Before it became the Cape Cod National Seashore, the 40 miles of sandy beach along the Outer Cape was known as the Great Beach. It deserved that name as one of the longest expanse of sandy shoreline along the East Coast.
The Great Beach remained pretty much unspoiled until World War II. But after the war, Cape Cod’s population swelled. Real estate development took up vast tracts of land on the peninsula. By the 1950s, Cape Codders feared the Great Beach would turn into Atlantic City.
And so on Aug. 7, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed the law creating the Cape Cod National Seashore. As a longtime summer visitor to Cape Cod, he said he knew the new national park would be “useful.”
Here are seven more fun facts about a place you ought to go to if you haven’t been.
1. The Cape Cod National Seashore isn’t just seashore.
Of the 26,810 acres of land it comprises, only 1,700 acres are beach and tidal flats — or about 6 percent of the whole. That still leaves plenty of beach: Coast Guard Beach, Nauset Light Beach, Marconi Beach, Head of the Meadow Beach, Race Point Beach, Herring Cove Beach, Ballston Beach, Longnook Beach, Cahoon Hollow Beach and White Crest Beach. To name a few.
The seashore also includes 3,375 acres of grassland, 3,765 acres of deciduous forest, 11,500 acres of mixed pine forest, 2,550 acres of wetlands and ponds, 1,875 acres of salt marsh, 1,700 acres of beach and tide flats, 1,150 acres of developed land and 895 acres of heathland. The National Park Service makes special note of the protected heathland because of its rarity.
Heathlands are open spaces covered with low vegetation like heather, gorse, broom and grasses. Cape Cod heathlands have a lot of broom crowberry, something you won’t find much of in the rest of the world. The entire national park provides a home to 25 rare and endangered species, including the spadefoot toad, the piping plover and the common tern (not so common anymore).
2. The Great Beach has inspired several literary classics.
Henry David Thoreau wrote the first one, Cape Cod, in 1865. He had visited the Cape several times and described hiking the Great Beach — now the Cape Cod National Seashore. Critics call it a classic.
Henry Beston wrote another classic in 1925. The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod tells the story of his yearlong sojourn in a seaside cottage in Eastham. He only intended to stay two weeks, but the nature surrounding him kept him there for a year.
More than a few great works, though not about the beach itself, were written seashore-adjacent. Writers such as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Mary Oliver, Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut spent summers or lived in Provincetown.
Other books about the Great Beach include The Great Beach by John Hay, The Salt House: A Summer on the Dunes of Cape Cod by Cynthia Huntington and The Shores of Bohemia:: A Cape Cod Story by John Taylor Williams.
3. The FBI took 50 years to solve a mystery of the dunes.
In 1974, dog walkers discovered a body in the dunes at the Cape Cod National Seashore. Her killer had nearly severed her head and cut off her hands, presumably to prevent identification.
He (or she) succeeded for 50 years. Called The Lady of the Dunes, she was the oldest unidentified homicide victim in Massachusetts when the FBI announced in late 2022 they now knew who she was. Ruth Marie Terry. She was 37 years old and came from Tennessee.
Law enforcement officials used investigative genealogy, which combines DNA analysis with genealogical research. They still haven’t found her killed.
4. It used to be called the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
More than 3,000 ships wrecked off the Outer Cape from Chatham to Provincetown. For a century and a half, ships wrecked on the Outer Cape about every two weeks. People said you could walk from one end of the Outer Cape to the other on the bones of ships that sank.
The Great Beach’s most famous shipwreck was a pirate ship that sank in 1717. Black Sam Bellamy had captured the Whydah Gally, but it sank in a terrific Nor’easter on April 26, 1717 off the coast of Wellfleet. Black Sam Bellamy and all but two of the 142 men on board perished.
In 1984, underwater explorer Barry Clifford rediscovered the Whydah in 14 feet of water and five of sand. He also found its loot and, quite possibly, the bones of Black Sam Bellamy.
5. There was a fight to create the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Two senators from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy and Leverett Saltonstall, introduced the bill to create the national park in 1959. Then the fight was on.
The Great Beach wasn’t like Yosemite or Yellowstone, unclaimed wilderness with few permanent structures. The seashore stretched across private property in six established towns.
Saltonstall put the controversy in a nutshell. “The most important and complicated problem before us is to preserve the scenic and historic features of Cape Cod without injuring and unduly restricting the towns and individual citizens directly concerned,” Saltonstall said.
People who lived in the area proposed for the park didn’t want their homes taken. Real estate developers didn’t want to give up the chance to turn the Great Beach into a honky-tonk mecca. Not everyone liked the idea of setting aside beachfront property for conservation, or banning off-road vehicles. Still others thought the government should clear off all the homes.
The final compromise reached earned the name “Cape Cod model” for other national parks. The National Seashore was the first U.S. park to let private property owners keep their land and dwellings inside the park.
Buildings, lands and homes were purchased by the government or donated by the towns or the property owners. It didn’t make everyone happy, but millions of people every year enjoy their visit to the seashore.
6. Eventually the Cape Cod National Seashore will disappear.
Anyone who owned a property developed before 1959 could keep the house. In some cases, they couldn’t keep it for long. The sea eats away at the Great Beach at the rate of 3.8 feet a year. Houses in Chatham have fallen into the water. The storm of 1978 took off the Coast Guard’s 300-car parking lot, and lighthouses have had to be moved to new sites farther from the shoreline.
The sea doesn’t erode all of the Great Beach, though. It picks up sand in Chatham and Orleans and deposits it in Provincetown. But the Cape loses more than it gains. Geologists say erosion will reduce it to a few islands in 2,000 years.
7. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places 25 times.
The seashore doesn’t just have historic homes, it has entire historic districts. The Nauset Archaeological Site includes artifacts of ancient settlements since at least 4,000 BC. There’s also the Truro Highlands Historic District, made up of Highland Light, Highland House and buildings along Highland Light Road. The Fort Hill Rural Historic District comprises 100 acres of what used to be two farms.
The seashore also has the Marconi Wireless Station Site, which sent the first wireless transatlantic message to Europe in 1903. It has half a dozen lighthouses, a cemetery, a life saving station and a number of historic homes. They aren’t all 18th century Cape houses, either. You can find historic mid-century modern houses within the seashore.
One 18th century Cape house, the John Newcomb House, had a famous visitor in the mid-19th century: Henry David Thoreau. He described the house and its inhabitants in his book Cape Cod. People know it as the Wellfleet Oysterman’s House.
Images: Map By EricM – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26489659. White Crest Beach By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21367219; White Crest Beach Von This image or media was taken or created by Matt H. Wade. To see his entire portfolio, click [email protected] image is protected by copyright! If you would like to use it, please read this first. – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15837066; Old Harbor Lifesaving Station By JCefaly – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21669791. Race Point By Daniel Schwen – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1411213. Heathland by Doug McGrady via Flickr, CC BY 2.0/.
Provincetown dunes By LEONARDO DASILVA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46696548. Race Point Beach at Sunset By Daniel Schwen – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1411219. Highland Light By John Phelan – Own work, , CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23654849. Silver from the Whydah Gally By Theodore Scott – Flickr: Look At That Booty, CC BY 2.0/, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22019309.