Gone with the Tide (August 8, 2010)
By Christine Legere Globe Correspondent
PLYMOUTH — Time is running out for Manomet Beach. The tide relentlessly presses closer to its 100-foot bluffs each year, washing away sediment and erasing the beach, bit by bit. If the erosion isn’t addressed soon, some locals warn, the 1,000 or so families who own property here could see their precious 3-mile stretch of sand swallowed by the ocean.
But the beach is privately owned, which makes it complicated to implement a strategy for saving it. Town, state, and federal agencies are all strapped for cash and reluctant to help protect property to which the public has limited or uncertain access. And the property owners are divided, since many are summer residents only or rent their cottages out. Some are loath to pour cash into the problem. And others say the solutions currently on the table will do more harm than good.
Homeowner Stefan Pagacik concedes fixing the beach is an ambitious task, but says it’s desperately needed. “The solution is complicated, it’s expensive, but we have to do something and do it fast or the beach will go away,’’ he said. Pagacik, a year-round Manomet Beach resident and member of the neighborhood Churchill’s Landing Association, has been working with neighbors for several years to find answers to the erosion problems.
The bluffs that back the beach have been eroding for at least 100 years, according to Manomet Avenue resident Robert MacGregor. Development of the area only began around the turn of the last century, since it wasn’t easily accessed before the invention of automobiles. In the early 1900s, developers came in with plans for densely populated neighborhoods. Some were built; others weren’t. MacGregor’s cottage was part of one that got built, right on the bluff. “In the early 1900s, our front yard was about 50 feet from the house to the edge of the bluff,’’ he said. “By 1956, the yard was about 12 feet, [where] it remains today.’’ He said the bluffs were losing ground every year until 1956, when the Army Corps of Engineers put in a series of rock groins, or jetties. That, coupled with the addition of stone revetments on the bluffs after the Blizzard of ’78, helped stabilize the cliffs in several areas.
Pagacik said erosion was greatly accelerated by the Blizzard of ’78 and again by a hurricane in 1991. The natural beating from the surf during those events caused the beach to noticeably shrink. The shrinking has continued, and the more the beach shrinks, the harder the bluff is pounded by the surf. The Churchill’s Landing and Indian Bluffs Improvement associations — the two largest in Manomet Beach — hired environmental specialists to evaluate their coastal area a couple years ago. Their conclusion wasn’t surprising, said Pagacik. “There’s a huge ecosystem problem here,’’ he said. “They say if we don’t do anything, in five to seven years we’ll lose the beach, and the bluffs will collapse. Homes will be in danger.’’
Woods Hole scientist Greg Berman has visited Manomet Beach many times. He said the remedy now in place for the bluff is adding to the erosion problem below. The revetments placed on the bluffs by homeowners in the late 1970s have helped stop the sand from sliding down the cliff. But halting that natural process also steals a valuable source of replenishment for the beach below, Berman said. “With less sediment, you don’t have as wide a beach,’’ he said. The bluff is also crumbling in areas that lack revetments, which were allowed only where the houses above would be jeopardized by erosion.
The neighborhood groups say long-term solutions call for bringing in more sand over the next several years to replenish the beach. Work would start where the beach and bluff are most vulnerable. Another remedy includes removing rocks from existing groins that run perpendicular to the beach out to the ocean, so sand could more easily flow southward where the erosion is more severe. More sand on the beach will slow the ocean’s advance toward the bluff, and a long-term beach management plan would keep the beach in balance, the neighborhood groups say. MacGregor said he does not agree fully with the plan, believing it may help the beach but hurt the bluff. “Replenishment, we are all for,’’ he said. “Removal of stones [from the jetties], we are completely against. It will cause major property damage.’’ The surf-breaking jetties protect the bluffs, he said.
If the beach restoration work does move forward, it won’t be cheap. Pagacik said he believes it will take a yearly commitment of $200 for the next seven to 10 years from members of the Churchill’s Landing and Indian Bluff Improvement associations. “It will probably cost more than $1 million,’’ he said. “The challenge is we’ll need 100 percent participation, and only a very small percentage of the property owners are active in the associations.’’ Volunteers are now scouring local records to get names and addresses of all Manomet property owners with beach rights.
For Pagacik, the effort stems from his love of a beach he has enjoyed for more than 40 years. But even those without sentimental ties should willingly offer financial support to this preservation project, he said. “People have to realize that if the beach goes away, the homeowners here will lose their shirts,’’ Pagacik said. “Their property values will go down.’’ Plymouth officials have been sympathetic, but say they can offer little more than advice to the property owners. “With 35 miles of coastline in Plymouth, what we do for one neighborhood would then have to be acceptable for all the others,’’ said Lee Hartmann, director of planning and economic development for the town. “It’s not about one neighborhood. It’s about 35 miles of coastline. That would be an expensive proposition.’’
The town’s conservation planner, Elizabeth Sullivan, said her department will do what it can in terms of issuing work permits and offering advice to help the associations get the job done. “And if they go for grants, we would definitely write letters of support,’’ Sullivan said. “Erosion is a problem for all coastal property owners. It can be frustrating.’’
State environmental authorities have also provided some help. This spring, for example, the Division of Coastal Zone Management offered a workshop showing residents how to measure erosion at the beach. But with little or no money to go around, the state cannot offer more tangible help. Bruce Carlisle, assistant director of the Division of Coastal Zone Management, said coastline erosion is a problem “from the New Hampshire border down to Rhode Island.’’
Some deterioration is the result of severe winter storms. “This winter was really bad,’’ Carlisle said. Other forces are also at work, causing the sea to encroach further on the land, he said. “Notwithstanding climate change, there’s a historical trend of sea level rising,’’ Carlisle said. “On a year-to-year basis, it’s not significant, but we’ve seen it rise a foot since 1921.’’ And thus coastal living has its drawbacks. “We remind folks it’s got a lot of appeal to be able to enjoy the beach from your front yard,’’ said Carlisle. “But it does come with risks.’’
By Rich Harbert MPG Newspapers
Little more than a century ago, the trip to Manomet carried the prospect of hoofing it over the Pine Hills.
When Hosea Bartlett gave folks a ride to town, it cost 50 cents for a round trip and the men sometimes had to help push the wagon up the hill.
Rocky Hill Road eventually provided a coastal alterative, but back when Alice Grennell was a schoolgirl in the 1920s and 30s, the ride to town still wasn't exactly smooth.
"We didn't know which would pass out first, our old driver or our old bus, or if we'd get stuck in the mud," Grennell remembers.
Today, it's just a five-minute jaunt into Manomet, but a trip few take lightly. Though just over the hill or round the bend, Manomet remains a village apart - a community focused first and foremost on its beach traditions.
"The ocean makes it special," longtime resident Frank Collins said. "But it's grown from a community with a few year-round residents to a densely populated village in the last half century."
The name Manomet comes from Indian words meaning "a path" and "he who bears or carries on his shoulders." Some have loosely translated the word to mean "the burdensome path."
The Pilgrims knew the entire region south of town to Sandwich as Manomet and began settling in earnest in the late 1630s. Robert Bartlett, a passenger on the Mayflower, built a house on Brook Road in 1660 that still somewhat stands. An accidental fire badly damaged the historic house only months ago.
Early settlers disliked the trek over the Pine Hills so much they started their own church in Manomet. The Second Church of Plymouth was organized in 1707 and was formally accepted with a following of 25 members four decades later.
The village opened its first reading and writing school in 1716 and got its first permanent school in 1747. The town accepted the village as a precinct in the 1730s.
Manomet's more recent history focuses on its shore. In the 1800s, the village was home to several popular inns. Room and board at the stately Manomet House on Manomet Bluffs ran from $8 to $15 a week in 1885.
A trip into town still took most of the day aboard Hosea Bartlett's stagecoach. Men rode knowing they would usually need to walk alongside the wagon over the steepest stretches of the Pine Hills to relieve the overburdened horses.
The arrival of trolleys in the 1890s helped open Manomet to the masses. The line eventually extended over the Pine Hills to Fresh Pond. Though the trolleys only operated for about three decades, they paved the way for development south along the shoreline.
According to the late Alden Drew, the village was known at the time as the Plymouth Ponds. Drew noted just one home to the south of Fresh Pond, a cabin owned by Sallie and Warren, the last Indians in Manomet. Their son, Henry Melix, lived in the cabin and threatened trouble for anyone who proposed building on land he claimed east to the sea. A man from Lowell started to develop one site but his well was mysteriously ruined one night and "that ended that," Drew noted.
Longtime Manomet resident Put Burns remembers stories about how his grandfather, a man named Read, eventually settled the area with a handful of friends. They rode the trolley to the end of the line and built the first houses in Cedar Bushes. Burns's 93-year-old father still bemoans the incorrect spelling of nearby Reed Avenue.
The turn of the 20th century saw a village that stretched from Beaver Dam Road to Fresh Pond. Grennell, born in 1916 and now just a month shy of her 89th birthday, remembers Brookside Farm, her family homestead, as the center of activity.
Her father, Prentiss Childs, bought the house from Hosea Bartlett and turned it into one of region's largest chicken farms.
Grennell remembers the cold and stormy day in 1928 when the passenger ship Robert E. Lee grounded on the Mary Ann Rocks off Manomet Point.
The weather was so cold her father made Grennell go home. Later that day, four local Coast Guardsmen, including a neighbor named Griswold, drowned trying to rescue stranded passengers on the ship.
A memorial to the four still stands atop the point.
In the 1930s, the Brookside Tea Room occupied the site where Jamie's Pub now sits. The fancy restaurant featured linen napkins and finger bowls and had the telephone number Manomet 1. The owner would call Grennell across the street to wait on tables when guests arrived. If they gave her a good tip, she didn't get any pay.
Susi Gellar grew up in a Manomet tea room as well. Her grandparents, Peter and Florence Gellar, ran such a sit-down restaurant at Manomet Four Corners before her own parents turned it into a snack bar and garage/service station in the 1950s.
Gellars remains a popular meeting place, especially in summer months, when families stop in for ice cream. But in its heyday, the restaurant had an even more relaxed feel. Customers would linger round the stove and pass the day over a game of cribbage.
"I miss the old Manomet, having the time to be able to spend with people and sit around and talk," Gellar said.
Some of the biggest changes have occurred along the shoreline. Some have been man-made. Others are acts of nature.
Grennell owns old photographs that vividly tell the story. Beach erosion has turned lots along Manomet Bluffs to small fractions of their grander selves in less than a century.
An aerial photograph of the Priscilla Beach area, meanwhile, shows only one or two houses in the now densely populated neighborhood. The rocky shoreline to the north is notable for the absence of Manomet's largest employer and taxpayer - the Pilgrim nuclear power plant.
The plant opened in 1972 and forever changed the landscape of Manomet. The plant brought more than environmental concerns. "Overnight it brought lots of people to the area on a year-round basis and is causing a lot of problems now because we're losing its tax revenues," Burns said.
A commercial lobsterman, Burns has summered in Manomet all his life and built his own year-round home on the site of the old Coast Guard station at the end of Manomet Point.
Growing up, he and Collins both raked sea moss from the point as summer jobs. The moss, used as a thickener in foods, sold for little more than a penny a pound when Burns started collecting it at 14. By the time he finished school it sold for 11 cents a pound, wet.
"It was good money for a kid and it gave you a lot of free time," Burns said.
He maintained a side job as water skiing instructor at the posh Mayflower Hotel.
The resort overlooking White Horse Beach attracted a New York clientele and dominated life along the shoreline in 1950s.
"They really catered to wealthy people," Burns said. "They owned all the cottages along Taylor Avenue and had a shore club and annex. The people would all eat at the main hotel and a lot of the women would even have fur coats on and this was in the summer. They even had an amphibious plane that would fly people in. It would run right up on the beach."
The mighty hotel fell on hard times as resorts in the Catskills gained in popularity in the 1960s. The main hotel burned in a spectacular blaze in the 1970s.
Within the last decade, the hotel site has been transformed into luxury condominiums. It is a sign of the ongoing development that has gradually transformed Manomet from its sleepy post-World War II origins.
Collins, who ran the Lobster Pound at Manomet Point for 30 years, was one of the early arrivals.
His grandfather paid $250 for a lot and $2,800 to build a cottage on Abington Avenue in 1948. He recalls a special time in a special place.
"We had quite a group of young people down there, fun-loving and no trouble," Collins said. "It was like an ideal time to be a teenager in the late 1940s and early 50s."
He sent his own children to private school out of town when the population explosion later led to double sessions at local schools.
The family still maintains their roots on Manomet Point, despite the ever-increasing cost of oceanfront living.
Life in Manomet is decidedly different than it was only a few decades ago. But the seemingly endless influx of new residents have also brought stores and businesses that now make it possible to stay south of the Pine Hills indefinitely. "It's different, not better or worse," Burns said. "Everything's changed. No matter where you go, it's changed."