Maritime History

Monomoy Point 1897-512px

View our gallery of photos illustrating Monomoy's maritime history

 

 

Prehistoric America

While Monomoy’s wilderness is shaped and reshaped by the sea, it also remains linked with the human history of the New England seacoast. Native people are believed to have inhabited the peninsula 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. The name “Monomoy” comes from the name of the native Wampanoag tribe who once lived in the area. They called themselves “Monomoyick,” derived from their Algonquin word for the rushing currents that surround the islands, “munumuhkemoo.” Two Native American shell middens have been recorded on refuge property at Morris Island, but little information is known about these sites.

Whitewash Village

Recorded history of the island began in the 16th century when French and English explorers began mapping the New England coast. Monomoy offered an unparalleled access to the sea’s bounty, and was first settled by Europeans in the early 1700s. 

The first settlement was Stewart’s Tavern, built on Inward Point near Wreck Cove, now called Hospital Pond. During the early 1800s, the deep natural harbor on the south end of Monomoy called Powder Hole attracted a sizeable settlement at Whitewash Village. As many as 50 families lived there, and the village featured trading stores and two shipyards that served the booming coastal trade in cod and mackerel, which were dried and packed for markets in Boston and New York. The harbor was shoaled in by a hurricane in 1860, hindering access to the fishing that had sustained the local economy. Nonetheless, settlement continued on the southern Monomoy peninsula into the early 20th century. At its height, Whitewash Village housed about 200 residents and featured a public school and an inn called the Monomoit House. 

 

“The shooting was superb, and I enjoyed it hugely. The camp and accommodations were simply horrid. We occupied a clam shanty and slept upon the soft side of a board, with sea-weed for a pillow.”  With Rod and Gun in New England and the Maritime Provinces, Edward Augustus Samuels 
By the early 1900s, the Monomoy peninsula was a popular holiday destination, where families built summer camps and duck hunters visited during the fall and winter. The elite Monomoy Branting Club brought sportsmen to the remote beach for duck hunting from 1862 to 1932. Brant were attracted each spring during northward migration to the extensive, dense eelgrass beds near the Inward Point and Romp Hole areas hunted by the club. In addition to the cottages at Whitewash Village, several seasonal dwellings were distributed throughout the Monomoy Point area and northward along the peninsula. 
 

 

U.S. Lifesaving Service Stations

 
Monomoy has long been a place of difficult sandbars and fast-changing currents. It was once called by the name “Cape Mallebarre” or “Old Malabar,” meaning “place of evil bars.” The unpredictable and dynamic movements of near-shore sandbars and shoals made Monomoy a dangerous place to sail, despite its bounty of fish, whales, and seals. Hundreds, or even thousands, of ships have wrecked here. 

Monomoy was also famous for its mooncussers, another danger to sailors. Sometimes called “land-based pirates”, they would light misleading signal fires that would lead mariners astray. They would sail their ships where they thought there was safe passage between shoals, only to run aground on sandbars and be robbed by the wreckers, a misfortune that would make them curse their fate at the moon— thus the term Mooncusser was coined.

 

The U.S. Lifesaving Service built the Chatham Life Saving Station (USLSS 13) near Morris Island on the Monomoy peninsula in 1872. Two years later, a second lifesaving station (Monomoy USLSS 14) was built approximately 4 miles further south on the peninsula. Finally, a third station, the Monomoy Point Lifesaving Station (U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) 44), was built in 1902 near Whitewash Village, serving as the southernmost component of a series of 13 such stations between Chatham and Provincetown. At the mid-point between each of these three lifesaving stations “half-way houses” were built. Life Saving Servicemen would row their cedar surf boats in teams of six out to the Pollock Rip to rescue stranded sailors, often at the cost of their lives.
 
"There is no more dangerous stretch of coast on Cape Cod than off Monomoy. Disaster follows disaster in that region, and the work of the life savers is attended with the greatest peril at all times." — The Life Savers of Cape Cod, John Wilfred Dalton
  

Monomoy Point Light Station

The first Monomoy Point Lighthouse was constructed in 1823. It was the fifth lighthouse commissioned on Cape Cod and was intended to aid vessels traveling around the treacherous point at Pollock Rip. In 1849, after the elements had damaged the first lighthouse, the existing Monomoy Point Lighthouse was built. An important and significant example of cast-iron lighthouse construction, the tower is 40 feet high. When it was active, the light could be seen for 12 nautical miles out to sea. The lighthouse, which is accompanied by an attached keeper’s house and detached oil house, was decommissioned in 1923.

In 1932, the Monomoy peninsula was taken over by the U.S. military and used for aerial strafing and bombing training during World War II. The historic lighthouse, restored keeper’s house, and oil house are the only structures that still stand on the Monomoy peninsula, and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

 

Wilderness

 

After the refuge was established at the end of World War II in 1944 to provide protected habitat for migratory birds, the owners of summer camps were able to obtain permits for seasonal use of the refuge up until the year 2000, when the last cabin was dismantled. 

In 1958, winter storms breached the Monomoy peninsula at its northern end, turning it into an island; storms during the winter of 1978 further divided the island, creating the geographically distinct North Monomoy Island and South Monomoy Island. The Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge is today the only federally-designated wilderness area in southern New England, hosting tens of thousands of birds on their annual migrations, upwards of 13,000 nesting pairs of common terns, 20 pairs of federally endangered roseate terns, 50 pairs of federally threatened piping plovers, and the largest gray seal haul-out site in the United States. 
 

“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness -- to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because it is unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” ― Henry David Thoreau