An Eyewitness Account as the Beach Gives Way

One man claims to have stood on the Norton Point beach nearly sixty years ago, at the very moment it gave way almost beneath his feet, opening Katama Bay to the Atlantic.

It was the afternoon of August 31, 1954, and J. Gordon “Pete” Ogden III – an Oak Bluffs native, paleobotanist, and specialist in the study of inland waters – later wrote that he went for a walk along the bay side of Norton Point just a few hours after a hurricane had spun out to sea.

In his dramatic account, part of a study of the Norton Point openings published in 1974 in Quaternary Research, a scientific journal, Ogden described the ocean surf still washing over Norton Point as he walked along the beach after the storm:

“I observed a small ‘fault cliff’ in the sand as I approached the area where the waves were washing furthest toward Katama Bay. A wave had just passed, almost reaching Katama Bay water,” and Ogden wrote that he stepped down into the shallow pathway through which the wave had just washed.

“Field notes record a distinct sense of fright as I sank in ‘quick’ sand up to my knees. Recovering solid ground, I stayed near the ‘cliff’ edge and watched as successive waves struck further toward Katama Bay, widening and deepening the ‘graben’ [fault cliff] I had originally observed.”

For half an hour, Ogden looked on as “a steady succession of waves approached, reached, and extended into Katama Bay. As each wave receded, the level of the beach fell more, until within 1 hr of my arrival at the scene, it became apparent that a new opening was in the making, as waters of Katama Bay were following the recedence of waves from the Atlantic side of the beach. At this point, losing track of both time and the responsibility to keep accurate notes, I observed the waters of Katama Bay follow retreating ocean waves, and effect a complete breach of the beach.”

At first, he wrote, the water streaming from Katama Bay was no more than two to four meters wide and less than thirty centimeters deep. But it “rapidly widened and deepened to produce a sand cliff near where I stood, 2–3 m high and a channel at least 50 m across....Within 2 hr of the first breach of the beach by ocean waves, the new opening was almost 300 m wide, and water was boiling seaward from Katama Bay. The following morning, under clear skies and a bright sun, the opening looked as if it had always been there, and the tide was flowing quietly into the bay from the ocean.”

A few questions trail this account. Ogden does not mention it, but a storm and tide had broken through the beach on February 15–16, 1953, eighteen months before the landfall of Hurricane Carol on August 31, 1954.

In the year and a half that followed the 1953 opening, the Vineyard Gazette recounted a rescue at the inlet, its effect on the currents through the herring creek at Mattakesett and Edgartown harbor, and how it carried the body of a drowning victim from the harbor to the ocean and beyond. After Hurricane Carol, the paper also reported that the existing opening was “receiving some of the blame for much of the surge which affected the Edgartown waterfront.”

Ogden’s report was published twenty years after his afternoon on the beach, and it is not known why he neither saw nor reported the existence of the 1953 opening in his uniquely personal and detailed account of the creation of a new one after the hurricane. Pete Ogden died in Oak Bluffs on April 17, 1996. Despite the differing evidence from 1953 and 1954, his study remains the definitive work on the historic cycle of openings through Norton Point.