Chatham's Monomoy Islands
History and Geography
Just south of Chatham lie the two small islands called North and South Monomoy. Here, on edge of the vast Atlantic, storms, high winds, tide, and surf endlessly change the islands' shoreline and terrain.
Chatham's Monomoys have evolved from a series of small sand-spit barrier islands in the 1800s to an arm of land connected to the mainland early in the 20th century. Midway through the 20th century, a spring storm tore the sand spit from the mainland, creating a single island separated from Morris Island and Chatham.
Twenty years later, the island split in two during a turbulent blizzard. Left in its wake was the present-day 2.5-mile stretch of North Monomoy and the 5-milelong arm of South Monomoy.
The entire barrier island formation rests on a bed of glacial material that was left in the wake of glaciers that retreated an estimated 18,000 years ago. Depending on the episodic patterns of erosion and accretion of sand, the Monomoys change slightly in size.
While the Chatham's Monomoys' character is shaped and reshaped by the sea, it is also linked with the human history of the New England seacoast. Native people are believed to have inhabited the peninsula 6,000 to 8,000 years ago.
Recorded history of the island began in the 16th century, when French and English explorers began mapping the New England coast. Despite its remoteness Monomoy was home to its own community as early as 1710. A tavern for sailors was opened up in the location of today's Hospital Pond, known then as Wreck Cove.
Chatham's Monomoy Islands From SpaceImage thanks to nasa.gov.
During the early 1800's a deep natural harbor at Monomoy's inner shore, known as the Powder Hole, attracted a sizeable fishing settlement. In its prime Whitewash Village housed about 200 residents, a tavern inn called Monomoit House, and Public School #13, which at one time boasted 16 students.
Twenty to thirty beach shanties stood under the watchful eye of the Coast Guard Station on what is now South Monomoy. Cod and mackerel brought into the Monomoy port were dried and packed for markets in Boston and New York. Lobsters, which were plentiful, provided both food and income -- sold to mainlanders at about two cents apiece.
In 1823, the federal government commissioned a Cape Cod style Lighthouse with an iron lantern room and wooden tower extending above the roof of a brick Keeper's house on four acres of land at Sandy Point (currently called Monomoy Point) on the island's southern beach. The 40-foot, cast-iron tower lined in brick was lighted five years later.
For many years, Monomoy Point Light marked the precarious shifting sandbars and shoals caused by strong tidal currents at the end of Monomoy peninsula and guided sailors through the volatile seas off the Cape Cod coast. Before the Cape Cod Canal was finished in 1914, Monomoy was on the most convenient route for ships to reach southern New England.
The light prevented sailors from getting stuck in the island's shallows and sandbanks. More importantly, it saved many seafarers navigating through the rough currents known as "Pollock Rip." The most well known shipwreck was William K. Vanderbilt's 285-feet long Luxury Yacht, the Alva, named for his wife.
On the southernmost point of South Monomoy is Point Rip which boasts the largest rips on the east coast where the Atlantic Ocean meets Nantucket Sound. On July 24, 1892, the Alva encountered a dense fog off Monomoy Point and her captain anchored her in the Pollock Rip Channel, about 4.1-miles east of Monomoy Point Lighthouse waiting for the fog to clear.
At 8:20 am, the 300-feet long freight steamer, H.F. Dimock, crashed into the yacht and wrecked it. No lives were lost as the crew of the Dimock rescued everyone on the yacht . Within a year, the wreck was declared a menace to navigation and destroyed. After 1923, the more powerful lights at Chatham and Nantucket provided guidance for ships, and Monomoy ceased to be used as a lighthouse.
About 1850, the fishing industry at Whitewash Village reached its peak. After that, the fishing village declined as sediments shoaled in the deep harbor which was abandoned when shifting sands transformed the harbor into a shallow brackish pond. The village was abandoned after its harbor was washed away by a hurricane around 1860.
In this apparently unstable world, a remarkable array of lasting habitats and niches evolved, making the Monomoys a unique study in beach, dune, marsh, and grassland ecology. Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) was established in 1944 to provide a sanctuary that supports an amazing diversity of wildlife and plant species and to provide a habitat for migrating birds.
In addition to the two islands, a 40-acre unit on Morris Island is also part of the refuge. This is where the headquarters and visitor center are located. The total size of the refuge is 7,604 acres with varied habitats of oceans, salt and freshwater marshes, dunes, and freshwater ponds.
In 1958, severe winter storms finally separated Monomoy Point from the mainland. Since a storm in 1958 the Monomoys have been accessible only by boat. Monomoy's civilian population greatly declined in 1961 after the island's port was blocked off by a storm. While no permanent inhabitation had occurred, there were still a number of old fishing camps on the island. Most of these buildings were razed in the 1970s after most of the refuge was designated a National Wilderness Area by Congress in 1970.
The blizzard of February 1978 eroded the island dramatically, resulting in what is now known as North and South Monomoy Islands. Recently, gradual weather conditions have reconnected South Monomoy Island back to the mainland but that connection is long and circuitous and the best way to reach the Monomoys remains by boat.
The structures at Monomoy Light were restored in 1988, and today the lighthouse and keeper's quarters - which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places - serve as a center for natural and cultural history tours and educational program. It is possible to to spend the night in the light keeper's house with permission from the Friends of Monomoy who schedule occasional weekend overnight stays from Memorial Day to late September.
In October 2009, $1.5 million in federal stimulus funding was allocated for further restoration work on the lighthouse; work should begin in 2010. Monomoy has no human residents, no electricity, no paved roads-- Today the only reminder of Monomoy's habitation is the Monomoy Point Light.