Work began this week to bring Cotuit’s Rushy Marsh back to life.


Two centuries ago, the first Nickersons came to Cotuit. In May of 1810 the brothers Samuel and Seth Nickerson, who were fishermen frrom Harwich, and their sister Polly’s husband David Rogers, joined with another Harwich fisherman Benony Spinks to buy 115 acres around a small harbor in the south end of Cotuit called Russia Marsh.


In 1812 the four partners divided Russia Marsh into four parts, where they built their homes. The families grew, and the first baby, Eliza Rogers, was born in 1811. There were eventually nine more Nickerson siblings joining Samuel, Seth and Polly in Cotuit.


Forty years ago an old-timer showed me a sketch of this “Oreginal Settlement”, but that was before copy machines, and is now lost. Osterville insurance broker Phil Leonard said the timbers of a wrecked schooner “Oregon” could be seen on the beach in the 1960s, and John Flender repeated the story as folklore he’d heard in the 1930s. Mr. Flender was the nephew of the Morrisons who built the first house alongside Rushy Marsh beach in 1924. I have never been able to find a wreck of that name, so I settle for Oreginal as the origin of the name.


The Great September Gale of 1815,.one of the five greatest storms ever to hit New England, flooded shores from Providence to Dorchester. We have no record of damage to Cotuit, but Russia Marsh homes must have been under water. That began the flight of the Nickersons to “Highground”. Highground, or Highlands, is the area of Cotuit on high ground between Rushy Marsh and Cotuit Port.


The triple hurricanes of 1830 may have flooded the marsh again, but the October Gale of 1841 wrecked the Grand Banks fleet and Cape Cod’s saltworks.


The first public road from Highground to the marsh was built in 1849 across the dike that extends eastward across the top of the pond, now overgrown with poison ivy. A winding creek led out of the pond to the sea.


It was not until 1910 that anyone dared build here. In that year Frank Wesson, the Springfield arms manufacturer, built “Rippleside” just high enough that it has not flooded in the past century’s hurricanes. But the public road was so close to the house that the Wessons persuaded the town in 1930 to move the road westward onto the present causeway built on fill trucked in from Santuit.


In 1924 the first house was built on the beach by Alva Morrison, who was described as “global bird fancier, ex-banker”. In the the first year the house burned down, and rebuilt as it is today, enjoyed by the Bragdon family.


The shore of Rushy Marsh changes constantly. About 1910 the opening to the sea closed, related to radical interventions of the Osterville Cut and dredging. Frank Wesson laid a ten inch pipe to drain the pond. Popponesset spit crept up the coast as far as the Wessons’, until it was breached by Hurricane Carol in 1954. A new spit formed from the north, broadening the beach in front of the old entrance and enclosing a small saltwater pond. In 1956 the town installed a gated wooden sluice into the south end of the pond below Dr. Helen Taussig’s summer cottage. This was soon buried by sand.


Due to street flooding and robust mosquito nesting in the marshes, the town replaced Wesson’s pipe with a 24 inch pipe in 1973.


In 1999, over 50 neighbors and villagers formed the Friends of Rushy Marsh Pond. Barnstable Conservation Commission gave fundamental support to the restoration of the pond. Scientific and technical studies proved that re-introduction of a sluice way should have multiple environmental benefits—restoring fisheries, improving species diversity, improving mosquito control, and providing relief from storm flooding.

After a decade obtaining required permitting and funds, the project is underway, to be completed in May. It reflects a successful collaboration between concerned citizens and responsive government. When it is done it will not be big enough for the fishing boats that the Nickerson seamen sailed into Russia Marsh Harbor, but it will be saltier, cleaner, and healthier.


Published in Barnstable Enterprise 6 April 2012


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  1. » Restoring a Salt Pond: Cotuit’s Rushy Marsh re-opened Says:

    […] regular tidal exchange with Nantucket Sound, but as Cotuit historian Jim Gould points out in his recent excellent history of the area, the shore began to change in 1910 due to human interference with the littoral drift in […]

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