Man’s Efforts to Open – and Close – Norton Point

The Norton Point inlet seems to have an inherently contrary nature. People want it open when it’s not, and they want it closed when it’s open. But when they try to take matters into their own hands, nature has won every time but one.

Why interfere either way? If the beach has sealed off Katama Bay from the ocean for many years, the harbor and bay begin to silt up and show signs of stagnation. Eelgrass dies off and the bottom hardens. “As one old-timer put it to me,” says Paul Bagnall, the longtime Edgartown shellfish warden, an opening through Norton Point “really cleans the carpet – cleans that bottom. Shellfish are opportunists, the wildflowers in the meadow, looking for that disturbed bottom.” An opening freshens the bay with seawater, rakes the bottom, and fans the habitat with new sediment. Shellfish like new sediment.

That’s why scallopers and quahauggers sometimes long for an opening when the beach has been closed awhile. But after the beach breaks open – spreading desirable new shoals and sandbars all across the bay – ocean currents continue to keep them moving unpredictably. “That is a minus in terms of trying to set shellfish,” Paul says. Which is why, shortly after an opening occurs, those same scallopers and quahauggers hope that it will close again soon.

The first known human attempt to open Norton Point to the sea occurred in the fall of 1873, two or three years after the previous opening had sealed up. Shell fishermen wanted the bay refreshed, and commercial fishermen wanted a shortcut to the rips off Wasque Point at the eastern end of Chappaquiddick. The effort involved an outlay of $20,000, the “combined labors of two United States engineers, a couple of dredging machines, and an unlimited number of men and teams,” reported the Vineyard Gazette.

With a good understanding of how openings work, the engineers and laborers dug a channel from the bay outward, with the seaward end dammed by a bulkhead, which they planned to remove when the tide and wind were just right. But while they were waiting, an overnight storm arose, knocked down the bulkhead, filled the channel, and flattened the beach as if no work had been done at all.

Nearly fifty years later however, in the spring of 1921, another attempt was made and the engineering and timing worked just right. The artificial opening carved by man that year held, then it followed nature’s path, migrating to Chappaquiddick and closing sometime after 1924.

There has been only one great attempt to close an opening that nature created.

During a storm on February 2, 1976, the outgoing tide breached Norton Point a bit farther to the west than usual. George T. Silva, a former Edgartown harbor master and past owner of the Chappaquiddick ferry, swiftly mounted a quixotic, one-man campaign to close it. He wanted to protect the entrance to the nearby herring creek, stop the new and shifting sand flats from burying nearby shellfish beds, and tame the currents that were running wild in Edgartown harbor.

George T., as he was known, hired cranes and bulldozers to pile up dunes on either side of the new channel, and through the spring – at the age of seventy-four – he dragged hundreds of plastic bags full of sand over the beach, laying them across the Katama Bay end of the inlet to slow the current. Under his direction, levees were periodically thrown across the opening at hours of slack wind and water. But after his last attempt failed that June, at a personal cost of $4,032.70, he gave up. “I can’t do any more,” he said. “People tell me I’m a little crazy, and I guess I was. People tell me to leave it alone and it will close on its own, and I hereby leave it alone.”

The following winter, ice covered the bay and blocked the entrance to the opening. Sand filled it in. By the spring of 1977, the efforts of George T. Silva notwithstanding, the opening of February 2, 1976, had indeed closed on its own.