By John Macone
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.
"All of the sudden, the dune started building out," said Barrett.
And over the past few years, more homes have crept out onto that dune.
As you drive onto Plum Island, near the popular parking lot next to the seaside restaurant Jeannie's, there's a string of old cottages. Among them, a few hundred yards to the south of the parking lot, sat a simple building that literally tumbled its way into becoming the symbol of Plum Island's losing battle with the sea.
It was called the Salt Box. Exactly 32 years ago, despite its owners' best efforts to save it, it fell over the eroding cliff. It wasn't the first nor the last to fall into the sea, but dramatic pictures of it lying on its side were widely circulated. Some people still have it hanging on their walls.
It was hauled back up, and the dune where it stood has grown out several feet toward the sea. But it's starting to erode again, just as it did in the mid-'70s.
Earlier this month, Plum Islanders gathered for a meeting to discuss the latest erosion crisis facing the Center. In the audience was Byron Matthews, the former Newburyport mayor who 35 years ago waged the same war against the sea, trying to save the Center.
"It was the same situation you have today. It's like deja-vu," he said in an interview after the meeting. "It's never going to cease."
Plum Island, like every sandy shoreline, is a constantly changing land mass — eroding in some places, growing in others, always at the mercy of tides, current, and weather.
The changes have been going on for millennia. But if the past is any indication, changes are almost always unpredictable, quick, and catastrophic.
One of the earliest reliable maps of the Merrimack River mouth, from an 1827 Army Corps of Engineers survey, shows a 1-mile-long section of Plum Island and Salisbury Beach that no longer exists.
That change was set in motion over a two-week period, when "The Three Hurricanes" hit in mid- to late December, 1839.
The story is breathlessly told in a book called "Awful Calamities," or "The Shipwrecks of December 1839," published shortly after the storms. Dozens of ships were lost and 150 people drowned along the Massachusetts coast.
In Newburyport, two of the storms came on a high tide that produced a surge larger than anything that had been seen in at least 30 years. Water rose well above the tops of Newburyport docks and spilled onto downtown streets. One ship tied to docks was pulled under. Almost a third of the 130 ships in Newburyport harbor were damaged.
The high water severely damaged the beach dunes, eventually ripping a new channel through Salisbury Beach. It split the river mouth in half and created a new channel to the sea that is now Plum Island Basin. An island had formed in the middle of the mouth, and over the course of the next decade it attached itself to Plum Island. An Army Corps of Engineers survey in 1851 shows it as a long narrow finger called "New Point." Over the years it has broadened to become the northern end of the island, now occupied by about 500 homes.
Erosion problems and property damage were evident as early as the 1700s, when a Revolutionary War-era fort at the river mouth washed away. But erosion caused scant public concern because there were very few homes on Plum Island.
In an 1854 history of Newburyport, Euphemia Blake describes the southern end of the 9-mile-long island as having a few farms, and the wild, unoccupied northern end as "entirely composed of sand, which is thrown by the wind into hillocks of various heights and forms, and on the eastern shore is continually the sport of Atlantic billows, which change its outline from year to year, making its shore a new study, to the lover of nature, who might here revel in one of her wildest and most fantastic forms."
Today, the island's composition has entirely switched — the southern two-thirds of the island has only one house; the once-wild northern third has over 1,200 houses.
The year 1883 was a landmark year in the history of Plum Island's erosion. That's the year that the Army Corps of Engineers began building the north and south jetties.
The jetties were intended to allow ships to enter the river by holding a channel in place. Jetties help control and funnel the flow of water and sand. They weren't the first jetties to be built on the U.S. coast, said Ed O'Donnell of the Army Corps of Engineers. Nor were they the first jetty-like structure built to protect the Merrimack River mouth. A long wall was built around 1827 near Woodbridge Island, just west of Plum Island's tip, but it failed to work.
The jetties held the river mouth in place, but they also created new land. On the Plum Island side, tons of sand piled up against the jetty, extending the island into what was once the Merrimack River.
Matthews noted a large part of the jetty is now completely buried hundreds of yards from the river.
"Old timers told me that where the (Plum Island Point) parking lot is now, they used to catch mackerel there," said Matthews. "It's changed that much."
Around the time when the jetties were being built, Plum Island's population began to change rapidly.
Historian Nancy Weare documents it in her book "Plum Island: The Way It Was," describing the increased flow of traffic along Plum Island Turnpike due to new horse and electric rail lines, the expansion of the elegant Plum Island Hotel, and, in the 1920s, the creation of the Plum Island Beach Company. The company subdivided the island into 70-by-70-foot lots, and marketed them heavily to a beach-hungry public. Hundreds of simple cottages sprang up. That lot and street layout is clearly seen on the island today.
Erosion was ever-present. A postcard from 1910 shows crashing surf, and the handwritten note states, "This is a view of the surf at Plum Island. It has washed the sand away from the cottages on the water front so they have had to move them back. It seems to come up higher and higher every year."
From the 1920s to the 1950s, erosion claimed several cottages between the Center and the point, according to a 1952 Army Corps of Engineers study. By that time there were about 900 cottages on the island, the report says.
In the span of 30 years, the report noted a staggering amount of sand had been lost. Northern Boulevard, the main road connecting Plum Island Point to the Center, was 190 to 260 feet from the sea in 1920. By 1952 it was 40 to 50 feet. Three storms in 1950 alone had claimed 50 feet.
"Continued recession of the shore can result in breaching of the island and isolation of its northern end," the report stated. "This would isolate about 600 cottages."
The report called for emergency beach re-nourishment where the breach seemed imminent, but also concluded that the overall problem of beach erosion along the 4.7-mile stretch of beachfront cottages was simply too large for the federal government to tackle.
'How many times are we going to save something?'
In the 1960s, the area north of the Center was taking a severe hammering.
Barrett recalled cottages being moved back near his family's cottage on 53rd Street, and others falling into the ocean. A few blocks farther down, Matthews recalled standing one morning in 1966 on the porch of a cottage. By nightfall its ruins were floating a mile or so away.
The beach was being pushed back in wide swaths, but by 1972 nowhere was the crisis as bad as at Plum Island Point.
Here, at the mouth of the river, the dunes had collapsed and a torrent of tidal water rushed across the sand.
Matthews, mayor at the time, said he pleaded for help and pulled every string he had. Hundreds of people, ranging from out-of-staters to Cub Scouts, joined in the effort to fill sandbags for an emergency barrier. Over 13,000 were filled. Most were swept out to sea by storms.
Nothing was working. Matthews held a meeting in December 1974 with the Army Corps of Engineers, after a severe storm tore about 4 feet off the top of the dunes at Plum Island Point.
"We've spent $12 to $14 million trying to hold back Mother Nature," an exasperated Matthews said at that meeting. "How many times are we going to try to save something, when we're going backwards all the time? I think we've come to the end of the road, as far as the short term solutions go."
As he spoke, up to 80 buildings were threatened with being swept into the sea.
At a heated meeting with 140 Plum Island residents in January 1975, Matthews raised the possibility of putting in enormous concrete blocks near Northern Boulevard to save the homes. The next day, the City Council approved the $8,000 to do it. Three days later, work began, and a week after that, it was done. Then 250 volunteers and the state Civil Defense filled 3,000 sandbags and placed them against the 1,300-foot-long wall.
The wall still stands today, partly buried by blowing sand. It has hundreds of yards of sand, and high dunes, between it and the sea
Matthews said he also convinced the government to bulldoze an emergency barrier to hold the sea back. Sand was pumped from The Basin to the beach. The efforts seemed to finally be working.
"I think we really accomplished something," Matthews said in an interview last week, "because we had people whom we knew and we could call upon to get things done."
Meanwhile, things had started to deteriorate around Plum Island Center. The ocean was close to breaching the dune there and cutting the island in half. Photos from that time clearly show that erosion was worse than what the Center is experiencing now, in 2008.
In December 1975, the Newbury Conservation Commission declared an emergency situation near Southern Boulevard, allowing residents to take measures into their own hands.
The Perkins family, owners of the teetering Salt Box cottage on Southern Boulevard, were allowed to bring in 34 5,500-pound cement blocks to place in front of it. Some 50 feet of sloping dune had been stripped away over a weekend.
By March, the battle for Salt Box was over. The sea tossed the blocks aside and a storm cut away 20 feet of dune, causing the house to fall on its side onto the dune below. The Perkins family salvaged what they could from the house between tides, climbing in though windows, Barrett recalled.
Emergency measures now switched to Plum Island Center, where many more tons of sand were brought in, saving several structures.
The beach expanded and built up, covering up the rock barriers, called groins, that are meant to hold sand in place.
But over the past eight or so years, the groins have gradually become exposed again, and once again the Center is in danger.