Developing Lieutenant’s Island

Continues the history of Lieutenant’s Island started in my previous post

In 1889, the upland areas of Lieutenant’s Island were purchased by Robert Howard and his partner, Edward Reed, and the modern era of the Island began. Robert Howard followed the same plan he’d put in place for the development of the Old Wharf. First, they purchased the western and eastern portions of the Island, along with the little piece of upland that was known as the “Small Island.”

Satellite Photo 2003

Satellite Photo 2003

Howard and Reed formed the Cape Cod Bay Land Company, hired Tully Crosby to lay out a map of 2800 square foot lots, named the roads, numbered lots and blocks, and began selling at $25 per lot. In 1889 and 1890, Howard made 54 sales, many of more than one lot. In the 1890s, an economic recession slowed down sales, but they kept at it until Mr. Howard’s death in 1916 at age 59.

At the same time the Cape Cod Bay Land Company was selling Lieutenant’s Island, they were also offering the Old Wharf, Cannon Hill, and Pleasant Point in separate plans, and they had mapped land closer to the ocean, east of the railroad tracks.

Robert Howard was the stepson of the successful inventor Luther C. Crowell, who by 1889 may have been able to finance his stepson’s investment. Mr. Crowell built a summer home on Indian Neck during this last decade of the 19th century, and settled there permanently in 1900. Mrs. Crowell was a Wellfleet Atwood. She had married Jeremiah Howard, and lived in Boston. He died of brain fever at age 35; in the 1860 census she is living with her children in a Boston boarding house. She married Crowell in 1863, and they went off to live in Brooklyn, New York, in a household that included Robert and two Howard daughters, along with two additional boys she had with Crowell.

When the unmarried Mr. Howard died in 1916, he left his property in Wellfleet to his sister’s son, Howard Mitchell, and to the two Crowell sons.

Wellfleet’s summer colonizing appealed to middle- and working-class people. Other parts of the Cape, more like New England villages and much closer to Boston, hosted large hotels and impressive summer homes. Mr. Crowell built a fairly substantial home on Indian Neck, but this was not a trend in South Wellfleet. The cottages on Lieutenant’s Island were modest structures. Until the 1950s, most of the building was on the western side where the views out over Cape Cod Bay — also referred to as Barnstable Bay — were quite spectacular.

On the 1848 map of Wellfleet, a cartway leading to Lieutenant’s Island began south of Fresh Brook, and headed out over the marsh. With the development of the Island, the road shifted to where it is today, directly to the eastern upland, with a bridge built over the creek that connects the Silver Spring Bay with Loagy Bay. These parts of South Wellfleet are labeled on the map sketched here.

Lieutenant's Island sketch map

Lieutenant’s Island sketch map

The Lieutenant’s Island Bridge is a South Wellfleet icon. For those with homes there today, crossing the bridge to the island becomes a magical moment when the cares of the world are laid aside, and life on an island begins again. On the practical side, those staying on the island need to plan their trips off-island at low tide and remain aware of high tides that can put the road under water.

Getting the bridge built was a first step. Mr. Howard and Mr. Reed negotiated with the Town to grant a five-year tax exemption to property owners “providing the owners build a bridge within the next year.” In 1894, the Massachusetts legislature gave the Cape Cod Bay Land Association (the Howard/Reed company) permission to build and maintain a bridge or dike in South Wellfleet “across the tide water.” Something indeed got built, most likely wooden. There was a report in the Barnstable Patriot in 1903 that a “new iron bridge was being built over the creek by the United Construction Company of Albany, New York” – and the construction job was employing Wellfleet men. In 1903 and 1905 Wellfleet appropriated funds at the Town Meeting for road and bridge repair.

In a 1980 report on historic homes in Wellfleet, the description of Lieutenant’s Island notes that an earlier bridge’s girders could be seen “under a hump-backed bridge of wooden trusses that replaced it.” This older bridge was characterized as “dangerous” since a driver could not see an approaching vehicle due to the angle. In 1972 a higher bridge was built, and today it’s still a narrow bridge.

Kevin F. photo of the bridge

Kevin F. photo of the bridge

On the 1910 map of Wellfleet that shows property owners by name, Lieutenant’s Island has six structures on the western side with the names Howard, Townsend, Healey, Breck and, on the north edge, Perkins. Far to the south is S. Atwood named. Interestingly, despite twenty years of property sales, only these structures exist. Of course, if even half of the 1890s buyers had built little cottages, the Island would not have remained as isolated as it did.

Comparing the deeds available through Barnstable County with Barnstable Patriot newspaper reports of families coming and going, I’ve been able to figure-out the earliest structures that were built on the island. The Wellfleet Assessors Database provides the age of each property on Map 40, which covers Lieutenant’s Island, and, if this is correct, some of those early cottages are still there today.

One of the earliest builders was John H. Kennedy of Lowell. In 1891 the Barnstable Patriot reported that he had shipped two carloads of lumber to the North Eastham station “for the purpose of building a cottage on Lieutenant’s Island.” Mr. Kennedy sold his lot and buildings to Adeline Breck of Dracut, Massachusetts in 1906. This is the first deed of the Breck family. The current Assessor’s Database names “an 1880 structure” as one of the family’s properties today; this may be the original cottage.

Charles Blake of Lowell bought his lot in 1890, and the newspaper reported when he came to South Wellfleet to enjoy a “gunning” excursion. In 1904 he sold his land and buildings to Walter Townsend, who is noted as a property owner on the 1910 map. In 1919, Townsend sold to M. Burton Baker, who was also developing property on Indian Neck. Baker sold to a Breck son-in-law in 1919. That property is still owned by the family today.

Robert Howard built his own cottage on the Island. His trips to Wellfleet to enjoy the Island’s sailing and fishing, and to visit his mother, are mentioned often in the newspaper.

Another family, the Healeys, bought land and built a cottage. Their son, Paul, was a doctor. Similarly, another early family, the Fields, had a doctor in the family. My initial reaction to these two doctors settling here was the reason South Wellfleet came to have a Doctor’s Hill, but now I know that name is applied to an area just before the Lieutenant’s Island bridge, and must have another origin-story.

Like Mr. Blake, the Healey son enjoyed the cottage for “gunning” trips, a popular pastime for men during this period. Shooting migratory birds eventually fell from favor, and it’s ironic that so much of Lieutenant’s Island today is part of the Audubon Society’s Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary.

Solomon Atwood (whom I assume was the S. Atwood on the 1910 map) hosted former President Grover Cleveland and a friend, according to a 1901 article in the Barnstable Patriot. The President came for fishing and gunning. In the 1938 booklet published by the South Wellfleet Neighborhood Association, Mr. Atwood’s son, Alton, is noted as having Mr. Cleveland’s fishing rod in his possession.

Gunning trips did not always go well. In 1915, a man named Lloyd Corbett joined Doctor Healey and another doctor on a trip to Healey’s camp. He was in a small boat by himself when he shot himself in the knee and unfortunately found by his doctor friends only after he had bled to death.

Another tragic event occurred in 1924 when two young cousins visiting the Brecks drowned while on a trip to the Island on a church camp outing.

Pilot whale strandings occur regularly on Lieutenant’s Island. I remember the one in 1957 when we all hiked to the island to see it. Others were reported in 1982 and 2002. Disposal of their bodies is a contentious issue, especially if the stranding occurs in summer when the beaches are meant to be welcoming swimmers.

In the 1930s Joseph H. Shuldice began buying the marshland surrounding Lieutenant’s Island. It’s clear from the deeds that a number of South Wellfleet residents had continued to hold onto their “meadow” lands in order to continue salt hay production as the upland areas converted to summer cottages. For Mr. Schuldice, the marshes were perfect for gunning expeditions. Today, a plaque on the Island recognizes his donation of 300 acres to Massachusetts Audubon Society and his lifelong interest in the conservation of wildlife.

The Cape Codder published this small note about Lieutenant’s Island in 1949:

When taking a ride over Doctor’s Hill in South Wellfleet you are surprised at the new name signs but the roads and hillsides look just the same. I had forgotten the white birch trees that grown on Lieutenant’s Island. Loagy Bay is filling in – it is noticeable. The old “yellow leg hole” was completely dry.

In the late 1950s, the Town of Wellfleet initiated a comprehensive “tax taking” process to tax the many owners of the small lots purchased years back. It’s unclear if the Town had tried to tax them regularly or had only been organized to collect property taxes. Lieutenant’s Island owners of those little lots made up a large part of this list. The land was taken back when there was a lack of response to the latest owner of record, and the land was resold, often in lots that were now made “not divisible.” Some of the sales were to property owners who were able to increase their lot size.

Lieutenant’s Island was in the news in the 1960s when the State Division of Waterway proposed that the bridge over the creek between Silver Spring Harbor and Loagy Bay be replaced with a solid-fill dike. The proposal was made just before regulation of property on or near salt marshes went into effect. Many of the Island property owners — and some others — protested vociferously that the dike would cut-off small-boat navigation and destroy the marsh environment. The Town agreed to delay a decision until the Army Corps of Engineers ruled. Fortunately the Corps ruled “no dike,” as it would cut-off a navigable waterway. The Town finally did straighten the roadway.

As with other property they owned in Wellfleet, by mid-century the Crowells had organized their holdings into a real estate company, creating subdivisions, and selling and building summer homes. In 1966 and 1967, in articles in the Cape Codder, Mr. Crowell’s proposed new house lots on Lieutenant’s Island were contested as too close to the marsh — similar to the arguments residents of the Old Wharf area made at the same time.

There were also heated arguments about who owned the land, a battle Massachusetts Audubon took on, claiming ownership to land the Schuldice family had left to the organization. The original plan Mr. Crowell made was withdrawn, but development eventually took place. This was the beginning, however, of some residents standing up for the protection of the island’s fragile nature: its water supply, waste removal practices, and eroding edges.

By the late 1960s, telephone service and electricity existed from utility poles serving several homes on the east island. A further private underground power network was created in 1973.  This activity created the Lieutenant’s Island Association, incorporated later in 1999 as the Lieutenant’s Island Services Improvement Company. The association today also cares for the network of private roads on the Island. The homeowners group works to remind owners of the Island’s fragility, and to engage in the best known practices regarding water use, wastewater, and commercial products, and to respect the endangered species that are trying to exist there also — the diamondback terrapin and the osprey.

By 1972 – according to the Wellfleet topological map created then — there were 35 houses on Lieutenant’s Island. Lisa Ricard Claro, a grandchild of the Breck family, wrote a memory piece about her visit to the Island in the 1970s.

Lieutenant’s Island was also in the news during the period of heightened development in the 1980s. A Cape Codder article in 1984 counts 60 houses, with a warning that these could double in number. More alarms were raised, especially from a Mrs. Stearns, that the water supply was threatened.

The sandbank edge of the western portion of Lieutenant’s Island has become another area of concern, since concrete seawalls create problems in a fragile landscape. The 2006 Wellfleet Harbor Management Report carefully covers this “coastal armoring” that the western side of the Island has now, with the phenomena carried out in separate permits to owners. When one owner armors, neighbors experience worse erosion, and so the process unfolds.

The Massachusetts Audubon Society now owns 1,100 acres in South Wellfleet, with a substantial portion the marshes surrounding Lieutenant’s Island, through gifts of the Schuldice and the Crowell Families. One of their recent projects is an oyster reef located just southwest of the Island. The Nature Conservancy, the Town of Wellfleet and NOAA are all supporters of this important research project, as reefs can buffer the shoreline and remove nitrogen from the water. Depending on the outcome here, Wellfleet may establish even more reefs as part of their harbor management.

Modest land protection on the Island also comes from the portions owned by the Town of Wellfleet, the Wellfleet Conservation Trust, and the South Wellfleet Conservation Trust.

It’s difficult to predict if human settlement on Lieutenant’s Island will overwhelm the

Aerial View Lieutenant's Island

Aerial View Lieutenant’s Island

various attempts to reinvigorate natural processes — the oysters, the ospreys’ nests, and the protection of the diamondback terrapins. Let us hope for the best.


Wellfleet Harbor Management Plan, Town of Wellfleet, Natural Resources Advisory Board, 2006

Wellfleet Historical Society’s listing sheets of properties of historical interest, produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s

U.S. Federal Census collection at

David Kew’s Cape Cod History site:

Barnstable Patriot (various) online archive:

Barnstable County Deeds available at

Newspaper account online at

Cape Codder available at








Family history researcher living in New York City.
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1 Response to Developing Lieutenant’s Island

  1. Pat Young loop says:

    A very interesting history…

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