Is there a pile of rocks anywhere in this world as beloved as Provincetown’s West End breakwater? Generations of residents and visitors have clambered over it — it stretches more than a mile (6,150 feet) — to arrive at Wood End Lighthouse or the beach beyond it, or to get out onto the flats at low tide and the marsh beyond them, or simply to be there, out on those rocks.
The breakwater is roughly eight feet wide, and its top, at dead low tide, is about 20 feet above the sand. Moving across it is a Zen exercise, like building a rock wall. Each step has to be considered — aiming for a specific landing, avoiding a specific gap. To gaze out as you move is to invite certain peril, which is a pity because the scenery is so compelling. The fallen are many, and the rescue squad is familiar with the area.
The young leap from rock to rock; older folks consider their moves like chess players. I used to be in the first group but have graduated to the second. Each slab of granite is unique, some the size of cars, others like coffee tables or couches, some smaller. They have a hyper-dimensional feel. Some slant up, some down, and some are level. The spaces between rocks can also be treacherous because they are often full of dried grass and other debris blown in from the marsh and will not support you. Some surfaces are littered with shattered clam shells that gulls have dropped; there is also quite a bit of avian manure to negotiate, as well as algae-tinged puddles.
You might think that the breakwater has always been there. But just as there was a time before the Pilgrim Monument towered over the town (1910), there was a time when you could not hop over the breakwater (before 1914).
Why is it there? It is not immediately clear what purpose it serves. By the way, “West End breakwater” is a misnomer: breakwaters do not connect to land; dikes do. We are talking about the Long Point dike — although I don’t know why it is not called the Wood End dike. Most certainly it had to do with protecting the harbor.
Local historian Dan Towler sent me this excerpt from the Advocate, dated Aug. 1, 1912: “Provincetown must improve her natural advantages if she is to win out, and that means but one thing — Harbor Improvement. It now has a rubble stone dike under construction to save its harbor … In building this work, the United States Government recognized the fact that the harbor at Provincetown is well worth saving.” The concern was that a breach of the barrier beach between Wood End and Herring Cove might damage the harbor. Or that the West End flats might gradually migrate into the harbor and fill it.
The builders must have been determined. Imagine the effort and expense in 1910 of blasting granite from somewhere up north, trucking it (probably with horse-drawn wagons) to barges, conveying it here, and somehow dumping it to form a dike.
Fast forward just over 100 years and it is safe to say that the breakwater does not perform a useful function, much as people love it. This newspaper has reported the damage it is doing to the West End marsh by preventing tidal flushing and the healthy deposition of sediment and blocking predatory fish from reaching the exploding population of purple marsh crabs that are destroying the cordgrass that holds the marsh together. According to National Seashore botanist Stephen Smith, without some kind of intervention the marsh is “done.”
The April town meeting will consider funding a study of a possible solution: creating culverts in the dike. There are some concerns about the shellfish grants east of the structure and about “unintended consequences.” We shall see.
But just look at the shift in priorities in just 100 years. Imagine going back to our town leaders in 1912 to warn them of threats to a salt marsh! They were concerned with the town “winning out.” Our concern is to fit in with nature, to have a lighter impact, to coexist.
Will the breakwater still be here in the year 2123, like a modern-day Stonehenge? More important, will the marsh survive? And how will we be judged?