, Newburyport, MA

January 11, 2013

A look back at Plum Island's stormy history

Bill Plante's
North Shore

---- — A brief tour of Plum Island’s currently troubled center on Monday of this week led me to a revisiting of 1962-1965 when the groins were installed at several locations along its beachfronts.

I don’t recall a time since that installation when the groins, once covered, were as completely exposed as they are, but the more I pondered that, the deeper I looked into the island’s storm history.

What is to be seen is the center of the beach as it was then, and the bare granite boulders as they were when installed.

They laid bare then at the beach’s center, and lie bare today southerly from the island’s center where homeowners are doing what they can to protect their properties from the fate of those who, a half century or so ago, were unsuccessful in their effort.

That does not change over time.

What has changed over a half century is Plum Island’s shared water and sewage facilities, the building of upscale homes and their growth- related tax revenues to both Newbury and Newburyport.

Those interested in the past might revisit Plum Island’s center the better to appreciate the inevitability of erosion problems of barrier beaches.

Those residents of a half century ago had their own anxious times, even as we and those who follow us will any time nature produces extreme weather with or without the jetties being in disrepair.

There have been several storms in my lifetime of shared major problems because Plum Island is a barrier beach that protects the marshes and cities and towns upstream from it.

A bit over 8 miles in length, it is a model for what barrier beaches undergo. Nature did not design them for habitation, but there is that about them that inevitably attracts us to live as close to the ocean as possible.

The history of Plum Island having relevance to our ongoing concerns, I turned early this week, to E. Vale Smith’s history of Newburyport. Insofar as I am informed, she was the only woman editor of a Newbury or Newburyport newspaper up to 1852. Her history was published in 1854, some 30 years before the jetties at the river’s mouth were constructed.

In her accounts relating to the island’s constant role, she reminds us of the timeless realities of life on it — the sheer joy of summers and the bitter penalties of its storm-filled darkest days.

As for the extremes, she wrote:

“There is no native of Newburyport, and scarcely a stranger who has visited our city in the summer season, who does not retain vivid recollections of this fantastic strip of sand. To the minds of most, its associations are of the social gatherings of friends, of sea-side picnics with home companions and stranger guests; the eye recalls the sandy beach dotted with tents; the cloth spread on the clean yellow sand surrounded with groups of young men and maidens, of old men and children, the complacent pastor and the grave deacon, all enjoying together a day of unrestrained mirth ... “

So it has ever been since the road to Plum Island we travel today, and first of three bridges was built.

But so, too, has it been the barrier breaching of great storms.

She writes of a few of the worse at a time when there were no jetties or groins.

“In December, 1839,” she wrote in her history, “occurred one of these terrible storms.

“On the 15th there had been a very high tide which had overflowed the wharves on the river-side and covered the Eastern end of Plum Island with water, so that for some hours the keeper could not get to the lights, a lake having formed between his dwelling-house and the light houses.

“The hotel nearer the bridge was also surrounded with water, while sand hills twenty feet high were washed away, and others formed, the eastern shore being reduced by the action of waves, many rods.

“On the 24th, there was recurrence of the storm and during the night a brig of some three hundred tons, the Pocahontas, struck, and was discovered early in the morning, but in such a situation that nothing could be done for the relief of the wretched men who still clung to the wreck ... .

“On the 15th of April, 1851, commenced another storm which is recorded as not without interests for the future.

“On Monday, the slowly gathering, but thick easterly mist, announced the coming of a storm ... and on Wednesday morning it proved one of the most severe ever experienced in this vicinity. It was the more fearful as coming on an unusually high course of tides, which rendered every additional impetus, dangerous and destructive.

“At Wednesday noon, the tide was higher than at any other previously recorded, except perhaps one which occurred exactly a hundred years ago, in 1753, when during a violent E.N.E. storm of snow, the tide rose to an unprecedented height; so much so that in a corn-mill situated on Parker river, some six or seven miles from the sea-shore, the tide flowed in to the depth of twenty-three inches on the floor. It was twenty-two inches higher than in the gale of December 1839 ... .”

All of the above and of those other storms she referenced is not much more than a footnote of what this small island has served as a barrier between raging surf, our marshes and the properties of our uplands.

Its history is replete with cottage and bridge losses from great storms that Plum Islanders rebuffed as best they could.

There have ever been losses, and there always will be for so long as we occupy this barrier beach.

Debates relative to prevention go on, but there is not that much to be done that hasn’t been done over a very long time, and losses, while regrettable, are but part of the cost.


Bill Plante is a Newbury resident and staff columnist. His e-mail address is