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West End Breakwater.

The approach to Wood End is simply unrivaled. With the scale and majesty of a natural feature, the mile-and-a-quarter-long West End Breakwater — more properly called a dike — easily qualifies as the most imposing architecture in town.

A walk across is a bracing journey for the sure-footed (and ill advised for those who aren’t). The giant granite boulders stretch out like a highway to the sea. Look closely and you can see holes that were bored into the rock for the purpose of blasting it out. You’ll also find plenty of shell remnants from seagull mealtimes. If you’re lucky, a cormorant may alight nearby. In the distance is a splendid panorama of town. Below are jade green pools, especially at high tide, deep enough to dive into. And if you listen closely, you can hear the water singing in the rocks.

And all of it is purely utilitarian, to prevent a permanent breach that would isolate Long Point and fill the western end of the harbor with sand. The Navy’s interest in protecting this deep-water refuge prompted the construction of a timber dike in 1871-72 to block the flow of sand from Lancy’s Harbor (present-day Herring Cove).

By the 1880s, engineers were envisioning a dike from Stevens Point (where Pilgrim’s First Landing Park is now) to House Point Island, and from there to Wood End; enclosing the whole tidal marsh, then known as House Point Island Flats.

Construction began in 1910 and was completed in 1915. The 1,200 granite blocks composing the breakwater were quarried in Quincy, Mass., and brought to the Cape by scow. More than 30,000 tons of stone were deposited annually. The first bend in the dike, after a long straightaway, roughly marks the location of House Point Island, which disappeared long ago.

By 1940, the tides had ripped through or undermined so much of the breakwater that it had to repaired. Again, in 1956, the breakwater was so broken that visitors were being stranded at high tide. Storms in 1978 pushed the sea over and across Wood End, briefly separating Long Point from the cape tip, requiring further repair to the breakwater.

Paradoxically, it is now believed that the breakwater may have done as much harm as good, by restricting the ebb and flow of the salt marsh, which is a vital breeding ground for fish. Questions have even been raised as to how well it has protected the barrier beaches. So the next major repair effort may involve putting holes into the dike.

¶ Last updated 10 January 2010.

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