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Sylvia State Beach - a constant source of delight - endures
At the edges of our lives, the sea pounds on the shore, and the shore stands guard against the sea's assault. Or does it? The Vineyard littoral has changed repeatedly and significantly over time. It is changing still. The Times asked Jo-Ann Taylor, a coastal planner, to describe and illustrate the changing Island shores, in monthly illustrated installments, of which this is the second.
On a typical summer day, thousands of people flock to Joseph A. Sylvia State Beach to toast themselves on the hot sand or take a dip in Nantucket Sound. It is one of the few beaches on the Vineyard that is completely accessible to everyone, residents and visitors. With its gentle wave climate and sandy bottom, this beach is particularly popular among families with young children, and their play makes for a very lively beach scene.
The man-made inlet at Little Bridge filled in with sand last winter. A backhoe was used to restore the water flow. Photos By Jo-Ann Taylor
Separation proponents wanted access to the closer Holmes Hole (Tisbury today), but couldn't get the votes at Town Meeting to build a bridge across the inlet to Lagoon Pond. Instead, Edgartown voted to build a road beside Sengekontacket. Then Edgartown voted to spend another $15,000 to build a railroad parallel to the road, which proved to be a total loss as an investment. Soon, Cottage City successfully petitioned the legislature for separation.
Although the beach looked quite different in the 19th century, it occupied much the same location as today. That is remarkable considering how other Island beaches have grown and shrunk, retreated and reformed. State Beach has remained remarkably constant, apart from the changes that have been wrought by human hands and tools.
An undated photo shows sandbags piled high to protect the road. (Courtesy MV Historical Society)
Another unusual and fortunate aspect of the beach's configuration is that the prevailing southwesterly winds blow across the beach from behind, across the short fetch of the slender pond. This unusual presentation surely reduces the day-to-day longshore transport on the Sound side.
Because of the unusual longshore transport, the main inlet at Big Bridge has remained very close to its present location midway along the barrier, even before the inlet was stabilized with jetties. This is in marked contrast to other inlets around the Island, which have migrated repeatedly.
The inlet is where it wants to be, and the tremendous force of the tidal flow through the inlet keeps it open. The Wampanoags named the pond, "Sanchacantacket", meaning "at the bursting forth of the tidal stream," in tribute to the tremendous force of the tidal flow through this inlet. The tidal flow is strong enough to keep the main inlet open, and even to support a very unusual man-made second inlet at Little Bridge.
Adjustable groins were used to help protect the beach from erosion.
After Hurricane Bob and the October storm in 1991, the Commonwealth set about repairing the damage to the road and protecting it from further damage. (The beach is owned by the Commonwealth, but managed by the County.) In the interest of "soft solutions" (it is against policy to put hard structures on a barrier beach), sandbags were used to fortify the beach.
Sandbags have been used before on the Island, but our forebears undoubtedly used biodegradable materials like burlap or canvas. The sandbags used in 1992 were made of material woven with plastic. When the bags broke up, the plastic remained in pieces on the beach, in the pond, across the pond; plastic pieces were everywhere, not-so-subtle reminders to think things through better next time.
Beach nourishment was tried next, and 70,000 cubic yards of sand were taken from inside the pond and piped to the weak spot near the Little Bridge inlet. Three adjustable groins were also installed, intended to be part of the "soft solutions," alternative to stone. Between 1991 and1997, the Commonwealth spent nearly $2 million on the various attempts to repair and protect the road.
And so, once the inhabitants ventured down the road of investing capital on the beach, it became necessary to protect that investment. Once the second inlet was created, it was assigned a perpetual need for dredging. The main inlet is where it has always wanted to be, with plenty of tidal flow to keep it open. The second inlet must be dredged to remain open. If not maintained, it will quickly fill in, as it did during the winter of 2004-5.
Other beaches around the Island are retreating at rates of ten feet per year. State Beach experiences an average loss of zero feet per year, and there are concerns for erosion. At State Beach, with its remarkable stability, our expectations are much greater because of our capital investments there. We expect great things from that beach. Erosion is relative.
Jo-Ann Taylor studied geology at Smith College and Boston University, earning BA and MA degrees. Her background includes planning, oceanographic research (marine geophysics), small engineering projects, and government administration. For the past 14 years, she has served as the coastal planner for the Martha's Vineyard Commission.