, and writings about the island including from Henry David Thoreau in his Cape Cod book. The shoal is frequently visible at low tide making it a popular picnicking spot. If one is lucky they may even stumble upon a brick from the old lighthouse’s foundation. It is impossible to step foot on the sandy shoal of what was once a thriving community and not take a moment to think about the power of the sea. It is impossible not to think of all that once stood there and remember to enjoy each and every day because at some point it could all be but a memory, much like Billingsgate Island.

No comments: