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Pilgrim Monument, line drawing by Ewa Nogiec
Provincetown History: Back Shore

In times past, the ocean beach framed by towering dunes was known as the "back shore" or "outside shore." In the mid-1800s Thoreau wrote of the grandeur of "sea and desert" after walking on the dunes. Perhaps the first painter known to have come here, Marcus Waterman arrived around 1875 to paint the dunes after having painted in the Sahara.

Over the years artists and writers have walked and worked and partied on the outer beaches and dunes. A number of them built shacks (without electricity or running water) in the dunes, where they stayed in the more clement months, although some artists have lived year round in dune shacks.

The "back shore" is part of the Province Lands, now incorporated into the National Seashore. The Cape Cod National Seashore, established in 1961, is an area of nearly 44,000 acres stretching from Chatham to Provincetown and administered by the National Park Service.

Provincetown artist and amateur archeologist Ross Moffett headed the group of citizens, mostly artists and writers, who fought for inclusion of the Province Lands in the National Seashore despite strong local opposition. Since 1654 the Province Lands had been a protected area and existed in an essentially virgin state. In large measure due to Moffett's efforts, the Province Lands were deeded to the National Seashore on July 26, 1962.

Today the Park Service both protects the area and welcomes visitors. There are parking lots at Race Point Beach and a Visitor Center nearby. It is possible to walk over the dunes and into the "back shore" from Route 6; the Ranger-led walking tours or dune buggy tours provide a good introduction.

Some dune shacks still stand and remain in use. C-Scape, built in the 1940s, was modified over the years but remains a primitive structure. At present it is leased by the Provincetown Community Compact which offers an Artist-in-Residence program at the shack in the summer as well as some limited residencies open to the public. The shack lived in by poet Harry Kemp has been moved from its site to the Heritage Museum.


from PROVINCETOWN: THE ART COLONY A Brief History and Guide by Nyla Ahrens, published by Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 1997. Revised edition published 2000. Available in print at Provincetown Art Association and Museum Store.

© Nyla Ahrens

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Fishing Boat line drawing by Ewa Nogiec

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