In the 19th century, Billingsgate Island was home to a prosperous fishing community; today, it’s a brick-strewn shoal beneath the waters of Cape Cod Bay, the rest having been swept away by storms and strong tides. The sea will cut you. The sea is indifferent to your suffering. The sea does not care.
Back in its “dry days”, Billingsgate Island sat at the mouth of Wellfleet Harbor and covered an area of about 60 acres. Named after the famous Billingsgate Fish Market in London, the island was a naturally favorable spot for fishing and whaling, and provided access to rich beds of shellfish. At its height, Billingsgate Island boasted 30 homes and a school house, as well as a lighthouse important to mariners up and down Cape Cod.
The lighthouse, built in 1822, was only the second lighthouse built in Cape Cod. It would prove to be a difficult lighthouse to maintain. Stranded and battered in 1855 when a storm cut Billingsgate Island in two, a new lighthouse was built on higher ground in 1858 in a move that ended up only prolonging the inevitable.
The new lighthouse was flooded in 1873, 1875, and 1882, as heavy storms, relentless tides, and shifting sands continued to erase the island piece by piece. A 1000-foot seawall was built around the lighthouse in 1888 to keep the waters at bay, but to no avail. With irresistible erosion continuing at a rapid rate, the lighthouse was finally abandoned in 1915 — and not a moment too soon, it would seem, as it went on to be destroyed by a storm in December of that same year.
The residents of Billingsgate Island had all moved out by 1912, some of them floating their houses across the harbor to be resituated in Wellfleet; some of these “Billingsgate Cottages” can still be seen today. People continued to visit what little bit was left of the island to fish and dig clams and oysters. In 1928 it was turned into a bird sanctuary. By 1942, it was completely submerged.
Today, the remains of Billingsgate Island are exposed during low tide. At such times it can be visited by boat, and is a popular spot for picnicking and shellfishing.
Special thanks to Mel Tulin, who contributed the photos of the remains of Billingsgate Island. Her 7522 Beach Mountain Radio podcast made an episode about her visit to Billingsgate, which you can listen to here.