Fifty years ago this week President John Kennedy signed the law creating the Cape Cod National Seashore. The designation preserved 44,000 acres and 40 miles of shoreline on the outer reaches of an environmentally fragile, yet universally attractive peninsula.
Today, that stroke of President Kennedy’s pen is seen as evidence of a clear vision, given that this sand-rimmed peninsula is within a day’s drive of one-third of the U.S. population. Yet like the proposed North Woods National Park in Maine, at the time, the seashore designation was not seen as a slam-dunk victory among locals.
Had the seashore not been turned over to the Department of the Interior, it’s not hard to imagine what the outer Cape beaches would look like today: trophy homes in gated neighborhoods, luxury hotels, commercial sprawl and snarled traffic. Instead, middle-class folks can walk along miles of dunes with the Atlantic Ocean at their feet, or, as Henry David Thoreau put it, “a man may stand there and put all America behind him.”
The push to preserve the outer Cape as a park or other protected area began in the 1930s. The National Park Service’s Civilian Conservation Corps funded a study of possible public seashores along the East Coast.
The effort was set aside during the depression and war years. Middle-class Americans on the move in the late 1940s and early 1950s discovered the Cape. Cheap motels supplanted the large resort hotels of the late 19th century, and family-oriented restaurants, gift shops, miniature golf and other generic distractions proliferated on the lower Cape.
In the mid-1950s, the National Park Service listed the Cape as its top beach park option among 16 potential parks.
At meetings in Chatham and Eastham (current populations of 6,600 and 5,400) in 1959, park officials were grilled. Some complained the footprint of the seashore proposal reached too far from the shore.
The Cape Codder newspaper’s account reported that an unidentified man shouted at a park official, “The family is the basic unit of our society and you are proposing to take our homes. That will destroy families. The Communist doctrines set forth the idea of destroying families first. Are you proposing to do this?” The park official refused to answer.
The park service met with homeowners within the proposed seashore and negotiated purchases. Those who wouldn’t sell were offered lifetime tenancy. But concerns remained.
Would it draw undesirables? A letter to the editor writer feared “our beautiful town of Wellfleet will become commercialized with cheap stands and modern hotels. Our woods will fill up with signs, tenting areas and remnants of yesterday’s picnic.” Today, Wellfleet resembles a smaller version of Belfast, hardly what was feared.
But not all concerns were unfounded. In the 1970s, the smaller towns of the outer Cape established historic preservation districts along the highway, but two towns repealed them in the early 1980s. Strip-type development ensued. Though not strictly related to the seashore, clearly entrepreneurs saw the potential to lure the 4 million annual visitors to spend money there. The highway strip undermines the small village character that is part of the region’s charm.
At the signing ceremony for the seashore, Mr. Kennedy said he was sure that “future generations will benefit greatly from the wise action taken … today.” Yet even the Cape Codder newspaper was cautious and even wary. Its editorial noted there was “clear and present danger of poor economic development outside the park area, and the creation of the park, because it withdraws so much land from circulation, heightens the pressure.”
A Maine North Woods Park would not draw the same numbers, or the same sorts of people the Cape Cod seashore does. There is something incredibly alluring about salt water. That allure can be seen in the wide eyes of tourists at Otter Cliffs at Acadia National Park or at the Bold Coast cliffs in Cutler.
But the streams, rivers, ponds and lakes of the Katahdin region also have their lure. The remoteness calls out to many who seek solace and the deep quiet that woods offer.
Serious challenges remain for the Cape. All the outer towns have more seasonal homes than year-round; teachers, police officers and others can’t afford to live on the Cape because of the inflated real estate. While there are more seasonal jobs than people to fill them, the area looks prosperous.
Whether towns like Millinocket would be blessed by being a gateway to a park is somewhat of an open question. The Cape Codder’s editorial 50 years ago offered some sage advice: “There should be no alibiing about the Seashore. If the remaining area of towns goes to the devil it will because the towns themselves failed to take the necessary preventive steps.”