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‘This is the symbol of our town’: Planned demolition of beloved boardwalk divides Sandwich

For decades, children have launched themselves into Mill Creek off of the planks of the Sandwich boardwalk.
For decades, children have launched themselves into Mill Creek off of the planks of the Sandwich boardwalk.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

SANDWICH — The Sandwich Boardwalk is a 1,350-foot journey to a simpler time, a narrow vestige of the long trek that fishermen and beachcombers have taken since 1875 across Mill Creek, over a large salt marsh, and to the dunes on Cape Cod Bay.

It’s featured on the town’s website and in its annual report. Postcards show its short, curved bridge, where jumpers have cannonballed into the tidal creek for nearly 150 years. In 2010, National Geographic named it one of the top 10 boardwalks in America.

But this month, the town’s Historic District Committee voted to tear it down.

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Town officials voiced safety, environmental, and accessibility concerns in seeking to replace the boardwalk with a higher, wider, and bulkier structure that critics say would scarcely resemble the wooden path that has run low across the marsh for generations.

“This is the symbol of our town. We’re talking about a 150-year-old icon for Cape Cod,” said Candy Thomson, part of an opposition group called Friends of the Sandwich Boardwalk. “This still exists because good stewards kept the faith, and now we’re about to break that chain.”

Youngsters waited to jump from the Sandwich boardwalk into the water.
Youngsters waited to jump from the Sandwich boardwalk into the water.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Town officials say the boardwalk, which lacks guardrails for nearly all of its length, does not comply with disability standards. While repairs over the years have kept it standing, the structure is nearing its end, they said.

The push to replace the beloved landmark has drawn howls of protest and organized resistance. Opponents have appealed the demolition decision to the Old King’s Highway Regional Historic District Commission, the nation’s largest historic district, which lies north of Route 6 and extends from Sandwich to Orleans.

Thomson and others acknowledge that little is left of the original boardwalk, which was devastated in the Portland Gale of 1898, battered in 1991 by Hurricane Bob and the Perfect Storm, and rebuilt and repaired many times over its long history.

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The boardwalk also is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Too many repairs after too many storms appear to be a major reason. Still, its history is embedded here.

A boulder serves as a marker leading to the Sandwich boardwalk.
A boulder serves as a marker leading to the Sandwich boardwalk.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“The litmus test is to ask anyone in town if it’s historic,” Ray Howard told the Historic District Committee before its 3-to-2 decision in favor of demolition. “Overwhelmingly, they will say yes. It may not currently be on the National Register, the who’s who of historic places, but it is historic to our people.

“It represents our community, our culture, and while not the most historic structure in town, it is the most important,” added Howard, who is chair of the Friends group.

Cindy Sullivan shares that sentiment. A memorial bench near the boardwalk is named for her son Daniel, who died in 2018 at age 39.

“I do feel it’s historic,” said Sullivan, who paused in her car before leaving the parking lot. “It’s the way I remember it, the way my son remembered it. He had so much fun here. His son did, too.”

Sandwich boardwalk preservationists, left to right, Dean Coe, Jon Fitch, Candy Thomson, and Peter Thomas stood on the boardwalk that is slated to be replaced.
Sandwich boardwalk preservationists, left to right, Dean Coe, Jon Fitch, Candy Thomson, and Peter Thomas stood on the boardwalk that is slated to be replaced.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The long boardwalk to the bay looks much the way it always has, its supporters said. Its unchanging summons to the surrounding natural beauty — the water, the dunes, the sky — gives it a special place in local memory.

“There have been promises made and promises broken on this bridge,” said Peter Thomas, a lifelong Sandwich resident who helped rebuild the boardwalk after nature’s double whammy in 1991. “Everybody has a picture of it in their homes.”

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Thomas and other opponents object to its wholesale replacement. Instead, repairs should be made where needed, just as they’ve always been, they said. But Assistant Town Engineer Sam Jensen told the Historic District Committee that the boardwalk’s underpinnings are in “a very fragile state because of the rot and decay.”

“It doesn’t have a whole lot of life left,” he said.

Another sticking point is the replacement’s design. Under the current proposal, the boardwalk would stand as much as 5 feet higher in some places, the Friends group said. Guardrails would be added, rising about 42 inches from the deck, with 4-inch viewing gaps between slats of planking on the sides.

Instead of a boardwalk, some critics complain, the town will have a tunnel in the sky.

“This will be going away, what is happening right here,” said Dean Coe, gesturing to a group of young people on the bridge, dropping lines baited with chicken to catch crabs on the creek bottom.

The longstanding tradition of jumping off the bridge also would be threatened, opponents said. It would be risky for children to climb over a railing nearly 4 feet high to take the plunge, compared with the easily reached platform that currently exists, they said.

Youngsters jump from the beloved Sandwich boardwalk into the water of the marsh below. A landmark since the 19th century, the boardwalk is now slated to be replaced. Preservationists are fighting to save it.
Youngsters jump from the beloved Sandwich boardwalk into the water of the marsh below. A landmark since the 19th century, the boardwalk is now slated to be replaced. Preservationists are fighting to save it.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“It’s soulless,” Thomson said of the design. “What they got was an engineering solution to an engineering problem.”

Brendan Brides, the town’s building commissioner, argued that guardrails are essential for handicapped safety and access, and that nostalgic aesthetics cannot take precedence over the needs of the disabled and elderly.

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“There are many sad stories of people not being able to use that boardwalk. Right now, we are discriminating against people with disabilities,” Brides said. “These are the people’s rights. They come before what you think you’re entitled to.”

Brides cited the experience of his stepdaughter, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair.

“She was born 38 years ago in this town, and to this day she has not crossed that boardwalk,” said Brides, who also is a member of the Sandwich Commission on Disability. Demolition could begin in fall 2022, he added.

Carl Johansen, an 86-year-old disabled Navy veteran from Sandwich, also was adamant that the boardwalk must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“I can’t walk on the boardwalk the way it is without having something to put my hand on,” Johansen said. “It needs to be safe for everybody.”

His brother-in-law had a dying wish to cross the boardwalk one last time, Johansen said. He flew to Massachusetts from California, went to the marsh’s edge, but discovered that his wheelchair and the boardwalk were not compatible.

“He wanted to relive one of the positive memories he had as a child, and he couldn’t do that,” Johansen said.

The Sandwich Historic District Committee has scheduled a Sept. 8 hearing to gather public input on design proposals, which by then could include other options. Whatever the decision, the chair of the Historic District Committee said the time has come to move ahead.

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“Our job is to serve the public, and that means all of the public, and that means inclusivity,” said Mary Foley, the committee chair. “Whatever goes up here will be unique for Sandwich, and it will be special, and people will learn to love it.”

But opponents said the fight is far from over.

The Historic District Committee vote “is only the first step in a long permitting process that will require 10 or more permits,” Howard said. “There is a chance to save the existing boardwalk, or at least to influence a design that more closely resembles what has existed in this special location.”

Jon Fitch, an attorney who filed the demolition appeal, recalled standing in Mill Creek decades ago and catching his children as they took their first jumps from the bridge. Pausing near the spot, he recounted the magic of that experience, repeated countless times by countless families.

Fitch said he fears those simple pleasures will be lost.

“My first reaction is sadness,” he said, “for all those who won’t know the history of this.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.