Sheltering more than 20 miles of eastern coastline of the State of Massachusetts, as well as the 604 square miles of the intervening Cape Cod Bay, is the expanse of the Cape Cod National Seashore (CCNS). This vast national park was created by President John F. Kennedy on August 7, 1961, and encompasses 43,500 acres (upwards of 2/3rds of the total land area) of the extended peninsular arm of Cape Cod.
It was in the year of 1620 that the very northerly bayside tip of Cape Cod, near present-day Provincetown, became the North American landing site of the Pilgrims. This fact is marked by the Pilgrims Monument, a narrow gray stone tower that rises high above Provincetown and its quaint and colorful harbor. After experiencing the vagaries of weather on the Cape, those early settlers wisely ventured westward across Cape Cod Bay to Plymouth, to establish their first significant settlement on the more temperate and resource-laden mainland.
At the time of the Pilgrims’ arrival, the majority of Cape Cod lay under a dense woody cover. Yet today CCNS — and the additional abutting land areas of the cities of Provincetown, North Truro, Truro, Wellfleet, South Wellfleet, North Eastham and Eastham — embody an Atlantic coastal pine barrens ecosystem, with rippled bands of sand dunes, punctuated by ponds, marshes, stands of scrub oak, and patches of pine woods. Credit almost three centuries of human habitation with denuding much of Cape Cod.
The first settlers arriving on the Cape were fishermen, whalers, farmers, tradesmen and their families. Trees were felled to provide the prototypical Cape Cod cottage — a simple shingle-sided ‘saltbox’ home of wood frame and roof and floors, with steep gable roof, large central fireplace and chimney, and a modest sprinkling of 4-over-4 shuttered windows. Of course, fishermen and whalers needed boats, so still more trees were felled to create the varied vessels of their fleets. Meanwhile, farmers cleared wooded patches to create more ample fields for their crops. And tradesmen found uses for any remaining trees, whether for fuel or to craft implements or barrels or wagons or furniture.
Near the point where the Cape joins the Massachusetts mainland, in a small town called Sandwich, the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company was founded in 1826. Deming Jarves had begun making glass there the previous year. Crucial to the operation of Mr. Jarves’ glassworks were the high-temperature fires maintained within his glass ovens. And crucial to those fires was a steady supply of cordwood from the trees of the surrounding landscape. Though the glass company continually planted and tended trees, it still drew heavily upon the neighboring woods as well. Inexorably, an increasing percentage of the Cape was made treeless.
The denuding of much of the Cape became a significant impetus to the formation of the CCNS. Prior to 1961, the extreme northern Atlantic weather had rolled the sand dunes of the Cape shoreline ever farther westward onto and over the Cape’s landmass. Entire stretches of the Cape were converted to nothing but ever-shifting sand. Each season’s storms would puncture and alter the shoreline, creating breaches and backwaters, ponds and marshes.
A primary goal of the National Park Service at CCNS is the preservation of this ecologically fragile land. Within CCNS, there are strict regulations governing the use of, contact with, and traffic over the dunes and marshes and ponds of the Cape. As a result of the past 50 years of stewardship, natural plantscaping is returning to the ribboned dunes of the Cape, and annual fluctuations of the shoreline are diminishing. Many Americans and foreign visitors can now enjoy the wonders of this unique environment, knowing that its particular beauty will be available to generations to come.