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Literary Tourism: Cape Cod

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Always books. Never boring.

This is a guest post by Christopher Setterlund, the author of In My Footsteps: A Cape Cod Travel Guide, released in October 2013. His second book, In My Footsteps: Nantucket & Martha’s Vineyard, is scheduled for Summer 2015. Chris loves travel writing and photography, has spent almost his entire life on Cape Cod, and is an avid runner in his free time. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisSetterlund.


Life on Cape Cod is in many ways just like a storybook.  Where else can one have such natural beauty and historical significance all at their fingertips?  Beaches, lighthouses, cranberry bogs, kettle ponds, windmills, and countless historic homes each make up their own chapters in the book of Cape Cod.

My opinion of what constitutes historical significance or natural beauty may be a bit biased and skewed thanks to my own long history on Cape Cod; I believe that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of places deserving of their own chapter in the book of Cape Cod.  That being said, I believe that there are many places that have received an even larger stamp of approval from a series of well-known authors and books either about the Cape or written while on the Cape.

The easiest and most obvious place to start any discussion of historical and natural beauty when it come to Cape Cod is to turn to Henry David Thoreau and his appropriately titled book Cape Cod.  Originally published in 1865, three years after his death, Cape Cod is Thoreau’s account of his adventures on the pristine peninsula in the early 1850’s.  Along the way up toward the Outer Cape and what is now the Cape Cod National Seashore Thoreau meets many locals and sees many sites, some of which are still standing in their same locales.

The middle sister of the Three Sisters Lighthouses

The middle sister of the Three Sisters Lighthouses

Thoreau visits Eastham, which he refers to as the ‘Nauset Plains’ and is able to view the Three Sisters Lighthouses in all of their glory along the cliffs guiding ships.  The original three diminutive brick structures were replaced by wooden ones in 1892.  The middle lighthouse remained active while the other two ‘sisters’ were deactivated by 1911.  In 1923 a new lighthouse came to roost along the shores of Eastham.  It is now known as Nauset Lighthouse but until 1923 it was one half of the Chatham Twin Lights.  The three wooden lights now reside in a field a quarter-mile from Nauset Light with the middle light, known as ‘The Beacon’ still has its lantern while the other two are ‘headless.’

Sunrise at Highland Lighthouse

Sunrise at Highland Lighthouse

Further up the coast, Thoreau encountered another well known historic spot.  He was able to visit Highland Lighthouse in Truro in the 1850’s when it was the original brick tower.  This tower was built in 1797 under the authority of President George Washington.  The current brick tower was built in 1857 and is the oldest and tallest lighthouse on Cape Cod.  It still stands today and can be toured and climbed during the summer.  However there was a time when its survival was in question.  Even back when he visited Thoreau noticed the threat erosion proposed to the lighthouse, his thoughts on erosion rang true when the lighthouse had to be moved 450 feet to the west of its original location in 1996.  Luckily it is safe now, for the time being of course.

The name Antone Costa might not be a name that jumps to mind when thinking of Cape Cod, but his story is the stuff of nightmares.  The subject of Leo Damore’s book In His Garden, Costa was convicted of murdering and dismembering four women in Truro in 1969.  He was sentenced to life in prison and committed suicide in his cell in 1974.

The gruesome acts of dismemberment purportedly took place in a creepy brick crypt in the back corner of Pine Grove Cemetery in Truro.  The crypt still stands as a morbid reminder of what took place there over forty years ago.  The cemetery sits close to a mile down a desolate dirt road.  To further add to the legend is the fact that paranormal activity has been reported at the scene by many people.

Crypt at Pine Grove Cemetery

Crypt at Pine Grove Cemetery

A spot that once stood, and may someday again, is the subject of another well known book.  Henry Beston’s The Outermost House is the account of Beston building and living in a small dune shack he called ‘the Fo’castle.’  The shack was built in 1925 in the dunes of Eastham approximately two miles from the Coast Guard station.  Beston’s book was published in 1928.  The shack was moved back due to erosion in 1933 and again in 1944.  The shack was finally claimed by the sea in 1978.  There is a movement to rebuild Fo’castle at; maybe someday it will be but for now one can only gaze out toward the south from Coast Guard Beach in Eastham and imagine what used to be.

Anyone who has gone to public school in the past fifty to a hundred years surely knows the words to the song America the Beautiful.  It is a beautiful patriotic hymn speaking to the joy of living in the greatest country in the world.  This song was written by Katharine Lee Bates as a poem in 1893 with a revised version gaining her notoriety in 1904.  It was even lovingly covered by the legendary Ray Charles in 1972.

katharine lee bates statue

Bates moved to Wellesley at the age of twelve but her childhood home at 16 Main Street in Falmouth is an historic site maintained by the town’s historical society.  There is also a statue of her in front of the library on the village green.

These are just a few of the many chapters of the Book of Cape Cod.  The best way to ‘read’ more about this beautiful place is to come and visit for yourself.  Have fun and happy traveling!

If You Go: The Three Sisters Lighthouses – Cable Rd., Eastham, ¼ mile west of Nauset Lighthouse.

Highland Lighthouse – 27 Highland Light Rd, North Truro

Pine Grove Cemetery – Cemetery Road, Truro

Coast Guard Beach – 2 Ocean View Dr., Eastham

Katharine Lee Bates Childhood Home – 16 Main Street, Falmouth