Small And Getting Smaller

I grew up in the small Cape Cod town of Orleans, Mass., in the 1950s. If you think Lake Wobegon is small, you haven’t been to Orleans. There isn’t much to it. According to the Wikipedia site it’s only 21.1 sq mi (54.6 km2) of which 6.9 sq mi (17.9 km2) is water (Pleasant Bay and the Town Cove not to mention numerous lakes and ponds) which leaves just 14.2 sq mi (36.7 km2). It’s only about 4.5 miles wide from Cape Cod Bay to the Atlantic Ocean.

Our house was over on the west side of town, a short walk from Skaket Beach. The family business, Philbrick’s Snack Shack, for located at Nauset Beach, as far east as you could get without getting your feet wet.

Snack Shack

It didn’t have that many people living there when I was growing up, either. When I graduated from Nauset Regional High School in 1960 (the first graduating class at Nauset Regional) the year-round population was 2,342. It’s nearly triple that, now, with 5,890 residents, but what’s interesting is there’s been a 7.1%  decrease in population from 2000 when it hit its high of 6,341.

Not only is the town’s population getting smaller, but the actual size of the town is diminishing. Cape Cod sticks our from the mainland of Massachusetts like a flexed arm.

Cape Cod sat

This leaves it vulnerable to devastating storms. As you can see from the above, Orleans gets battered pretty much from whichever way the wind is blowing. Over the centuries it has been hit by hurricanes and winter nor’easters which eat away at the coastline which is primarily sand. The winds and waves pick the stuff up from one place and deposit it somewhere else. Nauset Beach over the past half century has suffered a lot. The yellow stick pin is where the high tide mark was when I was a kid.

Nauset high tide mark

In the past year the “Outer Beach” has been pounded by Hurricane Sandy and the recent winter blizzards, the most recent of which was on March 7th. And tear thing up is an understatement.

In 1966 I owned Nauset Beach Rides. I had a large International Harvester 4-wheel drive Travelall and took tourists on beach buggy trips down the beach.

Beach Rides

(Were we ever that young?)

This is the same spot after the most recent storm…

Nauset Beach Rides

The last time I was on the Cape this is what Nauset Beach looked like…

What's left of Nauset 2

As I said before, when I was growing up there was another 100 yards of so more beach to the high tide line. When I was there to take this photo the boardwalk ended with a set of stairs leading down to the beach. Back in the ’50s the boardwalk simply went on a flat line for another fifty or sixty yards from where these people are sitting. No stairs.

This is what the beach looks like today…

(Video by Cape Cod Travel Guide)

The storm effected the entire Cape:

Nothing stays the same. Even rocks change shape over time. And don’t forget, the Colorado River that flows through the Grand Canyon was once at ground level.


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4 responses to “Small And Getting Smaller

  1. Great post! I’m going to share it with my Chatham friend.

    Thanks, Linda. I’ve been a bit remiss in blogging lately but a cousin sent me the link to the Cape Cod Times and the video was posted on Facebook.

  2. Richard Burling

    Hard to believe the way the storm is devastating the town. Did you see the picture of the Orleans Yacht Club?

    I did, but it didn’t fit into the post. Yeah, Orleans took a hard hit, that’s for sure. I never saw anything like it when I lived there.

  3. jeff Philbrick

    Hey from Blue Heaven…Chapel Hill, NC… the Southern side of Heaven.
    There are two memorable Cape Cod winter storms that I remember from my years on the Cape.
    The first is the Blizzard of 1978 know as the “Storm of the Century”.
    That storm struck in the first week of February with tides 16 feet above normal.
    I happened to be going to College in Wenham MA, on the north shore of Boston, at the time.
    Our campus was just off the of Route 128, the beltway around Boston.
    The snow was so bad that thousands of drivers where stranded on the roads. From the overpass on Route 128 near the campus you could see hundreds of abandoned cars on the highway that made snow removal nearly impossible. School was shut down for nearly a week due to the 15 to 18 foot snow drifts that blocked the sides of the buildings.
    During spring break that year I went to Aunt Helen’s house in East Orleans.
    She told me to take a drive out to Coast Guard Beach in Eastham to see what the storm had done. About a 10th of a mile from the Coast Guard Beach parking lot the road had been barricaded. Parking the car and walking past the barricade down the road about 100 feet the paved road came to an abrupt end at an 8 to 10 foot sheer drop off. Ahead of me was an expanse of bare flat sand about a half mile long and several hundred yards wide. Before the storm this spot contained barrier dunes 40′ high that protected a bath house and 350 car paved parking lot. All had been swept away in one night by the storm!!! The spot had been scoured so clean that there wasn’t even a piece of pavement to be seen.
    Just south of where the parking lot had been was a sand spit that had contained 6 beach cottages. One of those had been the “Outermost House” that Henry Beston had stayed in when writing his famous 1928 classic of the same name. The “Outermost House” and two other cottages had been swept out to sea. That storm ended beach buggy traffic south of Coast Guard Beach. The three surviving cottages where eventually abandoned after a few years. Today, the sight of the Outermost House is under water.
    The second memorable storm hit on March 30, 1984 with winds hitting 80 to 90 miles per hour. During that storm the Maltese freighter Eldia came aground about 1/2 mile north of the Snack Shack on Nauset Beach. At 478 feet long and 5 stories tall the Eldia was twice as large as anything that had come aground on Cape Cod. Several of the crew who worked for me at the Snack Shack at that time were surfers and had been on the beach watching the surf when the Eldia had come aground. They said 30 foot surf was surging over the dunes into the parking lot. They also said the most amazing thing was that the waves where coming over the dunes then splitting and going around on either side of the Snack Shack into the parking lot. They said it looked like the hands of God where separating the waters. I went inside to check the building and the basement crawl space was bone dry and there was no damage to the outside of the building. You could see the water marks in the sand where the storm surged had gone up through where the board walk is in the summer into the parking lot and going around the bulk gas tank behind the building before going into the parking lot.
    The Eldia was eventually taken off the beach in mid May. Than another odd event happened a month later when a small airplane from Chatham airport crashed of the beach about where the Eldia came aground.

    Thanks for the comment, Jeff. I wasn’t around for any of those storms you mentioned, thankfully. I do remember a couple of good ones though. One was in the early ’50s when we were at Nickerson State Park. A hurricane swept over us and I slept through most of it in our tent. I remember the eye passing over us and how neat it was seeing the sun and all the black storm cloud wall around us. Then we listened on the radio that the Cape had been literally “wipe off the face of the earth” in the storm. That was pretty strange.

    I also remember another nor’easter that must have been back around ’58 or so. We had the Plymouth station wagon then. We all piled in and went to look at the storm up at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham. The spray from the waves came surging over the top of the dunes and those were some of the highest dunes on the Cape back then. Then, ahead of us a huge section of the parking lot just disappeared. The waves had undercut the dune and finally parts of the parking lot just fell into the sea. The blowing sand also did a pretty good job on the wagon’s paint and I know that at least one of the windows was so sandblasted that it had to be replaced.

  4. sburling

    Do you have any old pictures of the Pink and White Jeepster we used to cruise around in after we had been to the Dump and emptied the trash barrels?

    In never had a picture of the Jeep but I did have a photo of the trailer filled with trash at one time. I lost probably 90% of my old photos when I was living on my small sailboat back in the early and mid ’90s. The moisture just glued most of them together. Then, after I’d moved ashore after almost six years aboard the damned thing sank at the dock. I’m lucky I have the pics I do. Most of what I’ve got I’ve got from the digital age.