Harwich Conservation Trust Get Major Red River Estuary Gift

By: William F. Galvin

The map shows the seven acres within the Red River estuary donated to the Harwich Conservation Trust this month and depicts the herring run in the middle of the property allowing for herring passage to Skinequit Pond for spawning.

Seven Acres Donated By The Tuttle Family

HARWICH — Seven acres of wetlands, encompassing a major portion of the herring run in the Red River Marsh, has been donated to the Harwich Conservation Trust. The marsh and former cranberry bog known as the Oak Island Bog had been under the Tuttle family’s stewardship for 132 years.

“The land is comprised of mostly salt marsh with some bordering upland in the Red River Estuary,” Harwich Conservation Trust executive director Michael Lach said. “This particular salt marsh buffers both banks of an active herring run that flows from Skinequit Pond into Red River and then into Nantucket Sound. Red-winged blackbirds call from the woody edges and osprey fly overhead.”

The Oak Island Bog was established in the 1870s by Captain William Tuttle, a sea captain who also served as the captain of the Monomoy Life Saving Station in the 1880s. The parcel remained in the Tuttle family until earlier this month when Doug and Carol Tuttle decided to donate it to the HCT.

Tuttle said he no longer lives in Harwich — though he has family in Chatham — and now resides in York Harbor, Maine, part of the reason why it was time to let the property go, he said.

“I had actually done a good deal of due diligence and concluded that [HCT] would be good stewards for the next chapter of the Oak Island Bog. I figured that the herring run would be consistent with their programs,” Tuttle said.

“I have been working in and around that fish passage and marsh for over 20 years. I’ve often viewed that specific herring run passage as the little engine that could,” Natural Resources Director Heinz Proft said. “The main fish passage of Herring River usually gets the big headlines, but the Skinequit Pond herring run through the Tuttle salt marsh is very important.”

Proft said just last week he put on waders and made sure the passage was clear. As the herring population increases — and there are clear indications it will, he said — this run will receive more and more fish in the years to come.

In the1870s, after the Civil War, Cape Cod’s major industries of fishing and shipbuilding suffered significant losses due to industrial trends beyond New England, according to Tuttle. In economic terms, a passion for cranberries couldn’t have struck at a better time. The Oak Island Bog was one of many working cranberry bogs in Harwich during the late 1880s, when a five-acre cranberry bog could provide a comfortable living for a Cape Cod farmer and family.

Tuttle said it was also common for sea captains to create a second source of income to provide for their retirement. Doug Tuttle’ great-grandfather created the cranberry bog on part of the acreage by controlling the fresh water stream that flows from Skinequit Pond into the Red River estuary.

Tuttle said ownership of the bog was in the form of interests or shares, and Captain Tuttle owned about 25 percent of the venture in 1888. The other 75 percent of the shares were owned by other well-known Cape Cod families, including Eldredges, Crosbys, and Cahoons, many of whom were also sea captains. In the 1950 and 1960s, the Tuttle family consolidated ownership of Oak Island Bog by acquiring the interests of the other owners.

Cranberry cultivation requires a freshwater control system of flumes, dikes and ditches to maximize yield, Lach said. The Oak Island Bog used the Skinequit creek to irrigate and flood the bog for fall harvest. The cranberry vines also needed bees to pollinate flowers, so the highlands were planted with apple trees, high bush blueberries and other flowering bushes that bloomed in sequence in May, June and July.

When the Great Hurricane of 1938 barreled into New England, bringing wind gusts of 188 miles per hour and sustained winds of 121 mph, the tidal surges inundated low-lying areas including the bog, flooding it with salt water and damaging the vines. Bog operations went dormant during World War II and the bog was never worked again. Gradually the area reverted to salt marsh.

Lach said the Oak Island Bog land, which borders Uncle Venie’s Road and South Chatham Road along the back edge of the marsh, provides a great vista looking out to Red River Beach and Nantucket Sound. The trust also owns two 1.3 acre parcels just to the south donated by Barbara and Peter Sidel in 2015. An osprey nest platform was installed there last year.

“Although salt marsh and freshwater wetlands are protected from many forms of development under state and local regulations right now, donating wetland parcels to a local land trust helps to preserve these habitats long-term, in case local and state protections change over time,” Lach said in a press release. “Salt marsh offers a variety of ecosystem services to the community, including storm surge buffering, filtering of stormwater road run-off, and providing the nursery grounds for many species of commercially and recreationally caught fish.”

“The Skinequit Pond run is a very valuable small watershed herring run especially when the more well-known larger runs have lower fish counts. It’s also an active eel run,” said Brad Chase, the chairman of the town’s conservation commission and the Diadromous Fisheries Project leader for the state Division of Marine Fisheries. “That place is near to my heart because I spent countless hours there as a kid exploring.”