After 30 Years, The Breakthrough Still Shapes Chatham

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Erosion

Today there are three inlets in North Beach: the north inlet, created in 2007 (top); the 1987 breakthrough (center); and the most recent break in South Beach, which opened up in 2013. SPENCER KENNARD PHOTO

CHATHAM – On Jan. 2, 1987, Cape Cod was engulfed in a fierce northeaster. Winds gusted to 68 miles per hour, driving an eight- to 12-foot storm surge, adding to tides already unusually high due to a full moon and a rare celestial alignment called syzygy.

When the afternoon high tides sent waves crashing over a narrow section of North Beach opposite Chatham Light, few anticipated that the impact of the “breakthrough,” as it became known, would continue to be felt 30 years later.

Today, the town's eastern shoreline is a very different place than it was prior to the break. Both the inner shoreline and the outer beach are still being shaped by the forces unleashed that day, a situation likely to continue for years, maybe decades, until the system stabilizes.

“Even for the numeric modelers, it's very difficult to say what's going to happen,” said Dr. Graham Giese, director and scientist emeritus of the Land and Sea Interaction Program at the Center For Coastal Studies in Provincetown, author of a 1978 study that anticipated the break who has studied and watched it closely over the past three decades.

The impact of that initial break – now the chief inlet between the Atlantic Ocean and Chatham Harbor – has been well documented. Within several years, erosion due to higher tides and direct waves claimed nine homes and some $6 million worth of real estate between Andrew Harding's Lane and Holway Street. Millions of dollars were spent to protect a wider area of shoreline, from Little Beach south to Claflin Landing, much of which is now armored with rock revetments. Hundreds of thousands of dollars went into federal, state and town dredging projects to preserve the ability of the town's commercial fishing fleet to navigate between the break and the fish pier. And in 2007 a second inlet opened opposite Minister's Point, making an island of North Beach and sweeping some two dozen camps off the outer beach.

“I don't think any of us grasped what the potential was” immediately after the break occurred, said Andrew Young, a former conservation commission member who was elected to the board of selectmen in May 1987. Although it was part of a well-documented approximately 140-year cycle of the Nauset/North Beach barrier beach system breaching, breaking up and rebuilding, the historic effects of the process – which contributed, for instance, to large-scale erosion of the Old Village shore in the late 1800s and early 1900s – were lost on most residents at the time.

Initial Optimism

Initially, there was a glimmer of optimism, at least for commercial fishermen. It didn't take long for the new inlet to become navigable, and the ability to dogleg east at the lighthouse rather than steam another 45 minutes south to the previous harbor inlet was enticing.

“The old inlet had gone way far to the south and was very difficult to navigate,” recalled Young. “And boy, here was this possibility of a new channel.”

“That was a big time savings for me,” said Nick Brown, now a realtor and town assessor but at the time a commercial fisherman. But there was a complication: the old inlet, across from Monomoy Island, was protected by a bar that acted as a barrier to heavy seas. More often than not, waves were breaking in the new inlet making it treacherous, Brown said.

The break also swept tons of sand into the harbor, which had two effects. It clogged the navigation channel as well as the anchorage in Aunt Lydia's Cove, where the commercial fish pier is located, and covered over acres of blue mussels in the harbor and Pleasant Bay.

Jeffrey Dykens, now chairman of selectmen but at the time a fisherman, was working the mussel bed at the time.

“The entire harbor was blanketed in blue mussels,” he said. After the break, the tide velocity increased so much that the dredge wouldn't stay on the bottom; then the shellfish came up full of sand and were umarketable.

“What was an extremely viable fishery that we were husbanding came to an end very quickly,” said Dykens. That problem ended up changing the direction of his life. With two small kids at home, he had to make a decision whether to go back to off-shore fishing or try something else. He ended up returning to school to earn his MBA and CPA, and is now vice president for finance and operations at Cape Cod Healthcare.

“The impact was very personal for me and my family,” he said of the breakthrough.

That first summer the breakthrough became an attraction, even prompting a story in the Boston Globe about how it was boosting tourism. Artist Julie Dykens, among others, capitalized on it by printing and selling “Breakthrough” T-shirts.

Brown eventually had to move his fishing boat outside of the mooring basin at the pier after shoaling created a spit off Tern Island, leaving many boats aground at half tide. Fishermen had to ferry supplies, and eventually their catches, in dories from their boats to the pier because of the shoaling. Fisherman Jackie Our nearly drowned when he toppled out of his dory one cold day.

The town had appealed to the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the harbor and channel, but were getting stonewalled, Brown said. A working group formed by the town and chaired by Brown found numerous flaws in a preliminary Corps report that had concluded the cost of dredging would outweigh its economic benefit. Digging into the figures, Brown, who had studied economics in college, found that the federal agency had valued the labor of fishermen at just $3.93 an hour.

Rebutting the report and enlisting the assistance of Senator Edward Kennedy and Congressman Gerry Studds helped light a fire under the Corps. Eventually, funding for dredging was tacked on to an Estonian trade bill which was signed by President George H.W. Bush.

“That's how we got the dredging money,” Brown said. The Corps continues to dredge the channel periodically, although the tidal dynamics of the harbor have kept it navigable in recent years.

Erosion Eats Away At Inner Shoreline

As the break widened, the inner shoreline began to feel the effect of higher tides, swifter currents and direct ocean waves. Little Beach, just south of Lighthouse Beach, saw the initial erosion, but within a few months the focus shifted to the area between Andrew Harding's Lane and Holway Street. The ocean began to chip away at the edge of the public parking lot at the end of Andrew Harding's Lane, once large enough to hold 60 cars. By the fall, the asphalt was crumbling under the pounding. Over one weekend, some 30 feet of beach was lost.

In the fall, 10 shorefront property owners formed the Beach Reclamation Enactment Association of Chatham Harbor – BREACH – to protect their homes. John Whelan, whose home was on the bluff just north of the rapidly eroding end of Holway Street, said none of the owners had anticipated that the break would impact them.

“I was pretty unaware of the Graham Giese studies,” he said of a 1978 report detailing the Nauset/North Beach barrier beach cycle of breaching and growth. “So I didn't really have a feeling of fear or trepidation. And initially the beach built up a bit.” When he purchased it in 1983, the upland part of his property extended 50 feet beyond the revetment that's there now, and the beach below it was dozens of yards wide. But the new conditions in the harbor eventually began to eat away at not just the beach but the upland as well.

“There were days when there was 12 feet gone,” Whelan said. “That was absolute panic.”

At first, the owners weren't sure what to do. They turned to the town's conservation commission, which laid out what was allowed, and what wasn't, under the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act. Geology, in the end, determined who could protect their homes with revetments; those situated on coastal banks were allowed so-called “hard” erosion solutions under the law, while those on coastal banks had to rely on “soft” solutions like beach nourishment.

At first, however, the rules were flaunted. Contractors placed rocks along the shore without formal approval. “It was the wild west,” Whelan said.

“The next thing you know the lawyers start to show up, and the engineers, and folks with ideas way out of the mainstream,” recalled Young. The town and property owners ended up in court; owners located on a bank were required to post a $100,000 bond to ensure the rocks would be removed if they could not secure permits, but those on coastal banks, essentially the low-lying area between Andrew Harding's Lane and Holway Street, were ordered to remove the rocks.

By that time it was too late for several homes; waves were pounding against their foundations. The situation had begun to attract not just local but regional and even national news, as the homeowners advocated for their right to protect their property. In late January, the Galanti cottage became the first to slump to the beach. Shortly thereafter, the Wilson and Rolfe cottages were ordered demolished.

Emotions ran high, Whelan said. “When the Galanti house fell in it was just awful,” he said.

Paul Galanti's father built the cottage in 1945; he'd bought the land before World War II but couldn't get the lumber necessary to build until after the war. The family spent every summer there until 1988; while there was concern as swells began to increase in size and power after the break, it was decided that they'd had years of enjoyment and could not fight the inevitable, he said.

“We made some effort, but I think we were pretty much aware of the fact that this was cyclical, the barrier beach disappears and then builds up again,” Galanti said from his home in Indianapolis. “We were pretty resigned to the fate of the cottage. That didn't make it any easier at the time.”

The stretch of beach between Andrew Harding's Lane and Holway Street, which once held half a dozen houses, is now a wide strip of open beach. Much of it was later purchased by the town, with the support of the Old Village Association, and it's now a public beach. The shore to the north and south – where the land is higher coastal bank – is protected by revetments, including the Lighthouse Overlook, which was undermined by erosion in the early 1990s before an old revetment, built during the last bout of erosion in the early 1900s, was reinforced.

The erosion uncovered rocks along the base of the bluff from Water Street to Lighthouse Beach which had essentially been forgotten. Chatham had undergone significant erosion in the late 1800s and early 1900s; new lighthouses had to be built in 1877 as the bluff slowly eroded in front of the set constructed in 1941. The towers toppled in 1879. Since the turn of the century, Chatham had developed considerably, Young pointed out, and many had no idea that the barrier beach that kept the harbor placid and calm was not a permanent feature.

With revetments still being proposed today – a dispute regarding a wall sought by a property owner just north of the fish pier is current being adjudicated by the state – disagreement continues about whether rock walls protect property or simply relocate erosion. Beach elevation has dropped in some locations where owners have failed to follow through on beach nourishment, Young noted. But Whelan said while $6 million worth of real estate fell into the ocean between Andrew Harding's Lane and Holway Street, untold millions more were saved by revetments.

“As far as the revetments, I have no apologies,” he said. “I'm happy we did it.” The state's Wetlands Protection Act, he adds, “actually worked. Without it, you would have lost a lot of the town.”

Barrier Beach Phases

Studies by Giese and others have shown that the barrier beach cycle of breaching and rebuilding runs about 140 years, meaning it is still in its initial stages. The system has yet to stabilize, which must happen before the northern end begins to build south. Before that can happen, North Beach Island, and even South Beach, must migrate west, which could pose navigation problems for the harbor in the future. That eventuality could also expose sections of the inner shoreline to increased wave action and further erosion.

In a 2009 report for the Pleasant Bay Resource Management Alliance, Giese and fellow scientists Stephen Mague and Stacy Rogers looked at the impact of the 2007 inlet on the system, concluding that it remains in the “inlet development stage” primarily shaped by tidal forces. The second, or inlet migration phase, begins when a single inlet dominates south of the beach's tip. It is then said to be “wave dominant” since wave action along the outer shore transports sand to once again build up the tip of the beach.

The report estimates that a stable inlet will be in place in less than 20 years and inlet migration will begin in less than 30 years. “Continued southward migration could position the inlet between Minister's Point and Chatham Light within 50 years,” it states. That would lead to North Beach again moving south and protecting the inner shoreline.

That may be quicker than previous cycles due to two factor that weren't present in the past: Revetments along the inner coast may narrow the tidal channel and lead to more breaches, and sea level rise will likely accelerate the process, according to the report. Giese has continued to monitor tide levels in Meetinghouse Pond in Orleans and at the fish pier. Although high and low tide differential initially increased after the 2007 inlet, data as recent as this past October show that the tidal range is decreasing. In fact, the latest report suggests that a single stable inlet may form sooner than anticipated, in as little as 10 years.

It's important to continue monitoring the system and collecting data, Giese said, to “see if the system is behaving the way we expect it to.”

If historic patterns continue, albeit at a faster pace, the north inlet will become dominant. That process may already be underway based on the shoaling being seen in the original inlet, which has caused navigation problems in recent months.

Whelan sold his Holway Street home two years ago; he's retired now and writes a monthly column about Chatham for The Chronicle. Galanti still gets a tax bill for his family's property on Andrew Harding's Lane, which is under water. The $200 evaluation translates to a bill that's less than the cost of a stamp, he said, so he's glad he can now pay online. The “Nor'easter” quarterboard from the cottage now hangs in his garage and reminds him of Chatham every time he parks his car.

“I'm glad we had the experience,” he said, “and life goes on.”

As a selectman, Dykens said he's concerned about the shoaling in the original inlet and how that could impact the fishing fleet's access to the fish pier. That's a major reason he supported the purchase of the Eldredge Trap Dock in Stage Harbor last year as an alternative commercial offloading facility, he said. It's just one of many ways that breakthrough continues to have an effect on Chatham and its people.

“It was seismic for this town,” Dykens said.

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