A man may stand there and put all Provincetown behind him. Along the Back Shore — or Back Side or Great Shore or Great Back Shore or Great Beach — settlement meets sea, and the built environment is humbled. The Pilgrim Monument looks distant, almost inconsequential. There is no place for human-engineered grandeur against the mighty Atlantic Ocean and the treacherous Peaked Hill Bars. Instead, snugness, modesty, and adaptability are rewarded. Structures perform the most elementary services of salvation and shelter.
From the Old Harbor station to the Truro line are Provincetown’s 15 renowned dune shacks. (Three more — the Wells, Jones and Armstrong shacks — are slightly east of the Truro line. They’re included in the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District.) The shacks are a source of identity to the town and a half-century of tension between residents and the Park Service because the definition of cultural landmarks has expanded to embrace such eccentric structures, which once would have been swept away to render the Cape Cod National Seashore as pristine as possible. Indeed, some shacks were razed, leaving the dune community especially wary of the Park Service’s intentions. It wasn’t until 2010 that a comprehensive management plan was advanced for all 18 shacks.
The best way to see them is on foot, but this can be arduous. It makes sense for a newcomer to get the lay of the land in one of the S.U.V.’s operated by Art’s Dune Tours. The business was founded in 1946 by Arthur J. Costa as Art’s Beach Taxi and is continued by his son, Robert Costa. Important dune etiquette: If you go out to see the shacks when they’re occupied, please maintain a respectful distance from them. Dune residents are out here for solitude, tranquillity and privacy, not to entertain strangers or answer questions.
It’s worth saying that the very notion of these shacks is happily inimical to precision. Dates, occupants and anecdotes will inevitably differ among sources. There isn’t even an agreed-upon naming convention. Building Provincetown borrows the west-to-east numbering system used by Robert J. Wolfe in his 2005 study for the Park Service, “Dwelling in the Dunes.”