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Monomoy.
G.H. Ballou.
1864.
Harper's New Monthly Magazine
28 (165): 305-311

etching of small harbor with shacks, houses, schooner, dunes
Whitewash Village.
AS New Hampshire is noted for its granite and its men, so is Cape Cod for its sea-captains, fish, and pretty girls; which articles find a ready consumption abroad, bringing in fact such high prices in outside markets that there is not always a sufficient supply for a home demand.

The Cape having been of late a subject of much investigation by travelers, the general knowledge of the subject has now somewhat advanced beyond the idea expressed to us by the good lady that "the Cape Codders all went fishing for a living, and that the reason they didn't go about the world more was that they were too poor to pay railroad fare."

Still, with the mass of the world, the geographical knowledge of Cape Cod is that of a thin hook of sand about a hundred miles in length of curve, whose only crop is beach-grass— a description not sufficiently accurate, and in fact altogether too general; but one which we shall not now specially lay ourselves out to controvert. Only we would remark, in passing, that when its citizens—as certain of them have done—make ten thousand dollars or more a year sitting at home, they find a way to have gardens with at least a few potatoes in 'em.

caricature opening shellfish
A Monomoyer.
Monomoy map
M, Monomoy Beach, —a, Chatham Light, —b, Monomoy Light, —c, Whitewash Village and Monomoy Point, —e, break in beach, —f, shoals and light ships

But never mind the statistics; see Patent Office Reports and that entertaining volume, the Census of 18—, for all that sort of thing. We will acknowledge that were a stranger to be suddenly, and without warning, dropped upon certain portions of the region aforesaid, he might well be satisfied that he had realized the traditionary description to its utmost extent. Sahara itself could scarce be more desolate and forbidding than the sand-hills which line the seaward extent of Provincetown, or the barrens which the wayfarer meets in some other portions of the Cape. We well remember how blankly we stared when, many years ago, on a bitter December morning, after a wave-tossed, sea-sick night, we staggered up the cabin steps of the little packet and fish-dingy Success, on its return trip from Boston to Provincetown. A raw lad, it was our first experience on salt-water; and as we gazed across the ruffled waves toward Race Point, and saw naught but a huge assemblage of sand heaps from whence the cold sunlight was pitilessly reflected, our curiosity was quenched in disgust, and we hastily tumbled down into the "bunk" for consolation. But with what alchemy have social memories of the old village beyond long since turned those barren sands to sands of gold!

But we are not going to make an essay on Cape Cod. Hath it not been lectured upon? Furthermore, did not Thoreau years ago dilate upon a bit of it in Putnam's in sundry queer, nice papers, sprinkled with Greek ejaculations- "poluphloisbos thalasses," and the like? Also, in Harper's, with ready pen and pencil, did not Porte Cr—? Wherefore we will not unfold our exceeding abundant knowledge thereof unto the still ignorant and benighted world.

We but wish to found on these introductory paragraphs the following triangulation of productiveness, viz.: As the Connecticut Valley is to Cape Cod, so is Cape Cod to Monomoy. The Connecticut Valley is fertile; Cape Cod not particularly so; Monomoy— Well, its most luxuriant portions produce beach-grass, and doubtless even the less favored portions of its soil might be made to yield the same if they could but be tied down in one position for a day or two at a time—a rest which wind and wave have for centuries unknown refused.

But what is Monomoy, and where? From the southeasternmost bend of Cape Cod there extends, in a southerly and southwesterly direction, about ten miles into Vineyard Sound, a strip of sand averaging little more than a quarter of a mile in width—in shape a miniature Cape Cod reduced to its first principles of barrenness, with the extreme curve of the hook pointing westward. The whole is in fact an island, there being a northern prolongation of the shaft of the hook in what is called Nauset Beach, running parallel with the eastern main shore of Chatham for about half a dozen miles, and extending nearly up to the limits of Eastham. It was not far, we believe, from this northern extremity of Nauset that Thoreau made his characteristic exploration of the outer beach.

Nauset and Monomoy are in boundary distinguished from each other by the connecting interposition of a sand flat near a mile in length, over which the sea flows at highest tides. At this place, a half century ago, was the entrance to the harbor of Chatham. Afterward the shifting sands closed up, and fishing-craft and coaster had to stretch away for miles to the southward, and round the extreme point of Monomoy. But some dozen years ago, on a winter's night, came a driving easterly storm, and in the morning the dwellers on the main looked out toward Nauset, and lo! a new harbor and a new entrance. For there, where the evening previous had stretched the beach a quarter of a mile in width with its usual central and longitudinal spine of grassy uprising, now poured straight through the rushing and foaming tide. The apparently indestructible barrier had been broken at a blow, and thousands of tons of sand had been swept swiftly along shore to make elsewhere still another series of obstructions. So wind and wave unceasingly ravage the long beaches, cutting away here, adding there, again to re-demolish, as though the spirit of the waters had chosen the region for his especial plaything.

caricature of old woman in old-fashioned dress with wind blowing
The Light-House.

"Eighty years ago," said a Monomoy Pointer, "we had no light-house here. But in a shanty up there on Sims's Knoll (it's gone now and the sea's more'n a quarter 'f a mile inside), there lived an old couple who used to answer the purpose pretty well. One or the other would come out on the risin' above the water whenever any vessel was passing by into the Sound, and would pint out the course and the marks. Channel ran pretty close inshore for schooners, and so on, and so mostways 'twan't hard to hear."

Primitive was the pilotage, and primitive the settlement of fees. "You'm pay old Betty at Holmes Hole!" And as the schooner glided on "Two shillin' !" in accents shrill and thin closed the interview. Every voyager of the Sound knew "Old Betty," purveyor of eatables at the Hole, and the "Two shillin'" was in due time faithfully accounted for.

Near the southern extremity of Monomoy, and around the light-house, are two or three cottages, and still a mile beyond stands "Whitewash Village," composed of the Monomoy House (a weatherbeaten, barracky, amphibious structure, fishermen and coasters' fitting-store on the first floor, lodging-house and excursionists' inn on the second), besides the fitting-out store of — & Co.,and a motley array of storage and packing sheds perfumed with fish-oil.

"Whitewash Village" takes its name from the tradition that, on its prominent edifices, there was, in some former era, bestowed a coating of that economical pigment, remains of which can even now be detected by a careful observation of these outer walls. But just hereabout the strip of sand, a few rods in width, curves in to the westward. One mile more, and we shall attain the utmost limit of this waif upon the waters. But look ye! the tide is rising, and ere we reach the vanishing point of the beach we are stopped by a cross-cut through which the sea flows rapidly. It does not matter; we can look to the farther point, a little way from hence. Here, where we stand, five years ago stood a fitting establishment and its accompanying sheds. It had received from Neptune warning to quit the situation, but lingered still, when one night a big, awkward billow bunted over one of the buildings. Whereupon the remainder of the concern quickly removed itself to its present station in "Whitewash Village."

We designated the Monomoy House as "amphibious." The term was not applied unadvisedly. At certain rarely occurring winter tides the sea comes part way up the front stairs, and the inmates go a visiting in boats. At lesser and frequent floods the boys wade to school and carry the girls, provided the gondola be not handy. In fact, the little territory dotted by Monomoy village is a battle-ground between sand on the one side, and wind and water on the other. At flood the sea rushes up in long, tortuous creeks, and almost touches the light-house fence on the eastern shore; and the dwellers in the cottages thereby might well look to their anchor-tackle, when going to bed of a stormy night, and make all fast, lest they should find themselves adrift in the morning. Every body "talks ship" at Monomoy. Once on a time Bill, the Captain's bright-eyed lad, was caught in some boyish peccadillo which aroused the maternal wrath, and the portly dame seized the nearest domestic implement to inflict condign punishment; to escape which, Bill started down the beach at his swiftest pace, running with the wind. Though guiltless of crinoline, the maternal skirts were necessarily of the amplest, and with such a spanking breeze astern to aid her, she was rapidly overhauling the chase. Big Hugh, who had watched the chase with eager interest, sung out, "Luff, Bill, luff! take her on the wind!" Bill comprehended the situation, turned sharp round to windward, while the good dame shot past him like a man-of-war with all sails set, and long before she could check her speed he was sailing close in the wind's eye, upon a tack on which his trim craft had all the advantage. This nautical expedient saved Master Bill's shoulders that time.

"Take her on the wind, Bill!"
"Take her on the wind, Bill!"

Into this place, thus seemingly ready to go to sea at six hours' notice, came Pedagogus to induct the delights of literature into the minds of the hardy young Monomoians. One would have deemed these sands a mighty uncertain bed wherein to sow the seeds of learning. But Pedagogus thought otherwise. Furthermore, his complexion was sicklied o'er with pallid thought, and he came to the scene as to sand-bath and water-cure combined, well pleased to don patched trowsers and monkey-jacket.

"I and my trunk got here," said he, "one December afternoon. There was a boat going to take me at Stage Harbor, on the main, but it disappointed me. And as I couldn't afford to charter a vessel, I began to consider about getting set across to the beach and walking the ten miles of sand with the trunk on my shoulder. I was beginning to feel unpleasant, when I met a man who told me that a certain schooner just off in the stream was just about starting, and might perhaps be going to the 'P'int.' And I got a boy to row me out and found that the schooner was going to Norfolk, and would touch at the Point if wind and tide would allow; and after some dubitation, and just escaping getting swamped alongside, with my baggage, I tumbled aboard, not knowing what else to do, and not really understanding if I might not have reached Monomoy by way of Virginia and New York."

"But how do you get on with the boys ?" glancing at the schoolmaster, who certainly didn't look adapted to feats of pugilism. "Rather tough customers they are, eh ?"

"Not very," was the answer. "None of 'em over six feet, except Big Hugh, and he's tolerable good-natured. Not many of 'em can lick me—perhaps not."

And he looked pensively toward the horizon, as if contemplating the possible dangers of the future.

The Wreck.
The Wreck.

And indeed the young gentlemen were quite orderly; and were duly amenable except on particular occasions, as, for instance, on news of "wreck ashore," when they were apt to leave pretty suddenly, forgetting even to say "By'r leave." But it was well understood that this was a trivial irregularity. And Big Hugh had his seat close by the eastern corner window, where he could look up from his slate every fifteen minutes to scan the ocean horizon; and it was his especial mission to look out for wrecks in behalf of the school. And not unfrequently did his watching get a glorious nibble, when some passing craft hitched upon the outlying shoals; for very well earned was the ancient French name of Cape Malabar—the "Cape of Evil Bars"—and full many a craft, fresh from the stocks or battered with ocean-storms, has thereabout laid its hones to rest. Light-houses, and light-boats, and careful pilots, have robbed the channels of much of their ancient danger; but, scarce a season excepted, the uncertain sands still gather in a rich crop. Some venturous schooner trusts too boldly to its chart, and, in broad daylight, with the tide at full, finds itself hard and fast in a fraction of a fathom where it had counted on two. Or some gay, gallant bark, standing in from distant port, at night, mistakes Monomoy Light for Nantucket, and with all sail set plumps up on the outhooking beach. And when sounds the warning cry, "Wreck, oh !" what a scampering there is among the Pointers! The longest legs and the longest wind are then taxed to their utmost, and the runner stayeth not to look behind him. If fates are propitious, out comes cotton and flour, and topmasts and yards are sent down, and running-rigging is straying on the breeze, and the stout ship is speedily stripped.

Family Wood-pile.
Family Wood-pile.

Then comes some heavy steam-tug around from Boston, and hitches to the cast-away a quarter of a mile or more of huge hawser, and puffs, and strains, and snorts, from sunrise to sunset, till maybe the beached ship is lifted and hauled bodily out of the deep hollow which its rolling struggle had churned in the sands. Or, on the contrary, it maybe that a storm sets in, and the surge rises, and of the trim craft which at night touched shore in all its pride, at morn not a timber is to be seen. The winter fires of Monomoy burn with strange hues from black wreck-wood seasoned in many climes, and the family wood-pile takes its sole supply from frames hound with snug jointings, bolts, spikes, and tree-nails, and torn apart by crow-bar and levers of curious design, and beetle and wedge, and pick and axe.
 Many a pleasant eve had Pedagogus spent on the long bench which ran behind the rusty stove in the at once sitting-room, dining-room, and kitchen of the Monomoy or Monamoit House (for the latter is the orthography of the battered old sign-board, and the more accurate), listening, while he toasted his thin legs, to many a tale of adventure in seas of the Old World, or in Pacific whale-ships, or amidst the semi-piratical resorts of the Gulf or the Spanish Main, the wreck fire meanwhile sputtering blue or yellow, or flaming up spitefully, as though infested with troublous ghosts of Malay, Portugee, or Buccaneer. Meanwhile the unctuous sea-fowl gave odorous smoke beside the fuming tea-pot on the supper-table, and there was genial comfort within, though the blinding storm howled against the window-panes, and cased them thick with snow. And then to bed, to sleep soundly while window-casings rattled, and the latchless door banged throughout the night: Pedagogus averred that was comfort indeed.

a dozen men gathered around the wood-stove, listening, talking, smoking
At the Monomoit House.

"Nobody to spoil your prospect," he would exclaim. "Plenty of sea-room and sea-air day and night, and no neighbor sticking his pig-sty under your bedroom window, that he might squeeze out a bit of garden by its side."

But sometimes the tempest would come at inconvenient hours; and when Pedagogus, having waded through ice-cold brine, surmounted the beach-rising on his way to his "academy," and leaned over against a storm of ocean sleet driving furious and level, trying ever and anon to get an observation from under the lee of his doubled-down "sou'wester," the flying ice particles and sharp sand stinging his nose, while his very buttons threatened to blow away—then Pedagogus was tempted to think that even pure air might be had in excess.

figure walking in storm
the Pedagogue.


This was a trifle. But many a "hard old time" have the poor sailors seen in the winter waters of the South Channel and Vineyard Sound; and often, after days and nights of toil, has the wind-baffled, exhausted, and frost-bitten mariner thanked his stars and the relief-crew from the beach that have given him chance to warm his life-blood behind the stove of "mine landlord" the "Captain," of Monamoit House fame. Oh, what a change was there from the reefing, and the pumping, and the making sail on slippery yards—bones aching, eyelids glued for want of sleep, and fingers without feeling as they banged into pliability the hard-frozen cotton duck! Ugh! said Pedagogus—not "A life on the ocean wave for me," as he saw one reckless tar tumble thus ashore, just from New Orleans, with a thin jacket on his back!

They will tell you how, in the memorable winter of 185-, the shores of Cape Cod were barricaded, miles out to sea, with ice; Vineyard Sound was frozen from Monomoy to Nantucket headland. Bark Chester, from Philadelphia for Boston, caught among the ice, was soon firmly bound. The mate (in charge) ill, his little crew worn out and nearly out of provision—every thing wet and discomfortable—left the vessel and made their way toward Nantucket, some of them in their exhaustion crawling a part of the distance on their hands and knees. Near shore they met a gang, who, on information, hastened aboard the abandoned bark. After a day's stay these also, at approach of night, left the now leaky ship, thinking her firmly secured, and intending to return in the morning better prepared for a stay of uncertain duration. In the night a tempest arose, the vast frozen sheets were broken up and set adrift, and bark Chester, starting from her moorings, took her course before the wind, up Sound, without captain or crew. Two or three days passed, the weather moderated, and the bark's regular master and part-owner came down at evening from the main to organize an expedition in quest of her. Morning came again with a dense fog, which, presently lifting, lo! there lay the saucy Chester resting her keel lightly on a shoal right abreast, and gently nodding her mast-head to the astonished gazers. The upshot was that, with much pumping and plenty of hot coffee, she was by-and-by got round to Boston, her little pleasure-trip costing her owners eight thousand dollars, salvage and sundries.

Yes, that was a memorable winter, and abundant was the crop of wrecks and the wreckers (it made Pedagogus laugh to hear the Monomoy man tell of the frightened Nova Scotia man, who, on a boat's crew coming off to him through mistaking his signal, caught up his axe and threatened to cut down the first one who attempted to board !—pirates, you see !)—the wreckers did a thriving business. But it was an ill sight when, during the long gale, the sea and ice rolling in thunder on the beach, which quivered as though it would verily melt away, the beach men, who could handle boat wherever living man might venture, without power to help, for three days and nights looked out toward the scattered brigs and schooners heaved high on monstrous waves or sinking in their watery vales, after the long struggle dismasted, foundering, or driving out to sea.

Nevertheless, on these low sand-bars loss of life is extremely rare, and their records will scarce parallel the dreadful shipwrecks which formerly so often occurred, thirty or forty miles north, at the "Clay Pounds" bluffs, or, still further on, at Race Point.

But the golden age of Monomoy has passed away. Light-houses and light-boats, and careful charts and longshore pilots multiply, and harvest of hulk and cargo is not as it used to be. And the sand is sweeping about the entrance to the little harbor; and its habitants, mindful of the encroaching wave, have begun to forsake the beach for the main, taking with them even roof-tree and hearth-stone. And the "Captain" no more shells the native clam for the big pot upon the stove, behind which no longer Pedagogus sits; and Big Hugh and the "Captain's" bright-eyed stripling march side by side in the noble Army of the Potomac; and the good landlady is dead. And there is a shadow of sadness on the glory of Monomoy.

Let us then leave it in fancy, as we left it one pleasant eve, its hulking fish-stores and overtopping masts sinking in the sunset sky as our boat sped onward, while before us funnily loomed in view above the low horizon the clammers on "Common Flats," rising shadowy against the light, giant water-sprites all run to legs treading the level flood, the denizens of whose oozy depths amply repaid their labor. Monomoy, farewell!

many people on the flats at sunset
Clamming at Monomoy.




Monomoy. G.H. Ballou. 1864. Harper's New Monthly Magazine 28 (165): 305-311
This was worked up from the file at Cornell's Making of America series.

Gidding Hyde Ballou, 1820-1886, was a member of a prominent literary and Universalist family, best known (if at all) as a fairly talented itinerant portrait painter in the 1840s - 1860s. This story reflects his employment as the school teacher on Monomoy, teaching a "fishermen's school" of mostly young men who were older than typical because they were so often away at sea.