1600s – Early 1900s
According to the earliest available records, Duxbury Beach was divided in the 1640s into lots privately owned by a number of individuals. This arrangement continued until the 1830s, when the town of Duxbury acquired the entire property. In 1872, the town of Duxbury transferred ownership of the beach to a private individual, subject to “the right-of-way in the Town in some proper location for the passing of teams, carriages, or foot passengers to be laid out by the Grantee along said premises from Cut River to the Gurnet, but implying no obligation on the Grantee to make said road or right-of-way or keep the same in repair.” The Powder Point Bridge was built in 1892 and maintained jointly by the towns of Duxbury, Kingston, Marshfield and Plymouth, and Plymouth County.
A few houses and hunting stands had been built and plans had been drawn up for 200 house lots on the beach when, in 1919, the executor of the estate of Georgianna Wright offered Duxbury Beach for sale. Some 18 to 20 concerned Duxbury families, upon hearing of the proposed 200 house lots and fearing the type of development that had occurred along barrier beaches such as, Revere Beach and Coney Island in New York, raised enough money to purchase the beach. In November 1919, title was taken in the name of the Duxbury Beach Association, a common law trust organized for the purpose of acquiring the beach and protecting it for the benefit of the town of Duxbury. Technically a “private enterprise,” the Association paid town taxes. No dividends were ever paid on the shares, and the trustees served without compensation.
As beach use increased, visitors began to park their cars on the bridge and Powder Point roads, creating a dangerous traffic situation. To alleviate this problem, the town in 1931 asked the Association to provide parking on the beach. In response, the Association paid for the construction of a free residents’ parking lot at the east end of the Powder Point Bridge, and a public lot at the northern end of the beach. The town agreed to police the parking lots, and this began the traditional division of responsibility between the owners of the beach and the town.
The early 1930s saw the Association’s first sporadic attempts at erosion control with the erection of snow fence and the use of old bridge planks donated by the town. From 1933 to1934, the Association was able to purchase beachfront in the town of Plymouth from the Duxbury line to the Gurnet, plus large tracks of marshland. The Association operated the beach from 1919 until 1975. During its first ten years, the Association acquired many acres of bordering marshlands, financed by additional subscriptions from the shareholders. Through negotiation and litigation, the trustees gradually removed 12 of the 18 houses and all of the shooting stands from the beach.
In 1941, the town approved taking over the full cost of maintaining the Powder Point Bridge. The town and the Association evenly shared the cost of the legal work. Also in 1941, the Association built the pavilion at the public parking lot at the north end of the beach. A daily parking fee provided the funds necessary to maintain and improve the beach. With the help of volunteers, some limited erosion control measures were undertaken.
In 1950, to cover the increasing cost of policing the lot at the east end of the bridge, the selectmen initiated parking fees, charging residents $1 per season for each beach sticker. The Association continued to assume the costs of the maintenance and gradual enlargements of the beach parking lots. In 1958, it became apparent to the town of Duxbury selectmen and the Beach Association trustees that the beach was being damaged. The primary cause was the increasing number of four-wheel-drive vehicles using the beach without proper controls. Despite prevention efforts by the town of Duxbury and the Beach Association, the beach continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate. The use of the beach for recreational purposes was proliferating faster than the ability of authorities to manage such use.
In 1961, the Beach Association provided the town of Duxbury with a jeep for police patrols on the beach, and the town voted a patrol budget of $4,500. In 1969, Richmond Poole of Duxbury, for his master’s degree, published a detailed study of the beach and its environmental problems. The study, which covered the time period from 1951 to 1964, focused on the area of beach from the Blakeman pavilion southward for 6,000 feet. A major conclusion of the study was the need to protect the dunes and their beach grass vegetation. The report documented that over the duration of the study period the number of dune “blowouts” had increased from 9 to 19, with the width of these blowouts increasing from slightly less than 300 feet in 1951 to 1,743 feet in 1964. On average, 35 percent of the vegetated dunes had disappeared during this period, and in the most used areas in front of the town parking lots, 60 percent of the dunes had disappeared. The report concluded that increasing recreational demands were seriously damaging Duxbury Beach. The dunes were diminishing to such an extent that coastal storms were washing over the beach with increasing regularity.
In 1972, the Duxbury selectmen appointed a Beach Study Committee to study beach problems. After a yearlong study, the committee made the following recommendations:
- The Association should try to contain and reverse dune erosion by restricting pedestrian and vehicle access.
- The town should lease the beach from the Association to provide additional funds for beach restoration.
- The town should establish a Town Beach Conservation Department to provide a much-needed enforcement function.
The 1973 annual town meeting voted to lease the beach from the Association for $12,000 a year and to create the position of Beach Conservation Officer.
In 1973, the Beach Operations Committee was created to coordinate the efforts of the town and Beach Association. It consisted of the three Duxbury selectmen, three Beach Association trustees, and three concerned citizens. The Town Beach Conservation Officer was hired the same year.
The new cooperative effort worked well. Continuing the traditional division of responsibilities first established in the1930s, the Association provided the funds and heavy contracting work and the town provided the much-needed enforcement and education functions. Volunteers contributed greatly to the effort. A total of 150 volunteers initiated the annual beach grass planting project in 1974 with the planting of 50,000 culms of beach grass.
The aspect of Duxbury Beach least understood by the general public is its ownership and its special relationship with the town of Duxbury. The following is a brief history of the years of ownership. The early history of the beach is based in part on a May 1969, Duxbury Clipper article by Ted Pratt, who at the time was head of the Duxbury Beach Association.
Despite prevention efforts by the town of Duxbury and the Beach Association, the beach continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate. The use of the beach for recreational purposes was proliferating faster than the ability of authorities to manage such use.
The Beach Association expanded its conservation efforts by installing post and cable fencing to restrict vehicle traffic to the beach right-of-way. By 1974, the Association had installed snow fence along the front of the dunes and post and cable fencing along the right-of-way from the town parking lot to the present location of the second crossover.
In 1975, the Beach Association decided that a more permanent organization was needed to manage the beach. The Duxbury Beach Reservation, Inc. was thus formed, and the five or so remaining families who owned the beach transferred ownership to the new, nonprofit Massachusetts charitable organization. In its charter, the newly formed Reservation stated its purposes as follows: to acquire by purchase, gift or otherwise all or any part of Duxbury Beach and Saquish Beach in the Towns of Duxbury, Marshfield and Plymouth and any salt marshes and upland adjacent to or in the vicinity of such beaches and also conservation easements or any other interest in or to any such property; to restore and to preserve these beaches (whether owned or not) so far as reasonably possible in their natural state as host to marine life, native and migratory birds and indigenous vegetation, as barrier beaches for the protection of Duxbury and Kingston and as a priceless environmental asset to the Commonwealth and the nation; and to operate for the benefit of the people of Duxbury and the general public a public recreational beach with all necessary and incidental facilities, while preserving the right to limit and regulate such use so as to be consistent with the corporation’s primary ecological objective.
The Duxbury Beach Reservation continues to carry out the mission set forth above, principally to preserve Duxbury Beach. (See Section 2.3.2 for a full description of the Duxbury Beach Reservation, Inc.)
In 1978, the infamous “Blizzard of ‘78” caused extensive beach damage and erosion. Three of the remaining six houses were destroyed, along with all of the snow fencing and most of the existing dune structure. One of the first steps the Duxbury Beach Reservation took was to disallow reconstruction of these houses, the goal of the Reservation being to eliminate houses on the beach whenever possible. The Reservation also began to build its first storm damage reserve fund following the Blizzard of ’78.
Throughout the 1980s, the Duxbury Beach Reservation met annually to conduct the business of maintaining and improving the beach. During reconstruction of the Powder Point Bridge, the work road between the pavilion at the Duxbury Beach Park at the north end of the beach and the resident parking lot was left open to allow all traffic, including two-wheel drive vehicles, access to the beach. When the new bridge opened, the Gurnet Road neighbors asked the Reservation to leave the gates unlocked and the road open for two-wheel-drive vehicles. (Four-wheel-drive vehicles can go around the gates on the sand road). The Reservation granted this request for one year as an experiment, but found that the increased use was degrading the beach and requiring the expenditure of limited funds. At the end of the year, the Reservation closed the road. To protest the closing, the Gurnet Road neighbors appealed the Orders of Condition under which the Duxbury Conservation Commission permitted the Reservation to do its routine beach maintenance. During the several years of the appeal process, the Reservation was prohibited from doing any work on the beach. The matter was eventually resolved in favor of the Reservation.
With the exception of the Gurnet Road problem, the 1980s were a quiet, peaceful time for the Reservation and the beach. There were no major management problems, and the weather was uneventful.
The October 30, 1991, No Name or Halloween Storm, later made famous as Sebastian Junger’s Perfect Storm, changed everything. Essentially the entire length of Duxbury Beach, except for a few places at the east end of the Powder Point Bridge, High Pines, and the Plum Hills area, was overwashed again and again over the course of several days. Giant waves completely cut through the dunes and swept away every bit of post and cable, snow
fence, signage, and much of the woody vegetation and beach grass. The Reservation’s modest storm damage reserve fund was quickly depleted as the Reservation, with help from the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA, immediately began making emergency repairs. The Herculean efforts of individual members of the Reservation who coordinated beach operations, negotiated the labyrinth of the many permitting agencies, and juggled bills and held off creditors as reimbursements trickled in cannot be overemphasized. A second hundred-year storm hit the beach in December 1992, and the whole process had to be repeated. (The two dune rebuilding projects associated with these storms are described in Section 6.3.)
With an annual income from public parking at the Duxbury Beach Park pavilion of about $150,000 and a town lease payment of $20,000, Duxbury Beach Reservation lacked the financial resources necessary to build a sacrificial dune. Town meeting responded by covering a projected shortfall of $95,000 in addition to the $20,000 lease payment and by voting to raise the lease payment to $100,000 for the next year. The Reservation took out a very large, unsecured loan and, for the first time, asked for donations. A few of the Reservation’s trustees assembled a group of volunteers from the town, who named themselves the “Save the Beach Committee.” Through their efforts, thousands of additional dollars were raised to offset the reconstruction costs. In addition to raising money, Save the Beach was so successful at increasing awareness of the beach that the Reservation voted to perpetuate the group as a subcommittee of the Reservation. The committee renamed itself the “Duxbury Beach Preservation Society,” and over the years it has increased its membership. The mission of the Duxbury Beach Preservation Society is to raise funds for preserving the beach and to build the storm damage fund, as well as to educate the public about all aspects of the beach.
At the same time as the Reservation was dealing with the damage from back-to-back devastating storms, it was also becoming aware of endangered species legislation and the potential impact of such legislation on beach management. The Reservation responded with a proactive campaign to aggressively protect least terns and piping plovers in order to allow recreational use to continue on the beach. The Reservation funded the appointment of the first plover monitors and the Duxbury Harbormaster/Coastal Natural Resources Department began educating beach guests about the guidelines that had to be followed, especially guests who used off-road vehicles (ORVs).
The 1990s will be remembered as the time when managing Duxbury Beach became extremely complex and very costly. During the 1990s, the Reservation and the Harbormaster/Coastal Natural Resources Department found it more and more difficult to reconcile the increasing numbers of beach guests, vehicles, and dogs with the requirements of public safety and the protective policies associated with the Endangered Species legislation. More and more regulatory bodies and environmental advocacy groups such as the Mass Audubon Society had great influence over management decisions on Duxbury Beach. In 1997, the Duxbury Conservation Commission added to the Orders of Condition under which the Reservation operates the stipulation that the Reservation assemble a Beach Technical Committee of knowledgeable people to keep track of the number of vehicles accessing the beach and to study the various areas of the beach impacted by pedestrians and vehicles. The various traffic, geological, and biological studies that the Technical Committee has assembled are listed and described in Appendix H. The work of the committee is ongoing.
Mother Nature was kind to Duxbury Beach during the first decade of the new millennium. The annual northeasters were comparatively mild until 2007, when a late spring storm overwashed portions of the artificial dune, sweeping away precious sand, snow fencing, beach grass, and post and cable fencing, while leaving behind tons of debris. Total damage amounted to about $500,000.
The Reservation requested help from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), which had reimbursed 75 percent of the $2 million spent to rebuild the dunes following the 1991 and 1992 storms. At that time FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers stated that if the rebuilt dune were maintained at the 16-foot elevation, it would qualify for reimbursement in the event of a future major storm. However, stretched thin by Hurricane Katrina, FEMA denied funding in 2007, contending that Duxbury was a “recreational beach.” Arguments that only a portion of the beach is used for recreational activities and that the barrier beach protects valuable property on the inner shore and is the sole means of access for 300 homes on Gurnet and Saquish were unsuccessful. Realizing they could no longer depend on FEMA, the Reservation’s directors began an intensive campaign to establish an endowment and arranged for a $2 million mortgage of the Duxbury Beach Park pavilion area in case of extreme need.
In 2006, the Reservation experimented with a cobble berm to address deterioration of a portion of the back road to the Gurnet. Between the first pedestrian crossover and the first vehicle crossover, where the channel comes close to the beach, wave action had created a vertical scarp at the edge of the road, and placing additional road material was no longer effective. The cobble berm, a moderately sloping ramp of rounded stones was placed up against the western side of the road. Cobble berms impede erosion by allowing uprushing waves to percolate quickly through the spaces between individual cobbles, preventing the wave backwash from removing beach (and road) sediment with it as it returns to the sea. (See Section 6.4.3 for a complete description of the cobble berm.) The cobble berm has been successful and will be maintained.
Another major initiative was the publication of the Duxbury Beach Book, a full-color, hardcover book describing the creation of the beach, the great storms that have shaped and reshaped it, the plants and animals it nourishes, the old and new Powder Point Bridge, the communities of Gurnet, Saquish, and Clark’s Island, and the history of the beach’s ownership and management. Published in 2007, the book is now in its second printing.
The last major project of the decade involved replacing old signage and rebuilding the guard shack at the end of the Powder Point Bridge. The Reservation constructed an attractive new guard shack with the same dimensions as the old. Sturdy new informational signs, designed to match the color scheme of the shack and The Duxbury Beach Book, were erected in the parking lot, along the length of the beach, and at Duxbury Beach Park. The Reservation also replaced the life guard stands at the resident bathing beach and at Duxbury Beach Park.
Responding to a record-low plover fledge rate the previous year (see Appendix M), in 2010 the Reservation undertook its first, limited predator control program. After hearing a presentation by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) and carefully studying predator control techniques and results on Cranes Beach in Ipswich and Plymouth Beach, the Reservation’s Technical Committee hired APHIS to perform a predator assessment of the beach. Based on the assessment, the directors voted to engage in a limited crow predation program run by USDA-APHIS (see Section 5.4.2). The results were significant: 16 plovers fledged, resulting in a rate of 1.45, which is well above the 1.25 rate needed to sustain the species. Unfortunately, 10 plover chicks, as well as dozens of least tern nests and chicks, were lost to suspected coyote predation.
In March 2011, the Reservation again hired the USDA-APHIS agency to survey the beach. The APHIS team presented its findings and recommendations to the trustees in April. Eric Shaffer and Tim Cozine from APHIS reported that in addition to crows, their survey documented coyote and fox tracks. They recommended a combined crow and coyote control program. The directors voted to hire APHIS to conduct a crow predation program but decided to hold off on additional predator control until the Reservation could develop its own predation control policy.