Why Is It Called Cow Yard? Name Belies Area's Connection To Chatham History

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Local History

In this historical photo, there's an actual cow in the area around the Cow Yard. JOSEPH A. NICKERSON JR. PHOTO COLLECTION

CHATHAM – Today, Cow Yard Lane is an unpaved town landing that leads to Chatham Harbor, just north of Aunt Lydia's Cove. Beachgoers crowd the narrow landing in the summer, and some folks still use it for launching and hauling boats.

Once, however, this unusually named roadway bordered exactly what its name implies – a pasture. It's also right in the middle of an area that played a key role in the town's history in several different ways.

Cow Yard Lane is off of Old Harbor Road in an area that was just that: the town's old harbor. The town's first major harbor, in fact, which was a hub of commercial and maritime activity in the late 18th and early 19th century. It was then a deep-water port which sported numerous wharves, and the remnants of some of them can still be seen today, especially at the very end of the town landing, where, at low tide, the outline of a pier and what may have been foundation stones is visible.

The Old Harbor area, roughly from Minister's Point south to Tern Island, also hosted a ropewalk, a coffin maker and numerous salt works operations. The meadows that originally surrounded Cow Yard Lane were used for pasture for cattle owned by local residents. The livestock were kept in a corral near the shore and lifted onto ships’ decks on the wharves by block and tackle, according Marcia Monbleau's “Pleasant Bay.”

“Quite a bit of commerce went out of there,” said Steven Nickerson, vice chair of the Chatham Historical Society, who grew up in the area.

The area was also the scene of the only military battle in the town's history. The “Battle of Chatham Harbor” took place in the Old Harbor area during the Revolutionary War, on June 20, 1782. A monument to the incident stands at the Lighthouse Beach overlook, but the battle itself happened two miles north near the Cow Yard.

Barely more than a skirmish, the Battle of Chatham Harbor was nonetheless the town's only recorded military interaction with the British during the Revolutionary War. On the morning of June 20, area residents awoke to see see the British flag flying from the Joseph, a brigantine sheltering in the harbor. Its crew had spent the night ashore, and sometime before morning a crew from a British privateer anchored outside the harbor had seized the brig along with a sloop and a schooner also moored in the harbor.

The local militia under Col. Benjamin Godfrey (of Chase Park grist mill fame) was summoned by an alarm cannon on Watch Hill and marched to the beach. They began firing as the privateers attempted to navigate out of the harbor; the brig ran aground and the British used the smaller boats that had carried them into the harbor the previous night to retreat back to their ship. The locals boarded the Joseph and struck the British flag, replacing it with the Continental colors. Shortly thereafter the privateer and a British brigantine appeared to be making for the harbor entrance; the alarm was sounded again and cannons were brought out; the ships retreated. In his “History of Chatham,” William C. Smith wrote that it was reported that one British privateer was killed and two others wounded in the action, but no local men were hurt. British privateers had harried local fishermen for years, and its possible to see a bit of retribution in this episode.

The monument to the battle was originally dedicated in 1978 and moved to a more prominent spot on the north side of the overlook in 2002.

Another war-related story centers around the area. What is now the Aunt Lydia's Cove basin where commercial fishing boats are moored is just south of the area where Captain Joshua Atkins tied up his brig when he returned from deep-water voyages in the early 1800s. In his long seafaring career, Captain Atkins was captured by the British three times and lost a vessel to pirates off Nantucket. During the War of 1812, he ran a British blockade with the lumber used to build his home, a two-story Federalist building on Old Harbor Lane, just north of the Cow Yard. At the time, the house would have overlooked an Old Harbor crowded with wharves and vessels. Artist Harold Brett, who illustrated many of Joseph Lincoln's books, later bought the house as a summer home.

Old Harbor's fortunes began to decline in the late 1830s when the harbor entrance had migrated so far south that the journey to the Atlantic became long and treacherous and vessels began to dock closer to the entrance, where the Chatham Lighthouse is today. In 1846 a breach in North Beach opposite Minister's Point sealed the area's fate, filling the harbor with sand and setting in motion the breakup of the southern portion of the barrier beach. By that time the town's main harbor had migrated south to the area around the lighthouse (also known as “Scrabbletown”), which, like Old Harbor before it, became a center of maritime and commercial activity until that, too, became so choked with sand and shoals that it could not accommodate coastal shipping. The town's fishing fleet had never really left the Old Harbor area, and began to congregate around what we know today as Aunt Lydia's Cove.

Ram Island was opposite and just north of Cow Yard and once helped shelter the harbor. It was made up of flats and low-lying meadows. Cattle could easily be driven across the flats to graze on the abundant greenery. It eventually became a series of tidal flats. In his comprehensive rundown of the shoreline of Pleasant Bay in “The Bay As I See It,” W. Sears Nickerson mentions the Ram Island Flat, Mussel Beds and Tern Island as protecting the Cow Yard from the “Roaring Bull” of the ocean coming through the migratory outer beach inlet. “They are all that is left of what was once the Cotchpinecote Island of the Indians which furnished such good pasturage for the sheep and rams of the early settlers that they renamed it Ram Island,” Nickerson wrote, adding that Ram Island was shown on a map of the area drawn up by Champlain in 1606. A rock on the island's eastern shore marked the northern limits of the Monomoyick Great Beach, “and probably stood where the lobstermen set their pots on the rocky bottom in the channel just below the Coast Guard Boathouse,” he wrote in 1949. “The Indians knew it as Untemsket, the rock.”

In the 1920s, Tern Island was known as Little Beach and connected to the shore near Chatham Bars Avenue, according to Joshua Atkins Nickerson II's “Days to Remember.” There was “water deep enough for a good harbor at the 'Cow Yard'” to the north, but it could only be reached by going around the north end of Tern Island, which was much larger than it is today.

Cow Yard continued to be used for cattle grazing after commercial shipping left Old Harbor, and the road itself became a formally designated town landing. A conservation easement was placed on the pasture areas to the south of the lane in 1968, ensuring its continuation as open space, although you won't find cows there any longer. Old postcards from early in the 20th century show the shore lined with fishing shanties. People have always kept boats along the shore and still do.