Thursday, April 23, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Sandy Neck Colony and Lighthouse

     Sandy Neck Beach in West Barnstable is one of the largest on Cape Cod and also one of the most historic. Those who pull into the parking lot and stare out at the ocean or over at the majestic dunes are getting much of what makes Sandy Neck unique, but not what makes it historical. The beach itself is amazing, yet it’s along the Sandy Neck Trails where the true heart and soul of the area is found. A permit is required for taking a vehicle out on these trails which lead around the south side of Sandy Neck’s impressive dunes. There are a few off shoot trails which bring you out to much more secluded sections of the 4,700-acre beach area.
A wide view of the Sandy Neck Colony
(Christopher Setterlund)

     Centuries ago, prior to 1702, the entirety of Sandy Neck Beach was considered part of the ‘common lands’ of the Town of Barnstable. This meant the whole of Sandy Neck was public property. In 1703 the beach was purchased and divided into 60 private parcels except for a minuscule 330-foot section of the north facing beach which remained public. Lot 60, located at the very tip of Sandy Neck was allocated to Joseph Lothrop and Ebenezer Lewis. It would become home to a group of summer cottages in the latter part of the 19th century.
     In the 18th into the 19th century whaling was a huge industry along the coast of New England. Along Sandy Neck the process of shore whaling took place. This included having the tryworks on shore, these were brick furnaces usually adorning whaling ships. A pair of cast iron try-pots would be placed on the bricks for the purpose of heating whale blubber to recover the oil. Sandy Neck became the first area of whaling on Cape Cod to open up its grounds to the public for whale watching as well.
     The whaling industry, along with the fact that Sandy Neck marked the entrance to Barnstable Harbor necessitated the construction of a lighthouse at its eastern end referred to as Beach Point. On October 1, 1826 Sandy Neck Lighthouse was illuminated for the first time. Erosion over the decades forced the construction of a second lighthouse in 1857. This is the current lighthouse. Made of brick it was susceptible to cracking and in 1887 a pair of iron hoops along with six staves were added around its center giving the lighthouse a unique look.
The current Sandy Neck Lighthouse prior to 1880
(Wikimedia Commons)

     Sandy Neck Lighthouse was decommissioned on October 1, 1932 due to Barnstable Harbor’s decreasing importance as well as the fact that the shifting sands of Sandy Neck moved the lighthouse further from the outer coast of the beach. There were attempts to dismantle and sell the entirety of the lighthouse but the oncoming Great Depression put that on hold. A skeleton tower was briefly erected closer to the water but it proved too costly and only was lit during the warmer months. In 1934 the lighthouse was sold to a private owner and the lantern was discarded. It remained ‘headless’ for more than seventy-five years until it was restored to its full working order with a new lantern in 2007.
     Sandy Neck is home to fifty-eight cottages. The first of which is a little more than a mile out on the sand. The cottages are mostly over a hundred years old; they are grandfathered into this historic district. New construction in the area was forbidden during the 1960’s. The main attraction is at the end of the trails is the Sandy Neck Colony. Located more than six miles out on the sandy trails is a cluster of more than two dozen cottages with the lighthouse supplying the border on the east.
     Many of the cottages dotting the spit of sand have interesting histories. There is the ‘The Barnacle’ cottage built by noted local historian Henry Crocker Kittredge out of an old garage in 1908. ‘The Hurricane’ cottage was a hunting camp originally built in 1898 by Jim Hinckley, Russell Hallett, and Arthur Coville. The ‘Parker/Poland’ cottage was originally built at the turn of the 20th century with the help of George Jamieson who was keeper of Sandy Neck Light at the time.
One of the cottages on the way out to the Sandy Neck Colony
(Christopher Setterlund)

     One of the earliest cottages of the colony also doubled as a restaurant. The Barnstable Harbor House, owned in the 1880’s and 1890’s by Benjamin Lovell, could seat up to twenty-five in the dining room. It became more widely known as the Chowder House due to the superb chowder created by Lovell. A wharf was built to allow for boats to dock in front of the restaurant/cottage. Lovell also canned his chowder for sale to customers. The kitchen ell of the cottage was removed around 1910 and became the Buck Cottage at the west end of the colony.
     During Prohibition the rolling dunes and relative isolation of Sandy Neck became the perfect landing and hiding spot for rum runners. Liquor would be stored in one of the summer cottages as it was prepared to be shipped to the Cape’s mainland.
A close up of Sandy Neck Lighthouse from Bone Hill Beach
(Christopher Setterlund)

     Since 1978, Sandy Neck has been designated an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern” by the Mass. Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs because several endangered species including piping plovers and least terns make their habitat in the area. As of 2015 the lighthouse which had been originally built at the point stood more than 2,000 feet from the point due to accretion of sand.
The colony and Sandy Neck Lighthouse are private though and the trails will not take you there. Many of the cottages have been passed down for generations through the same families. It is a very close-knit community. The Sandy Neck Colony is best seen either from a boat in the harbor or across the water on the shore of Millway Beach or Bone Hill Beach in Barnstable. However the beach itself is public and remains one of the most popular and unique natural beauties on Cape Cod.                                                 -----------------------------------------

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View my previous blog postsIn Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Deacon John Doane

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Unknown said...

I am very interested in Sandy Neck and wonder if you have researched and written about the camp that used to be there. I went to that camp from 1949 and 1954 and have fond memories of the beautiful yet desolate dunes. Forty years later, in 1992, my husband daughter and I hired someone at Barnstable Harbor to take us over to the beach so I could look around for a few hours. But I did not take photos and I can't remember whether any of the old camp buildings remain. Was the camp sold? Thanks Dominique Lunau Avery

Christopher Setterlund said...

Hi Dominique, do you remember the name of the camp? I have not researched it but would likely be able to find something about it.

Peg said...

Just found your questions. I went to the camp too. It was called Sandy Neck Camp and was run by Mrs. Constance Lovell. Her husband Herbert was a lobsterman and would bring the girls over from Barnstable in his boat which I think was named Mayflower. I remember many of our activities including hikes along the shore or over the dunes to Back Beach. Lots of horseshoe crabs! I see pictures of the Cottage Community and recognize many of the cottages and the main house where we all dined and had music lessons. Mrs. Lovell lived upstairs. I’ve researched and found very few references to the camp. We had uniforms consisting of a light blue t-shirt and navy blue shorts!

Unknown said...

Just found this. Thank you so much! Your mention of uniforms reminded me that on Sundays, we wore white shirts with our blue shorts. Perhaps you might enjoy my memories of Sandy Neck Camp which I wrote a few years ago.
Its only connection to the mainland was one phone in the main house which also had the camps only electricity. We campers were grouped according to our age in small houses and supervised by one or two counselors depending on our ages. We were all responsible for making our beds, basic metal cots, with perfect hospital corners which had to pass inspection. For our personal belongings, we each had an orange crate turned on its end and placed like a night table at the head of our beds. After being used for shipping oranges, the crates rectangular wooden boxes were perfect as night tables.
All our meals except Sunday supper which was the cook’s night off were served in the dining room in the Main House. Sundays, always meant a late afternoon hike far into the dunes which ended with pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I hated them. The sandwiches so dry they hard to swallow and despite our attempts to shield them from the wind, they were always filled with sand. I didn't just hate the peanut butter, I also hated breakfast oatmeal and the Friday night fish cakes. But because there was a rule that we had to eat everything on our plates, I learned to discretely spit them into my napkin until I could covertly toss it into the garbage on my way out of the main building.
Sandy Neck is where I first learned to float and then swim. We had swimming lessons everyday. In my later years, there were diving lessons as well. When we had free swim, we had to have a buddy and hold their hand when they blew a whistle. Since it was an all girls camp our sports were all rather genteel like archery and tennis. I loved archery. Our lessons were in the dunes and I found great satisfaction in the thwack of arrow hitting the target nestled next to a dune. There were tennis courts and lessons, but I wasn't very good. We also played a gentle version of volley ball which I did enjoy, but it was in our free time in between activities, that we played jacks which I loved and played non-stop. We sat in pairs outside on the concrete sidewalks that connected all the camp buildings, and played for what seemed like hours. Never with the puny little red ball that still comes with Jack sets, but with the bigger and far bouncier pink Spalding balls. I got very good, and because I was very competitive, I love playing Jacks most of all.
The highlight of each month was visitors' weekend. My mother came both days from Yarmouthport just across the bay, and my father always came once a summer all the way from New York.
Every summer was capped off with a Color War where all the campers were divided into blue and red teams and competed against each other in challenges and events to earn points. Points were awarded for winning volley ball and baseball games. I don't remember other competitions, but I do remember helping my team by earning points for good behavior. I took it very seriously and in addition to jacks Color War was one of the first signs of my deeply competitive nature. I also clearly remember being told that the Korean War had ended at the end of July in 1953.

Sally Bassett said...

I loved reading the comments about the camp my sister and I went to for several years! Personally we didn’t care for it but our mother who grew up in New York City loved camp herself and thought we should have the same experience.

The peanut butter sandwich is spot on! Hated them with the sand! And I remember that it seemed like quite a trek out to the dunes?

I still remember the smell of the fishing boat that took us there in our blue uniforms with our name tags painfully hand sewed into each article of clothing, the dead horseshoe crabs on the beach that I just knew had been in the water just waiting for us as we were made to jump off the end of the dock, and being so scared at night without my mother. One nice memory; my counselor, an older woman, wore Dessert Flower perfume and I used to stare at the bottle and think how pretty it was.

Does anyone remember the costume party? There were old boxes filled with bits and pieces of costumes we could choose to wear, but it was sure limited. Also the annual parade for each team, I believe…I had to be an Indian and was self conscious about showing my chest. Now as I look back, it was probably nice but I missed my home and parents to much.