West End Breakwater
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 structure in town. A walk across is a bracing journey, for the sure-footed. The granite boulders stretch out like a highway to the sea. Look closely and you can see blasting holes bored into the rock. You’ll find plenty of shell remnants from seagull meals. If you’re lucky, a cormorant may alight. In the distance is a splendid panorama of town. Below are jade green pools, especially at high tide, deep enough to dive into. If you listen closely, you can hear the water singing in the rocks. And all of it is 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 harbor of 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 envisioned a dike from Stevens Point to House Point Island, and from there to Wood End; enclosing the whole tidal marsh. Construction ran from 1910 to 1915. The 1,200 granite blocks were quarried in Quincy, Mass., and brought by scow. More than 30,000 tons of stone were deposited annually. The first bend in the dike marks the location of the long-vanished House Point Island.
It is now thought that the structure may have done as much harm as good, by restricting the ebb and flow of the salt marsh, a vital breeding ground for fish. Questions have even been raised as to how well it protects the beaches. So the next major repair may involve putting holes into the dike.
More than 2,000 buildings and vessels are searchable on buildingprovincetown.com. The Building Provincetown book is available for purchase ($20) at Town Hall, Office of the Town Clerk, 260 Commercial Street, Provincetown 02657.