The Gloucester Guide

Porches open to the gale-driven spray, Judge Sherman's chained-down cottage presided with stubborn grace over Good Harbor Beach and a less-fortunate work of man. A hundred years later it's still there, though enclosed.

Little Good Harbor

There is a plausible theory that in early colonial times [behind] our beach...was a lagoon, a "little good harbor" for small boats...

Today there is no harbor here, good or little good. The beach suffices as one of the finest on the coast. Yet, but for man's ungovernable greed and obsession with tinkering with the landscape, "Joppy, " as the natives call it, would even now be a busy little port on a very good little harbor indeed.

The disappearance of Little Good Harbor parallels the fate that befell the Coffin farm when the trees were cut and the drifting dunes took over. How it happened here has been convincingly reconstructed by a former mayor, the late Dr. Elmer W. Babson.

When the Rowes and Parsonses penetrated the virgin land of The Farms and Joppa, there was no tidal creek at the Bass Rocks end of the beach as there is today. In its place, where the footbridge crosses, was an extension of the land over the site of Nautilus Road: a knoll about thirty feet high that narrowed markedly as it pushed on above the beach and terminated just short of Brier Neck. It was covered with trees, hence the Piney Knoll. Between the northeast end of it and Brier Neck coursed a substantial creek.

A large part of the present salt marsh, including the beach parking lot, was a lagoon that extended across Witham Street behind the Neck and embraced all that remains of it today, the freshwater pond. Small boats could pass from the open sea through the creek at Brier Neck (about where the public landing ramp is above the beach at the foot of Witham Street) and into the calm and protected waters of this shallow but undoubtedly good little harbor. Dr. Babson discovered this former topography on a 1781 British Admiralty chart. Brier Neck at an earlier stage in geological time must have been an island; the seas piled up sand all along the shore behind Long and Little Good Harbor beaches, making a barrier reef, which—in the case of Piney Knoll, anyway—was held in place by the roots of the trees. Niles Pond, farther down on Eastern Point, was probably created in like manner.

By 1750, as Babson reforged the chain of events, the settlers had cut down all those trees that anchored Piney Knoll. Reap the whirlwind. In 1757 came a three-day hurricane, talked of for a century. "The Great Storm" swept the top of Piney Knoll into the lagoon. Then, of course, wave and wind relentlessly eroded the knoll into the old harbor and slowly converted it to marsh. The creek at Bass Rocks didn't appear until about 1800. Some ten years later Dr. John Manning of Rockport purchased the entire original Rowe grant. Over a period of thirty years, looking to add to the salt marsh that was then the main source of cattle fodder, Dr. Manning filled in the Brier Neck creek and turned more than seven acres of Little Good Harbor into marsh. The thin trickle of the old creek was still there in 1830, but just barely.

How an ax can change destiny! Had they left the pines on Piney Knoll, Gloucester would have a nearly landlocked anchorage behind Little Good Harbor Beach and would have been spared the serious damage to the unprotected dunes wrought by the devastating winter storms of 1972 and 1978.

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The Gloucester Guide, Copyright © 1990 by Protean Press and Joseph E. Garland.
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