How The National Seashore Saved The Outer Cape From Over Development

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Environment


HARWICH – Hells Angels and thousands of hippies gathered in May 1972 at the Province Lands Visitor Center in the Cape Cod National Seashore for a raucous one-day rock concert.

“It was a mistake,” said Bill Burke of Harwich, the National Seashore’s historian and cultural resource program manager. What was billed as a small concert turned into a melee during the course of which a part of the visitor center’s roof was set on fire.

The interesting tale of that ill-fated concert was one of many that Burke told during a 50-minute PowerPoint presentation last Saturday at the community center. He spoke on the history of the National Seashore as a part of the Harwich Conservation Trust’s Winter Talks series.

While today we may take the 55-year-old National Seashore for granted, it was by no means certain, in the 1950s, that the 43,607-acre park would be carved out from land in six separate Outer Cape towns. (The seashore runs from Chatham to Provincetown. For complex reasons revolving around geography and politics, little of Chatham and Orleans made it into the National Seashore compared to Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro and Provincetown.)

Back in the 1930s, people were able to do what they liked along the remote Atlantic beaches of Cape Cod. That included driving vehicles through the dunes, camping, hunting, fishing and more. Yet after World War II and especially in the 1950s, when you could buy a half-acre lot in Truro for $800, it became clear that the area was ripe for development.

It was anticipated that people would snatch up these lots and build a little cottage,” Burke noted. With 77.3 million baby boomers looking for a place to sunbathe and dip their toes in the ocean, action had to be taken if Cape Cod was not to turn into densely-developed Ocean City, Md., for example.

But “would Cape Codders accept the federal government and rules?” Burke asked. “The old Cape Codders said, ‘You better allow traditional uses to continue or you won’t have a national park out there.’”

A 1959 cartoon illustrated the stark choice: Cape Codders could have a honkytonk place featuring shops peddling items such as “pizzas on the half shell” or a national seashore with pristine beaches.

During a series of 1950s town meetings, Cape Codders said that unless traditional uses were allowed at the park, they would fight it. For that reason, the park was created through compromises that allowed hunting, fishing, berry picking, off-road vehicles and, equally importantly, for over 600 private homes within the seashore’s perimeters to remain in private hands. (These homeowners can still buy and sell their property on the open market and even rebuild small cottages into “trophy houses.” “One of the biggest threats the National Seashore sees is cottages that can be redeveloped into huge properties,” Burke said.)

President John F. Kennedy signed the park into existence in August 1961 and the following year the park staff numbered about 15. Many were real estate specialists who negotiated the over-1,200 separate transactions that created the park from a “mosaic” of state, town and private lands.

In 1962 a small visitors’ center opened at the Orleans rotary. That same year Coast Guard Beach, one of six new public beaches, was developed. A photograph shows lifeguards, wearing pith helmets, lined up in the sand. (One lifeguard would continue on the job for 38 years.)

In 1964 a ceremony was held at the Outermost House, a dune cottage made famous by Henry Beston’s 1928 account of living there. Beston was present that day as was the governor of Massachusetts, Endicott Peabody. Beston died in 1968 and the cottage was destroyed 10 years later during the Blizzard of ’78.

In 1965 the Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham, where Burke has his office, opened.

Nude sunbathers caused problems in the late 1970s at Ballston Beach in Truro. Nudity was eventually banned not because the nudists caused problems, but because those flocking to the beach to gape at the nudists did, Burke said.

Burke himself has a personal relationship to the park. He grew up in Holyoke but spent a week each summer in West Yarmouth around the Fourth of July.

“It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” he reminisced. “The beach was wide, uncrowded. I said, ‘boy, I’ve got to come back someday and live here.’”

In 1993, after working at six previous national parks, Burke landed a full-time job at the National Seashore. He and his wife Stasia have raised three daughters in East Harwich.

Today, five million people visit the National Seashore annually. The park, which Burke calls a “conservation victory,” is staffed by 140 seasonal and 75 year-round staff. “The Outer Cape was saved from overdevelopment,” he says. “You can experience some of that wildness and openness even today.”

The next Winter Talk will be on Saturday, Jan. 21 at 2:30 p.m. when naturalist and author Peter Trull speaks on “Terns of Cape Cod: Birds of Paradox.” A suggested donation is $5 per person. All talks are at the community center at 100 Oak St., in the multi-purpose room. For more information visit