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Little Harbor

Oliver H. Howe

From Oliver H Howe, "Little Harbor in Cohasset," Cohasset Cottager, December 2, 1938.

One of the most attractive features of Cohasset is its so called Little Harbor. Irregular in shape with jutting peninsulas and small rocky islands, it is a beautiful sheet of water, and views across it often include glimpses of the ocean. It is not a harbor in any real sense, for it is too shallow for any but small boats and much of it is laid almost bare by low tides. Moreover, the narrow passage connecting it with the sea has such a swift current at most stages of the tide that it is usually impracticable for boats.

The above conditions did not always prevail, for there was formerly a dam where the iron bridge [Cunningham Bridge on Atlantic Avenue now is. The dam kept the saltwater out and a sluiceway allowed surface water to drain out at low tide, so that most of the area was mowing land, traversed by several narrow winding creeks. A road went across it from near the head of the Common to Beach Island.

The history of this undertaking goes back to October 29, 1739, when thirty six owners of a tract of salt marsh of 104 acres with adjoining flats signed an indenture agreeing to build and maintain a dam and sluiceway at a place then known as The Falls (later known as Cuba Dam) and now occupied by the iron bridge. These owners, called together on January 22, 1741, by one of His Majesty's justices for the County of Suffolk, formed what was in intent a corporation . . . known as The Proprietors of the Meadows and Flats in the Little Harbor of Cohasset. Thus protected, the area furnished hay for the cattle in those early days when so much of the country was forest.

The corporation continued in existence probably until the great storm of 1851, which destroyed the iron lighthouse on Minot's Ledge. This storm greatly injured the dam and gates and filled the sluiceway solidly with gravel. At that time, as I was informed by the late Philander Bates, Little Harbor became offensive and the dam and sluiceway were removed, leaving a clear channel to the sea as at present.

The original record book of the organization and meetings up to April 7, 1829, and a plan of Little Harbor made from surveys of Israel Clark are in possession of the Cohasset Historical Society. The plan shows the boundaries of all the lots and also the road as already stated. In later years there was an accessory sluiceway through Sandy Beach. Many bathers have seen a double line of old posts in the beach, of which hardly a vestige now remains.

The existence of the organization covered a period of about 112 years. During the latter part of this period, the extensive salt works of Captain Nichols Tower were in the rear of Sandy Beach. Saltwater was pumped up by a windmill, exposed in shallow vats, and evaporated by heat of the sun. (See map, page 415 of [Bigelow's] Narrative History.) Reference to Fisher's plan of division of lands in 1670 (see Narrative History) shows that the beaches enclosing Little Harbor existed at that early date, although they have become wider since then.

Little Harbor is gradually becoming more shallow by sedimentation and until recently by the growth of eel grass. Salt marshes are extending their borders and in time may occupy almost the whole area. During the present year a singular bar has been formed at the mouth of the channel, which diverts the current toward Brush Island.

This account has shown marked changes during the period of human habitation, but it is not the whole story of Little harbor; for there must have been a time when it was freely open to the sea and was consequently a real harbor. The construction of Sandy Beach by the ocean waves was a comparatively recent event as considered in geological time. Starting with a mere sandbar and increasing in height and width, it now forms a barrier beach, backed up by a considerable area of salt marsh. There was also an opening into the Cat Dam portion, near the junction of Atlantic Avenue and Jerusalem road. A narrow intermediate opening between the latter and Kimball's Point is now closed by the road. The opening at the iron bridge was once much wider, but is now narrowed by a barrier beach and the abutments and approaches of the bridge. The Mohawk Valley, a part of the original harbor, has been cut off by Beach Street. Also parts at Bow Street and Peck's Meadow have been cut off by Jerusalem road. The little pond on the Gagnebin estate has been separated from the sea by the beach and roadway and has become freshened and supports fresh water vegetation.

Subdivisions of the harbor have been made by roads leading to Cooper's and Rice islands. Nichols Road has been built across the place called Cat Dam (or sometimes Stepping Stones). The name would indicate that some sort of dam existed there in old times. At present there is a dam and gate to preserve a uniform level of water and occasionally to renew it.

The salt marshes are not original features, for all of them, like the barrier beaches, have been formed in comparatively recent times. Originally the waters of Little Harbor extended everywhere to the upland. At the western side the tidewater lapped against the steep incline along Jerusalem Road opposite the estate of General Logan and in many other places was bounded only by the rocky shores. Cooper's and Rice islands were surrounded by water and were really islands. In the report of a legislative committee in 1815, it was stated that before the dam was built, there was a channel and outlet from Little Harbor into the sea sufficient for vessels to pass and that vessels were built at the head of Little Harbor and carried out through the channel.

The great amount of material forming barrier beaches on this shore suggests that it is the result of erosion of headlands by the sea. Doubtless much of our rocky shore was once covered with soil, and geologists think that many of our rocky islets and outlying ledges once bore rounded hills called drumlins, which have been washed away and the material deposited to make our beaches.

Great as are the changes already outlined, in prehistoric times very different conditions existed. The shore of New England is a "drowned shore." The depth of water gradually increases for about 100 miles from shore, where it is about 600 feet deep. it then abruptly increases to very great ocean depths. The shallow margin is called the Continental Shelf and is believed to have been at one time land surface. The present promontories and islands were then the tops of hills. The fringelike coast of Maine, with abundant islands, is a striking example. The present rivers pursued their way across the continental shelf, and the channel of the Hudson River is well defined to the very margin of the shelf.

The elevation and depression of continents is a complicated process, but there is one cause generally agreed on which seems to have been operating on this coast. In the great Ice Age, which began about a million years ago, a vast body of ice covered all the northern part of North America. The water to form this ice was evaporated from the ocean, fell on the land in the form of snow, and was consolidated into ice. The ocean level therefore was lowered, exposing the continental shelf. When the ice all melted, the water was returned to the ocean, bringing it to the present level. The ice sheet, in melting, receded very slowly and now is found only in Greenland. Imagine a time when it melted as far north as New Hampshire; the area of Cohasset, instead of being seacoast, would then have been as far inland as Springfield, Massachusetts.

The history of the earth in the main has progressed, not by violent convulsions, but quietly and mostly by such processes as are going on before our eyes. Elevation and depression of continents has often amounted to only one or two inches a year, and yet this slow movement, going on for immensely long periods, has raised mountains from below sea level to the heights they now occupy.

It is natural to assume an element of stability in our shorelines, and this idea is justified in the main. Sudden and severe storms at long intervals cause violent changes, and yet the greatest changes of all are the silent, gradual ones, not perceived at the moment, but continued for vast periods of time. Our present conditions, seemingly permanent, are but a passing phase and what future changes may occur, none can tell.