The History of Dead Neck Island

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When talking about the history of Dead Neck Island, it is almost impossible to mention it without also mentioning Grand Island, Oyster Harbors. Throughout history, the two have been linked together with Dead Neck being an integral part of Oyster Harbors.

In 1658, Oyster Island (the first name for Oyster Harbors), along with Dead Neck, was reserved for the Indians that inhabited the area. Oyster Island was purchased from the Indians in 1737 for 517 English pounds by the Lovell family as a result of a lawsuit that put the Natives heavily in debt. It was then uninhabited for nearly two centuries being used only as salt works and pasture land. At that point in time, Dead Neck Island as we know it today did not exist. It was not an island then but a peninsula or “neck” of land that ran all the way from Dowse’s Beach to the end of Dead Neck with Sampson’s Island being a separate island altogether.

The first people who realized the potential for Oyster Island were Richard and Helen Winfield of Mount Vernon, New York. Over the course of forty years, beginning in the late 1800’s until 1921, the Winfields acquired title to Oyster Island, now known as Grand Island, 54 acres of Little Island and 77 acres of Dead Neck Island. By 1925, the Winfields owned almost all of the property on all the islands except for a few lots that they had sold to eight families. It was then that they all realized that the island needed to be made more accessible, so they received permission from the Town of Barnstable to build a bridge from the mainland to Little Island in 1891. They also built a causeway over the marsh between Little and Grand Islands and constructed the first road on Grand Island. At the same time, Osterville residents were eager to open a channel for boats to travel from West Bay into Nantucket Sound.

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It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that work began to make that “cut” from West Bay through the eastern end of Dead Neck to Nantucket Sound. Historically, farmers in the area took their cattle over to Oyster Island to graze by walking them across at a shallow point on Dead Neck called the “wading place” located across from Indian Point. At that time, they would have to wait for low tide so that the animals could make it over and back safely. All of the boat builders, most of whose companies still exist today, would have brought their boats down West Bay, along the Seapuit River and out the channel that was located between Dead Neck and Sampson’s Islands. Or they would go the other way around Oyster Island, west through North Bay, down the Cotuit Narrows, through Cotuit Bay and out the same channel that separated the islands.

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The channel between the two islands was the main entrance and exit for Cotuit Bay having the deeper water necessary for the larger boats. This channel has long since been silted over and now forms a cove that is named either Cupid’s Cove if you’re a resident of Cotuit or Pirate’s Cove if you’re a resident of Osterville. Some of the locals wanted to make the cut at the end of Eel River, some people wanted the cut where is today, and another group didn’t want to have a cut at all. That group felt it would have a huge impact on the farmers who used the island and would merely create an obstruction in getting to their lands.

In 1901, the 100 foot cut buttressed by stone jetties on both sides was made. In 1902, $5,000 was allotted to the Town to dredge a three foot channel out to deeper water in the Sound and through West Bay and up to the boatyards. It was then that Dead Neck truly became an island.

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In the meantime, by 1925, Forris W. Norris, a real estate developer from Boston began buying all of the Winfield family holdings on Grand Island. He convinced about 30 people to come into a venture to make Grand Island into a charming summer resort with a wonderful golf course, harbors, roads, a clubhouse and typical Cape Cod homes. The name of the island was changed to Oyster Harbors. Norris envisioned the finest of resorts that would equal, if not surpass, the splendor of Newport, Rhode Island. He brought in the Olmsted brothers, the same landscape architects who had designed Central Park in New York and Boston Common. He also convinced Donald Ross, the premier golf course architect of the day to design and build the golf course. At one point, the Olmsted brothers designed home sites upon Oyster Harbors, but they also planned polo fields, home sites, parking areas, a bathing pavilion and stables over on Dead Neck Island. It also included a design for building a causeway that would connect Dead Neck to Oyster Harbors on the western end of the Seapuit River. For some reason, probably financial, the plan never went through.

For the next twenty or so years, Oyster Harbors remained a fairly solvent real estate venture. In 1946, the golf club became a separate entity called Oyster Harbors Club, Inc. and there remained a good working relationship between the two groups. It wasn’t until 1960 when the majority stockholder of Oyster Harbors died, T. Kenneth Boyd. It was at that time that two of the residents of Oyster Harbors stepped forward and bought all of the stock; Paul Mellon and Harry Hoyt, Sr. After several transactions, Mr. Mellon and Mr. Hoyt owned all of the stock with the exception of some shares owned by A. Felix DuPont, his sister Alice Mills, and Gladys B. Thayer. By 1980, Paul Mellon had bought everyone else out and became the sole stockholder in the corporation. He began, in 1981, to permanently preserve several areas on Oyster Harbors. Working with the Conservation Commission of the Town of Barnstable, Mr. Mellon proposed that a conservation restriction be created that would insure that the golf course would never be developed for commercial or industrial purposes nor sub-divided for a high or medium density residential development. The intent of the grant seemed to be to preserve the premises in their present condition. This grant also included Dead Neck Island. By the middle of the 1980’s, it had become apparent that Dead Neck Island was in dire need of sand re-nourishment. The winter storms, high tides and even higher winds had compromised the integrity of the island and it was in danger of breaking through. Mr. Mellon began the very costly process of mining sand from off-shore and putting it upon Dead Neck. Again in the late 1980’s, he began another round of sand replenishment. It appeared that the jetty that had been built to create a gateway to Nantucket Sound was causing the island to lose much of its sand every winter. By the mid 1990’s, several of the area residents began to come together as a group to figure out a way to keep the island intact and save the land sitting behind it. Mr. Mellon had passed away, and there needed to be a long-range plan to protect the integrity of Dead Neck as a barrier island. Several of the area residents banded together and Three Bays Preservation was born. This group began the long task of obtaining the necessary permits and finding the sand that could rebuild the island. More than $1.5 million was raised and an ambitious project was begun that combined dredging area channels that badly needed it, and using that sand to rebuild the island. Almost 300,000 cubic yards of sand has been deposited upon the island in the past 13 years. Not only has this sand been useful as a way to build the island back up, it also has been used to create critical habitat for endangered coastal shore birds such as Least terns and Piping plovers. Every winter, the ravages of the weather have wreaked havoc upon the sand on Dead Neck. Over the past few winters, over 50 feet of sand has been lost on the south side of the island and large scarps have formed. Maintaining the integrity of the island has become an ongoing process for Three Bays Preservation. Because of our active role in helping to maintain Dead Neck Island, we were honored to have Dead Neck Island donated to us by Rachel Mellon, Paul Mellon’s widow. It will forever be kept undeveloped and used as a bird sanctuary. We work closely with the Massachusetts Audubon Society in ensuring the habitat for the birds will remain. Anyone is welcome to visit the island during the summer months as long as they are members of either Three Bays Preservation or Mass Audubon Society. You must show your membership card to the rangers who walk the islands every day during bird nesting season. If you are not a member of either organization, you are still welcome to visit but there is a $10.00 daily fee. And of course, there are several rules for the island that we must insist are followed to insure the safety of the birds and their chicks:

To help protect the island from erosion:

  • Do not disturb any of the vegetation growing on the island. The plants have deep roots that help to stabilize the sand and prevent a lot of erosion.
     
  • Do not jump off the dunes. This is for the same reason as the first one; to help stabilize the dunes and prevent erosion.
     
  • Please stay on the marked trails. If any of the trails happen to have the symbolic fencing blocking the path, we ask that you do not use that trail as there may be birds nesting in that area.

To help protect the nesting birds:

  • Pets of any kind are not allowed anywhere on the island. Please leave your dogs at home. If they have to stay on the boat it will only be a frustrating experience for everyone involved, including the dogs!
     
  • No kite flying is allowed. The kites look like hawks and will cause the parents to leave the nests, exposing the eggs or the chicks to the elements. It only takes a few minutes in the hot sun for a chick or an egg to die from the heat.
     
  • Please stay out of the nesting areas that will be defined by either symbolic fencing (string attached to posts) or electric fencing. The electric fencing is well marked and gives a nasty jolt if touched. It’s not enough to kill anyone, but it hurts just the same! The coyotes definitely don’t like it.

Swimming:

  • Never swim alone. No lifeguards are present and you swim at your own risk. The channels are very heavily traveled by boats and it is sometimes difficult to see swimmers in the channels. Please be very aware!

Camping:

  • No overnight camping is allowed. We do maintain night patrols on the island.
     
  • Open fires are not permitted. And please, if you use charcoal in your grills, take the charcoal with you and do not bury it in the sand. It can remain hot for a long time after you bury it and unsuspecting children can get burned if they happen to dig it up.


If you pack it in, please pack it out.

Take only pictures, leave only footprints.

 

We wish to thank Jim Gould of Cotuit who contributed his knowledge of the history of Dead Neck and also to Zenas Crocker and his book “A History of Oyster Harbors to 1994”.