When Lt. Kevin Higgins of the Orleans Police Department visited Nauset Beach on Sunday, it was to check on the damage from the two powerful nor’easters that struck Massachusetts in the first two weeks of March. The department had been monitoring Liam’s Snack Shack, the popular summertime eatery that had its foundation eroded during one of the storms.
With a third nor’easter forecast, Higgins decided to inspect the beach.
When he arrived, something else caught his eye south of the parking lot: peat beds.
“I walked over because it’s kind of unusual to see them exposed,” Higgins told Boston.com. “It’s not unusual to see chunks of peat — toaster-oven-size chunks along the water. But this was an entire giant bed of peat.”
The police lieutenant noticed that there were peculiar striations in the spongy beds of fibrous dirt, formed by the decomposition of plant materials under water in a bog or wetland. He said he couldn’t figure out what they were.
Then he looked down and a U-shaped imprint jumped out at him.
He realized what he was looking at — the imprints of horse and carriage tracks.
“It was almost like, ‘Can’t see the forest for the trees,’” Higgins said of first realizing what the markings were. “But once I focused on it and started looking, I said, ‘Holy moly, there’s a whole lotta hoof prints here and a lot of tracks.’”
He immediately pulled out his camera to take photos, which he shared on department’s Facebook page.
“Storms have peeled back time,” he captioned the photos. “Here is the balance of pictures for your inquisitive minds.”
Higgins, a 14th generation Cape Codder whose family has lived in Orleans for generations, said he immediately recalled stories his grandfather told him, of how he and residents of a camp on the outer beach at Nauset used horses and carriages to replenish the cabins and shacks with supplies.
In the 1800s, Higgins said the entrance to Nauset Beach was at the end of what is now Smith Neck Road. To reach the beach, horses and carriages would have ridden over the location of the peat beds and left impressions.
“This was really the only way people had to get to the shacks back then,” he said. “But there were also fishermen who would utilize their horses and carriages to go out for fishing, to harvest grass for gardens, and probably even to harvest peat mulch or peat beds for burning, because it can be very flammable once its dried out and treated.”
Higgins said that in the late 1800s or early 1900s there was likely a big storm, or several storms, that covered the peat beds with sand.
Over the last 120 to 150 years, the beach built up around the buried beds, protecting the imprints.
“But with the last two nor’easters that we had, which were back-to-back,” he said. “It’s scarified the outside beach, and it took all the sand that was on the beach and pulled it offshore. And it’s exposed all these peat beds.”
Sue Moynihan, chief of interpretation and culture resources management at the Cape Cod National Seashore, told Boston.com that the tracks have been revealed periodically on Nauset through the years after storms.
She agreed with Higgins that the tracks likely date to the late 1800s or early 1900s when horses were used to harvest salt marsh hay.
Victor Mastone, the director and chief archaeologist of the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources, recalled hearing about the tracks being exposed about 20 years ago, but said he never got the chance to see them in person.
He said it’s not unusual to find peat on beaches on the Cape, and he said that while the impressions were made 150 years ago, the environment that created the peat likely occurred more than a thousand years before.
“The backshore of that beach was at one time probably a freshwater pond or even a salt marsh, and this you can find all over the coast,” he said. “That’s not so uncommon. The uncommon part here is when you get the tracks and the hoof marks.”
Mastone said in examining the tracks, researchers might be able to calculate what type of carriages rode through the area, or how large the horses were, but otherwise not much more could likely be gleaned from the impressions themselves.
“These aren’t like dinosaur tracks,” he said. “This isn’t like early Native American tracks through the marsh. This is not something ancient where, ‘OK, we have a connection.’ What’s cool, or interesting, or even important about it is that it is a vestige of work on the beach that we don’t see today.”
Higgins said looking at the striations and marks, he felt connected to the past and his family’s own history.
“There’s absolutely no way to know, but, in looking at the carriage tracks, you kind of wonder, ‘Could this have been my grandfather’s horse and carriage?’” he said. “But there’s so many out there, there’s no way you would ever know. But it’s kind of neat to think that between the 1800s and 2018, all these years have gone by and this very fragile piece of evidence is still visible.”
If the peat beds were covered again with sand, the impressions would be preserved, according to Mastone.
“If it stays exposed and it’s near the high energy zone where the waves break, it’s going to eventually get broken up, and the peat will just get dispersed by nature along the shoreline and become part of the coastal process,” he said. “It’s a natural process.”
On Thursday afternoon, Higgins finally got the chance to return to check and see if the peat beds survived Tuesday’s nor’easter. He wasn’t optimistic, since he’d seen the ocean waves pummeling the beach during the storm.
The peat beds he’d discovered Sunday, and their impressions from the past, were completely erased from the sands, he said.
But the storm exposed another bed of peat containing more horse and carriage tracks, visible during low tide.
“This is the game Mother Nature plays,” Higgins said.