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In Chatham, an austere utopia yields to a relentless tide

Two of five summer cottages on the southern tip of Nauset Beach in Chatham were knocked off their foundations by a storm this week. They will be demolished. Two of five summer cottages on the southern tip of Nauset Beach in Chatham were knocked off their foundations by a storm this week. They will be demolished. (Vincent DeWitt for The Boston Globe)
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / June 25, 2009
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CHATHAM - The end rolled into view yesterday for the last survivors of First Village, in the form of moody waters propelled by an unusually high tide stirred by a storm more suited for winter than summer.

As the ocean licked at the cluster of five storied and spartan cottages, celebrated by their owners as much for what they’re not as for what they are, one of the last enclaves of its kind began collapsing into the sea.

“We lost 40 feet of beachfront over the last few days,’’ said Bill Hammatt, an owner who had hoped to savor a farewell season at his beloved cottage. “Unfortunately, it has terminally damaged all five of the remaining buildings.’’

The slow death by millions of cuts of Atlantic surf began in 2007, when an April storm sliced a breach through this ever-changing finger of Nauset Beach. Since then, the break has been carved into a wide new inlet to Chatham Harbor, made an island of Second Village to the south, and reduced First Village from 12 cottages to five.

“I have to tell you, it’s a very sad feeling,’’ said Todd Thayer, whose family has enjoyed one of the barrier-beach cottages, or “camps,’’ for 50 years.

Like the Thayers, the rest of the First Village colony has cherished this simple Cape Cod paradise for generations. Now, their hopes for a farewell summer have been dashed near the place where author Henry David Thoreau said a man could “put all of America behind him.’’

“They realize it really is past the point of no return,’’ Keon said.

Two of the camps had tilted over by yesterday morning, waves were lapping at the cottages, and a persistent storm had chewed up whatever small buffer of sand remained.

As a result, four of the owners yesterday asked for permission to demolish what’s left of their camps, said Ted Keon, the town’s director of coastal resources.

Only a week ago, Hammatt foresaw the grim but inexorable finish.

“All we need is one big storm, and we’re gone,’’ Hammatt said of the camps, which can be reached only by boat or by off-road vehicle from Orleans.

As more of the beach disappeared after the breakthrough, Hammatt allowed his four neighbors to move their cottages northward onto his eroding property, where they huddled to make a final, doomed stand against the elements.

“Why not?’’ Hammatt said of the gesture. “What sense does it make to say I have all this land but only I can use it. We’re all friends.’’

While Hammatt and his neighbors try to reconcile themselves to their loss, Keon and other town officials are pondering the breach’s long-term impact on the Cape’s largest commercial fishing fleet. New currents, blocked channels, and the need for new navigation routes are all possibilities.

The changes make for a high-stakes guessing game, with one dreaded option being the forced relocation of the entire fleet to another area of Chatham.

“I don’t know if this is two years out or 50 years out,’’ Keon said.

Already, Keon said, the tidal range has increased by about a foot. The potential effect on mainland property remains unclear, but the town has not forgotten the painful loss of 10 homes there after another major breach two decades ago.

“There is no doubt there are legitimate concerns,’’ said Keon, who previously worked in coastal planning for the US Army Corps of Engineers. “Will we see similar levels of erosion?’’

The destruction of First Village seems certain to leave a hole in Chatham’s fabric.

“This is one of the last bastions where you went and camped and didn’t have electricity unless you had a generator,’’ said Mary Ann Gray, an archivist at the Chatham Historical Society. “It was primitive living, and they were passed down from one family to another. They are very important to the local people of the town.’’

Before the storm, Hammatt, 66, had begun sketching plans for his farewell. He did not divulge the details, but an emotional farewell seemed certain.

“It’s an absolutely wonderful experience there,’’ Hammatt said. “Not many spots left like that anywhere.’’

Indeed, other remnants of that isolated lifestyle on Cape Cod are limited primarily to Sandy Neck in Barnstable, Orleans, and the dune shacks in and near Provincetown.

Thayer, 46, who estimated his family had spent $35,000 to move the camp twice, huddled with his three brothers recently to weigh their options during a 50th birthday celebration.

The camp had been in the family for a half-century, and distant summer memories of gas lanterns, the lighthouse beacon, the sound of surf, and the Red Sox on the radio still conjured a warm, heartening glow.

But that was before the storm.

“I think it’s clear that house is not long for this world,’’ Thayer said at the time. “It’s like putting a dog down, that’s how you wrestle with this decision.’’

Through it all, however, the pull of the place proved to be as strong as the tides that destroyed it.

“The drive to the beach was the greatest drive in the world,’’ Thayer said of his childhood. “I’m very fortunate we had it as long as we did.’’

In a quixotic longshot, Thayer and his brothers had hoped that a major shift in wind or tide might spare their slice of Eden. Now, that dream is gone, replaced by a bit of downsized whimsy.

“If I have even a little land left, maybe I can get a beach sticker and hang out with my kids there,’’ Thayer mused. “It’s such a precious piece of real estate.’’