To protect windswept wetland, tall oaks, and an active herring run, Doug and Carol Tuttle donated their 7-acre Oak Island Bog to HCT this May after their family stewarded the land for 132 years.
The land is comprised of mostly salt marsh with some bordering upland in the Red River estuary. This particular salt marsh buffers both banks of an active herring run that flows from Skinequit Pond into Red River and then into Nantucket Sound. Red-winged blackbirds call from the woody edges while ospreys fly overhead.
A bog begins with Captain William Tuttle
In the 1870s, after the Civil War, Cape Cod’s major industries of fishing and shipbuilding suffered significant losses due to industrial trends beyond New England. In economic terms, cranberry passion couldn’t have struck at a better time. The Oak Island Bog was one of the many working cranberry bogs located in Harwich during the late 1880s. A five-acre cranberry bog would provide a comfortable living for a Cape Cod farmer and family.
It was also common for sea captains to create a second source of income and to provide for their seafaring retirement. Doug Tuttle’s great grandfather, William Tuttle was the Captain of the Monomoy Life Saving Station in the 1880s and lived in Harwich Port. In the late 1880s, Captain Tuttle created a cranberry bog on part of the acreage by controlling the fresh water stream that flows from Skinequit Pond into the Red River estuary on Nantucket Sound.
Ownership of bogs was in the form of interests or shares and Captain Tuttle owned about 25% of the venture in 1888. The other 75% of the shares were owned by other well-known Cape Cod families including Eldredge, Crosby and Cahoon – many of whom were also sea captains. In the 1950-60s, the Tuttle family acquired the interest of the other original owners to consolidate ownership of the Oak Island Bog.
Cranberry cultivation requires a fresh water control system of flumes, dikes, and ditches to maximize yield from the bog. The Oak Island Bog used the Skinequit Creek to provide fresh water to irrigate the bog, and when dammed, it would flood the bog for fall harvesting. In addition to water, bogs need bees for pollinating the cranberry vine flowers, which turn into the tart fruits. To attract the bees, the highlands of the Oak Island Bog were planted with apple trees, high bush blueberries, and other flowering bushes that bloom in a regular pattern in May, June, and July.
Hurricane of 1938 turns the tide toward salt marsh
The Great Hurricane of 1938 barreled into New England on September 21st. Also known as the Long Island Express, the storm accelerated north at 47mph with gusts up to 186mph and sustained winds of 121mph. Bridges, dams, and roads were washed out and train travel derailed for weeks throughout the region.
The tidal surge inundated low-lying areas including the Tuttle bog. The flood of salt water damaged the cranberry vines. Cultivating and harvesting went dormant during WWII and was never restarted. Gradually the area recovered into the salt marsh we see today with its reedy roadside margins.
Travelers can enjoy views of the land bordering Uncle Venie’s Road and South Chatham Road as they make their way to Red River Beach on the Sound.
“HCT thanks the Tuttle family for their longstanding stewardship and preservation vision in entrusting care of the land to HCT. Now, when headed to Red River Beach with family and friends, all can enjoy this salt marsh vista through which river herring earnestly swim upstream each spring,” said Michael Lach, HCT Executive Director. See a swimmingly fun river herring video at the end of this story.
Skinequit Pond herring run is the “little engine that could”
Heinz Proft, Director of the Town Natural Resources Department knows the area well. “I have been working in and around that fish passage and marsh area for over 20 years. I’ve often viewed that specific herring run passage as the little engine that could. The main fish passage of Herring River usually gets the big headlines, but the Skinequit Pond herring run through the Tuttle salt marsh is very important. Just last week I walked in waders and made sure the passage was clear. As herring populations increase, and we have clear indications they are, this run will receive more and more fish in the years to come,” said Proft.
Although salt marsh and freshwater wetlands are protected from many forms of development under local and state regulations right now, donating wetland parcels to a local land trust helps to preserve these habitats long-term in case local or state protections change over time. Land donors also no longer need to pay property tax. Salt marsh offers a variety of ecosystem services to the community including storm surge buffering, filtering of stormwater road run off, and providing the nursery grounds for many species of commercially and recreationally caught fish.
Brad Chase, Chair of the Town Conservation Commission and Diadromous Fisheries Project Leader with the State Division of Marine Fisheries, is also familiar with the property after growing up in the neighborhood. “The Skinequit Pond run is a very valuable small watershed herring run especially when the more well-known larger runs have lower fish counts. It’s also an active eel run. That place is near to my heart because I spent countless hours there as a kid exploring.”
To see river herring swimming upstream in the Herring River, enjoy this underwater video courtesy of HCT volunteer Gerry Beetham. Turn on your sound for some musical accompaniment.