posted July 2006

Cape Cod Compass
p 55 ff

That Was the Island That Was

Billingsgate Island once had some thirty homes, a school and a lighthouse. but, as the Cape itself may do in 8,000 years, it disappeared!

THE WISTFUL OLD MAN, A STRANGER IN TOWN, MUST HAVE been around eighty, when he stopped a fisherman at Wellfleet harbor one day around 1914.

"Could you give me a ride to Billingsgate?" he asked. So the fisherman took the old man to the almost barren  patch of sand, all that remained of a once-prosperous fishing village.

The old man prowled around the island. Finally, triumphantly, confidently, he announced,

"This is where the house stood where I was born!" He picked up a stone to keep for a souvenir. Now not even the patch of sand is left. Twice daily the tide completely submerges Billingsgate, a small island that was at the entrance of Wellfleet Harbor, Cape Cod Bay. At low tide, it's a sandy "period" for the bulky "exclamation point" that is Great Island.

Shifting sands and inundating waters are not confined to Cape Cod's ocean side "back-shore" alone. The bay, the usually dreamy looking bay of tranquil water, can go on a fall or winter tangent, or unlike the unfreezing ocean waters of the Cape, be victim of an ice pack. Most dramatic evidence is, perhaps, in the history of Billingsgate Island. Its destruction was a gradual process until, finally, in 1942, it was completely submerged. Henry Daniels of North Eastham remembered Billingsgate. The sign in front of his house read, "Henry Daniels—born fifty years too soon." Had he been born later, he would not have the memories of the island he had. When he was around fifteen years old, about 1898 or 1899, he built himself a shack on Billingsgate and spent the entire summer there, a Cape Cod Huckleberry Finn, clamming and oystering, and never, all the rest of his life, had he been far from the call of the sea. Not too distant from Billingsgate, in the town of Brewster, Horatio Alger preached when he first started to write his "rags-to-riches" stories. Some years later, "Amos the Finn" of Wellfleet made a "fortune" on Billingsgate!

Mrs. Jot Small of Provincetown lived on the Island year-round when she was a small girl. Imagine, back then, on small Billingsgate Island—no radio, no television, no telephone, electricity, store, church—no street lights, because there were no streets. Not that she missed street lights; there was a light flashing, flashing, all night, every night, and she was the child of the lighthouse keeper.

But Mrs. Small doesn't remember it as a lonesome time. She has only happy memories of three little girls, a mother, and a father, secure on one little island; three little girls who sang and played, knitted and sewed, and had a wonderful time!

Some years later, a little boy climbed up in a deserted lighthouse and spied there a forsaken book. The rest of the family was picnicking on the shore below. Little boys being natural collectors, this one took the book home with him and treasured it all the years of his life. The book is now a collector's, item— an old log book of the lighthouse keepers of Billingsgate.

Snatches here, snatches there—from such memories and meager records come down the history of Billingsgate Island. Already much of its history is obscure.

Scientific-minded geologists and matter-of-fact fishermen seem to agree that originally Billingsgate was not an island at all, but part of land extending across to Dennis, leaving what is now Wellfleet Harbor a fresh water lake. Evidence is in the stumps of good-sized cedar trees that have washed from beneath the water.

The known history of Billingsgate goes back to the Journal of that renowned Pilgrim, William Bradford. The Mayflower sailed into Provincetown Harbor before it ever went to Plymouth, that cold December 1620. From Provincetown, a band of Pilgrims in their shallop explored the lower Cape bay-shore. Bradford described "a tongue of land, being flat, off from the shore, with a sandy point" as the shallop came near what is now called Wellfleet Harbor—definitely the barren reaches of Billingsgate. On a bay-shore nearby, the Pilgrims spotted a group of Indians cutting up a mammoth fish. They were not entranced, although Eastham fields looked fertile, and the waters abounded with fish; they did not choose it for a homesite, but went farther.

But the memory of those Eastham fields and fish-plentiful waters lingered. Pilgrim maiden, Constance Hopkins, married Nicholas Snow, who arrived on the Anne in 1623. Constance and Nicholas, some twenty years later, were among the early settlers of Eastham, where they lived with their twelve or thirteen children. When Nicholas died, he left in his will twenty acres of land on "Billingsgate Island" to his wife, Constance, if she should wish it; if not, to one of his sons. (Snow relations of Nicholas and Constance are still numerous in Massachusetts. Edward Rowe Snow, New England historian, is one.)

After Nicholas Snow's death, the Town of Eastham seems to have acquired Billingsgate, for Simeon Deyo, in his History of Barnstable County, published in 1890, tells how the Town of Eastham needed money for a new charter. It was after King Philip's War, and the guarding of homes had interfered with fishing and farming. How to raise the money was a problem, so they mortgaged the "two islands of Billingsgate" to John Freeman, a gentleman who seemed to have the necessary funds.

However, in the 1750's, a Snow was involved in the affairs of the Island—at least on Billingsgate Point. A group of Harwich Indians stated Sylvanus Snow had forbidden their using the beach at Billingsgate and "that there is not its like so convenient a place for whaling and other fishing within ye county." Also, a Samuel Crook had been forbidden to build or cut thatch for his whale house there.

Apparently the matter went to Court, where Snow traced ownership to a grant from the Plymouth Church, the 1646 Nauset Town Act, and the 1685 Hinckley Confirmatory grant. The decision, ending the dispute, gave the neighboring Indians a right to whale on Billingsgate Point, and to cut thatch for whale houses.

In all of these, "Billingsgate Island" or "Islands," for then Old Point was apparently a small island beside the larger one, was specified, for, until 1763, "Billingsgate," alone without the '"Island," was the name for the north part of Eastham, which at that time, separated from its mother town and became Wellfleet. The similarity between "Billingsgate" and "Billingsgate Island" has resulted in the Island often becoming associated with folklore and fact that should be Wellfleet's own, and it is often hard to distinguish which is which. The bounds set when the towns separated made the Island part Eastham's, part Well-fleet's, not always a happy circumstance for smooth mother-daughter relationships.

For unpretentious Billingsgate Island, apparently around sixty acres of sand and meadow at its maximum, was vitally-important in the economy of lower Cape Cod. The name "Billingsgate" was evidence of that. Sometime in its early history it was named, apparently by the Pilgrims, for there is no evidence of earlier naming, after the famous Billingsgate Fish Market of London, a fish market that has outlived its new world namesake!

Henry David Thoreau, in the chapter "The Wellfleet Oyster-man" from his book Cape Cod, tells of how small gulls were lured by bonfires at night on Billingsgate Island, then killed with a frying pan: One night the fire scared twenty horses pastured on the Island, and trying to swim to land, they were drowned. The story had been told to the oysterman by his father.

In 1822, a lighthouse was built on the "Old Point" part of Billingsgate. A Captain Michael Collins worked long to convince the government of the need of a light. It was a strategic location, at the mouth of important Wellfleet Harbor, where it would even help the Provincetown fleet, be a beacon for Rock Harbor, and Dennis boats.

Apparently, it was around this time that a thriving year-round community of around thirty homes was established on Billingsgate. It was strictly a fishing community where they talked, caught, sold, and doubtless ate fish and shellfish. They were not hand-liners; they caught their fish by gill nets, pounds and weirs. One historian describes the many weirs surrounding the Island. There was at that time fertile meadow land for pasturage and gardens on the Island, and they rowed three miles to Wellfleet, or about the same distance to Eastham for additional supplies. Perhaps too, sailing vessels left them off supplies and took their fish to Boston and New York markets. We know the bars near Billingsgate were a favorite spot for sailing ships to load with sand for ballast.

Fish and shellfish abounded. One record says an average of 35 barrels of clams a day were taken during a two-year period by a crew of fourteen diggers. Some entries from the Lighthouse Log of the 1330's read, "300 blues taken in a pound," "10,000 mackerel taken in one day."

The story goes too, that a Mr. T. Frank Ellis found his trap full of bluefish one morning in the 1890's. Bluefish had become very scarce. He sold his catch of that day for $5000!

In the 1880's, an entry in the lighthouse keeper's Log read, "Eighteen whales shot to-day in the bay." In 1883, the keeper mentioned "hundreds of seals nearby."

In October of 1878, a Captain Mayo left Billingsgate Island for New London with a thousand tautaugs he had been keeping alive in a well until the market improved.

Around the Island too were prolific and choice oyster and quahog beds. Smalley's Bar, recalls Dr. David Belding, Biologist for the State Department of Conservation, Division of Fisheries and Game, in Wellfleet around 1908, had large quantities of very small quahogs, up to one-and-a-half-inches, and very few large quahogs—apparently they would have to wash off and go somewhere else to grow.

Dr. Belding recalls also how, when the lighthouse keeper wanted a lobster for dinner, he'd just go to certain "potholes" a.nd invariably find one.

For the large hauls of fish and shellfish, barrels were important in both island and town. Nova Scotia was the source of supply. So in demand were the barrels that coopers moved to Wellfleet from Nova Scotia to assemble them from parts shipped down from there. These French coopers and their families were the founders of Wellfleet's small French colony, accounting for the many French names in the vicinity today.

These barrels had their own unique importance on Billingsgate—for drinking water! Surprisingly enough, to get good, fresh drinking water on the Island was no problem. Henry Daniels recalled just how they went about it:

"We'd take two barrels and take the bottoms out, and sink them, one on top of the other. They would fill with good fresh water. On a high course tide, salt would get in the well, so we'd have to take up the barrels and sink a new well!"

The Island, at its prime, even boasted a schoolhouse! Part of it was still there when Mr. Daniels was a boy. It was a small building, around 20' x 20', as he recalled. At that time (c. 1898), there were seven or eight other houses beside the lighthouse. .The schoolhouse is said to have closed when the population got down to about six families.

Soon after the lighthouse was built in 1822, it was evident that the Island was washing away, particularly the Old Point part where the lighthouse stood. The light was moved (around 1868), but none too soon, for it was even in danger of falling in when it was taken down. A breakwater was built to protect it at its new location, but the water was relentless. Herman Dill, keeper of the light, wrote in the Log on December 21, 1874 :

"We have had quite a heavy blow and a very high tide, the highest for a number of years. Broke through (the sea) at the north end of the island, filling the middle of the island full, running up to the south corner of the foundation on which stands the lighthouse, carrying away the walk which leads to the wharf. I could stand on the south comer and jump into four feet of water."

The winter of 1876, no open water could be seen from Billingsgate; all was ice. Sixteen schooners were frozen into the harbor. Keeper Dill was icebound on Billingsgate for 60 or 70 days.

On March 26, he wrote, "The very worst storm for the winter was last night." It was his last entry. The following day he was found dead afloat in his dory.

On January 26, 1878, Thomas K. Payne, keeper of the light, stated, ". . . have had a ten days gale. West shore of island washed away very much."

It is of interest that that year he also recorded, ". . . changed from lard oil to kerosene. I like burning kerosene very much."

In 1889, Keeper Ingals reported, after a big storm, the loss of eight feet of the Island on the west shore. The lighthouse became endangered. Finally, the tower was guyed with ropes, while lens and light were removed by the government; but this was some years later.

Henry Daniels went back to Billingsgate around 1917 and spent three years there, guarding oyster beds. The lighthouse had been removed by then, and a beacon put on a tripod. Mr. Daniels became keeper of the beacon, which burned by tank gas. The government paid him $1.00 a year, he recalled, to keep track of the beacon.

The bricks from the lighthouse were sold. One man, buying some, noticed how hard they were, much harder than the local bricks which came from Barnstable. He noticed the mark of a well-known English potter. He wrote the English firm, and they still had all their old records. They answered that they had shipped a vessel load of the bricks to Boston in the 1820's. They were used somewhere in the construction of a lighthouse. George Berrio of Wellfleet recalls a tale his father told him about Billingsgate. He said his father, George's grandfather, Murdock Berrio, the first French cooper to come to Wellfleet from Nova Scotia, transported supplies to Billingsgate by ox team. Once a month, on the low-course tide, water in the "slew," separating Billingsgate from Great Island would be low. It was then that Murdock was known to load his team with coal and supplies for the Islanders and cross the slew. A Paul Bunyan type Indian was credited with digging the slew, making Billingsgate an island.

In 1897, Dr. Maurice Richardson of Boston bought land from Luther B. Smith of Eastham, one lot for $350, one lot for $435 —an exceptionally good price for land at that time. Billingsgate was a strategic location for bird hunting, and Dr. Richardson built a gunning camp with a lookout like a church spire. Many Wellfleet and Eastham residents remember it now, because, in spite of the disappearance of the Island, it was located so that Dr. Richardson had many years' use from it. The Richardson family finally bought a house in Eastham on Nauset Marsh. Dr. Richardson's son, Wyman Richardson, later wrote The House On Nauset Marsh, in which he refers to Billingsgate Island.

Another avocation of the islanders seems to have been baseball. Charles Schuster of Wellfleet recalls how his father-in-law would tell about the Eastham baseball team crossing to play the Billingsgate team at Old Point.

With the washing away of the Island, from being a thriving community Billingsgate was becoming a deserted one. Houses were moved to the mainland. Oyster shacks and hunting camps remained. It was becoming a ghost town, and weird stories circulated about its past and present.

The Island had been cursed by an innocent prisoner convicted to the gallows.

"If I die," he said, "the Island will disappear!"

He died!

"Lumpkin's Light" was a mysterious light sometimes seen by islanders—a strange light that would appear between Billingsgate and the Brewster shore. They said the light came from Lumpkin's Hole, a famous tautog hole of white sand completely encircled with eel grass. A fisherman named Lumpkin disappeared, and his body was found in the hole. After that, the light appeared and was seen until the gas buoy was put at Billingsgate.

Billingsgate did not yet become entirely deserted. It became a favorite spot for all-day picnics and clambakes. Then, in the early 1900's, the Finnish people came to Wellfleet, drawn by the combination of railroad work, cranberrying, and shellfishing. They quickly appropriated the Island, and pleasant Sundays would see the dozen or so Finnish families picnicking and steaming their fresh-dug clams on the Island.

Emil Poikonen was a determined young Finnish man, and unmarried. Like all the Finns, he was a hard worker. He decided to live on Billingsgate, then deserted, year-round. This he did for three or four years, only leaving briefly in the coldest weather. The Finns called him Emilio, but his Wellfleet friends called him "Amos." Amos would go out fishing and shellfishing when no one else dared. Then Amos finally left Billingsgate, returned to Finland with the "fortune" he'd made on Billingsgate, got married, and bought a saw mill, they say, for $20,000.

Amos and the Finnish fishermen had their complications at Billingsgate. Ever since Wellfleet had separated from Eastham in 1763, and divided the prosperous island between them, there had been boundary disputes over the divided island. The fishermen of the respective towns were supposed to keep within their own bounds. The Finns found one way to solve it. They all had homes in Wellfleet, but they hired a house in Eastham. Leaving their families in Wellfleet, all the men lived together in Eastham for six months—long enough to gain legal residence to permit them to obtain licenses for shellfishing there.

In 1960 Wellfleet's Town Hall burnt down. One of the few things rescued was a picture of Billingsgate Island given to the Town of Wellfleet by the Town of Eastham. And symbolical it was, in view of the years of boundary disputes—the one dissension between the two towns over the years. However, residents of the town had, it may now be admitted, found an easier way than renting a house to resolve their boundary difficulties. The bound was a floating buoy. It became a well-traveled one, for as the need arose, the fishermen would move the bound to keep themselves within the law, although this led to disagreements among themselves.

Speculates native Wellfleeter Earl Rich, "I sometimes wonder if the eel grass disappearing made Billingsgate go faster than it would have. The eel grass was especially thick on Billingsgate, and six feet high. Then it disappeared, and never has come back as thick as it used to be around here. The eel grass would form windrows that would hold the water back."

"Billingsgate Shoal" is marked on modern mariner's maps— a circle of sand at low tide—rocks from an old breakwater, sailor's beware—these alone remain of the lost island of Billingsgate.

Geologists claim that in eight thousand or so years Cape Cod, like Billingsgate, will also be submerged!