Resilient lifeguard shack meets its maker

Town officials say that the South Beach building is coming down following the trio of winter storms.


The three memorable storms from this winter — with waves reported at nearly 30 feet high and with whipping winds — ravaged infrastructure and the landscape along South Beach, as has been reported before.

But their impacts are also robbing Islanders of a throwback to an earlier time, without the crowds or the rules.

The damage brought by the storms is forcing officials to take down the lifeguard shack at South Beach, a building that is said to have served as a lookout post in World War II, and was one of the lone buildings left standing after a hurricane brought significant damage nearly 100 years ago.

Edgartown parks commissioner Andrew Kelly said that the shack has become an environmental concern because it’s come so close to the water’s edge. During the storm, the water flattened out the dune in front of the shack. “In certain tides, the water is pretty much hitting the side of the building,” Kelly said, during a recent tour of the site. 

A crew was at the beach on Thursday morning beginning to take the building down.

The lifeguard shack previously belonged to the Donnelly family for more than five decades; John W. (“Jack”) Donnelly bought the house in 1929. Town officials aren’t positive, but they believe the shack was built about 10 years prior.

While thousands of visitors flock to the southern stretch of beach in the summer today, it was a different scene 95 years ago. It wasn’t just the Donnelly camp on the beach, but other shacks dotted the beach as well.

But the hurricane of 1938 — federal meteorologists say it was one of the most destructive and powerful hurricanes in recorded history — wiped out all of the camps, aside from one other, the Dinsmore camp, which sat just to the west of the Donnellys’.

According to Jack’s grandson, Joel Deroche, the hurricane picked up their family shack and carried it all the way back, close to Herring Creek. Undaunted, Jack returned the shack back to the beach after the storm. Since then, it’s been affectionately referred to as “Camp Hurricane.”

During World War II, Navy sailors used the house to look for enemy submarines that might be moving along the Massachusetts coast. Deroche said that Navy men left their mark, signing their names on a round boat raft that hung in the camp.

The Donnelly family also have fond memories of visiting the shack. Jack’s daughter, Priscilla S. Bettencourt (Donnelly), remembers spending time there when drinking water was still pumped by hand.

In the 1950s, Jack passed the camp on to his son, John D. Donnelly, who lived there in the 1960s and 1970s. Deroche, along with Jack’s granddaughter, Becky Donnelly, recall coming down to hang out when John lived there. 

“We came down to the beach and raised hell,” Deroche said. “There weren’t a lot of rules. I don’t remember a lot of summer people here. Dogs could run around freely, you could have a bonfire, and no one cared.”

When John Donnelly passed away in 1983, the state soon took the property over, and it became the lifeguard shack. 

Although the house no longer belonged to the family, Deroche still had pride that the building was in his family for so long. “Occasionally, I’d come down and let the guards know this was a house and somebody did live here,” he said.

Reflecting on the demolition of the shack, Kelly says, “It’s a little nostalgic for the Donnelly family, because they grew up there. And there’s also a lot of history just from the different lifeguards who have served this town over the years.” 

“Now everything is about to change,” he said.

The accumulated storms wreaked havoc all up and down South Beach, completely blocking Atlantic Drive, collapsing Winnetu’s beach bridge, destroying one of the large bathroom structures, and damaging the culvert extending over Herring Creek, which allows the water to flow from Great Pond out to Edgartown Harbor. 

Kelly said that they have already brought in 16,000 to 20,000 cubic yards of sand dredged from the Edgartown Town Harbor and Great Pond, and some from the Vineyard Wind project, to help restore the beach.

Beach grass planting has also already begun. After it is complete, they will install snow fencing to help hold the heel of the dunes. The main paths to the beach at each fork will be reconfigured into a zigzag design so that fencing will also catch some of the sand. Furthermore, the hope is that the irregular paths will prevent the water from flowing over during storms, as has happened in the past.

Kelly says they will likely be working on odds and ends until the beginning of summer. 

The restoration has been expensive, and the town is asking for support from voters at the upcoming town meeting in April. “Hopefully, people will support the article at the special town meeting, and we get some reimbursement from MEMA [Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency] and FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency],” Kelly explains. 

They also hope to obtain grants from Coastal Zone Management for additional restoration work next season, especially to bring in more sand to keep shoring up the back of the dunes. 

“But I understand people’s concerns,” Kelly reflects. “How much do you throw at Mother Nature? I think if we continue to do a little bit each year, we are going to hold her at bay for a while. But you never know what she’s going to throw at you.”


  1. End of an era! My grandparents (newpaper folks from Iowa) corresponded with Henry Beetle Hough in the 1930s and finally came out to visit MV in 1944… in the 1960s my grandparents (Leslie and Dorothy Moeller) returned for a visit and started renting Clara Dinsmore’s camp – right next door to the Donnelly house. They finally bought the camp from Clara in the early 70s and made the trek from Iowa every summer…. They did stay through some winters but the storms were tough – one storm lifted up their house and moved it back several hundred feet – this same storm floated the Donnelly house and the house rotated around the chimney before the storm waters receded. The state came in to claim the beach with eminent domain – the surveryor told my grandparents that their actual lot was 500 feet out off the beach under water… year after year the houses had been moved back so the land the houses were on was actually “owner unknown”. The state was able to seize the land. We visited in the 70s and played on the concrete bunker before the beach moved north. End of an era!

  2. My husband’s grandmother, Dorothy Moeller, and her husband Leslie Moeller, owned the “Little House” next door to John Donnelly’s in the 60’s and 70’s. Dorothy was so drawn to the Vineyard that they’d come every summer from Iowa. Leslie was not that enamored, but he went along. They would go to the Edgartown Dump to get what they needed for their home, believing steadfastly in using up what already was instead of buying new. One day, a young photographer came along and asked if she could take a photo from the shack’s porch. That photo would become one of Alison Shaw’s famous shots. Dorothy was an editor and Leslie taught Journalism back at the University of Iowa. She collaborated with Henry Beetle Hough on one of his books. Of course, Dorothy was very friendly with her neighbor, Johnny Donnelly, and was so saddened by his passing in his little house. At one point, the town said that Dorothy didn’t have a deed to the house and they were going to take it from her. Instead, she sold it to a couple named Sweetzer, who were also summer people, for one dollar. They moved the “little house” over to Crocker Drive, where it still sits today. My husband and I go over and visit the little house now and again, thinking of Dorothy and Leslie and how their Little House, and how it’s history brought us here to live. When Dorothy died years ago, we all said that she would return to South Beach where she seemed at her happiest. Sometimes we call out to her when we were there and tell her we love her. My husband and I had a Little House built on our property years ago that resembled Dorothy’s. Now that Johnny’s little house, which has always been a reminder of all of Dorothy’s stories is leaving, it really is the end of an era.

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