SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Local News

March 17, 2008

'How many times are we going to save something?' Beach erosion, regrowth an endless pattern

They are three spots along Plum Island beach, separated by only 2 miles. But they each tell something of the island's endless and unpredictable battle with the sea.

On the island's northern tip stands a gazebo, built a couple of years ago by the nonprofit Plum Island Taxpayers Association. It's a pleasant spot set back far from the water — the Merrimack River ebbs and flows by 150 yards to the north, and on the opposite shore in the distance is Salisbury Beach. As your eyes swing east toward the sea, you can see waves break on the beach 300 yards away. To the south, across a long stretch of dunes, are dozens of houses clustered tightly together.

If you were here at this spot in the summer of 1839, you would be swimming just a few yards off the southern end of Salisbury Beach. Plum Island's northernmost shore would be almost a half-mile to the south, on the far bank of the Merrimack River. Almost all of the homes that can be seen now stand in what was open water in 1839.

The amount of land that has been destroyed and moved here is staggering. And it's all tied to three violent storms that hit in two short weeks.

Down at the end of 53rd Street, a half-mile south from the gazebo, it once looked like the end was near for the little cottage Ron Barrett's father built.

He had placed it far back from the beach, but in less than 20 years the waves had chewed through the houses and dunes in front of it. All that stood between the little cottage plot and the ocean was a fence and 10 or 12 feet of land.

That was in 1966. Today there are more than 150 yards of grassy, nerve-soothing dune between the waves and the home. The dune, now covered with a thick layer of beach grass, looks like it's been there forever.

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