John Whelan: A Resilient Shanty

The shanty just south of Lighthouse Beach. JENNIFER STELLO PHOTO

“It’s only a shanty

In old shanty town

The roof is so slanty it touches the ground

That tumbled down shack by an old railroad track

Like a millionaire’s mansion it’s calling me back.”


Ted Lewis and his band performed the song in 1932 in the movie “The Crooner.” It was a huge hit and became the number one song in the country and stayed there for 10 weeks. Many artists have recorded this great song through the years. My favorite version is by the legendary Ink Spots with Essex Scott singing the lead. For those of you who are interested, the Ink Spots rendition can be found on YouTube.

Well, there is no “old railroad track” but there certainly is a wonderful shanty on the beach south of the Chatham Lighthouse. We have had a winter of incredible storms with huge winds and snow and rain. Trees have fallen and electric service has been lost all over town multiple times. Flooding is becoming all too regular an occurrence. The shanty is completely exposed to the elements and, one would think, it was battered in the storms. Survival was definitely in question. As you can well see in the fantastic Jen Stello photograph below, the shanty survived quite nicely. The photo with the Atlantic so close in the background gives the shanty an almost mystical presence.

The shanty was built by many with materials found on the beach. With each visit, one notices something that went unnoticed before. And yet, the style and the grace of the shanty is comforting. I find the survival of the shanty both amazing and inspiring.

I have started to think of the shanty as representative of the town of Chatham. I can remember years ago when I was serving in the Army at Fort Sill, Okla. and talking with a fellow soldier named Sam Crowell about living in Chatham. He was from rural Kansas and we got out a map of the United States to compare where we each lived. His small home town was barely on the map at all and was actually quite close to the geographic center of the country. I remember my amazement when he said they had a small oil rig cranking 24 hours a day. It was right in his backyard. Not a big money maker, but one that provided enough rental income to keep food on the Crowell family table. When we got around to where I lived, it was my buddy’s turn to be surprised. I pointed out Chatham with its elbow sticking straight out into the Atlantic Ocean. I said the next stop east was Portugal. He was pretty sure I was kidding, until I showed him a globe that was in our unit’s dayroom. Then he asked if it was frightening to live there with storms from the ocean and the possibility of a tidal wave. I said I had never considered a tidal wave. I don’t ever remember talking even once with a Chatham resident about a tidal wave. Maybe some readers now have considered the possibility, but it has never entered my mind.

But I did admit that the nor’easters were a challenge and that significant damage from a hurricane was always a threat. Sam commented that living in Chatham took a special breed of courageous people. Of course, since I never felt that way and being young, I dismissed his comment completely.

We stayed in touch and Sam visited me in Chatham in 1989 just after the break on North Beach. The Galanti house had just surrendered to the Atlantic and the Rolfe house was on its last legs. The Wilson house was up on blocks and moved away from the water. The original nine shore-front homeowners were fighting with the conservation commission for the right to protect their homes. Sam reminded me of his question back at Fort Sill 30-plus years earlier about whether or not it was frightening to live so close to the ocean in Chatham. I said, in retrospect, I had to admit it was.

The fight of the homeowners ended in a pyrrhic victory. In time, the homeowners who lived on a coastal bank were allowed to build a revetment to protect their homes. Those who lived on a coastal dune could not get a permit for a revetment. Overall, nine homes were lost in addition to half of a 10th house. My house and the two to the north built revetments and stand today. The delay and the expense was so great that two houses with a clear path to a permit were simply given up. It is quite a story and all so long ago, but a good description of the entire saga can be found in “Breakthrough” by Chronicle editor Tim Wood.

But let’s get back to the shanty and Chatham. Storms have battered Chatham’s eastern shore and erosion has diminished its beaches facing Nantucket Sound. Sea level rise is real and it is fast becoming a threat to many of Chatham’s roads and low-lying houses. A lesser people would have packed up and moved to Kansas, but Chatham is full of folks willing to battle on.

I invited Sam back about four years ago, but he had developed health issues and now has died. I was planning to show him how resilient the people of Chatham have been in dealing with Mother Nature. I do think it is resiliency that pulled us through. Today, my symbol of true resiliency is that that “little old shanty.” It may not survive a great deal longer. I encourage you to walk down and take a look while you can.