Monday, October 5, 2009

Traveling Sand Hill of Cape Henlopen

This article was found in the June 5th , 1890 issue of Hagerstown, Maryland, Herald & Torch Light newspaper. We still have a 'walking dune' located at this Cape in the Cape Henlopen State Park and can be visited.

Lewes, Del., June 5, 1890:
Without a doubt a most interesting feature of the Atlantic Coast, a most interesting phenomena, is the traveling sand hill of Cape Henlopen. A ridge of sand, more than a mile long, fifty feet high and two hundred yards wide at its base, is rolling inland like a mighty wave from the sea and with power that is irresistible. Formed at the oceans edge, no body knows for certain when it began to move inland. Within the memory of men barely past middle age , it has traversed a space worth describing.
In 1845, General Joe Johnson, as a government engineer, was engaged in surveying the coast, he found on Cape Henlopen a great ridge of sand. It was in appearance like the ridges of sand that divide the Great South Bay of Long Island from the sea. It towered seventy two feet above high water mark. It was a ragged ridge, with course grass growing over a few parts of its surface and a few gnarled and stunted pines on its land side.
Behind it is a salt marsh with water from one to three feet deep at low ebb tide. Inland from the marsh, a small growth of pine trees. Half a mile back from the beach trees from two to three feet in diameter, tall in proportion, were found. Winding through this forest was a road established in colonial days, having mile stones by its side to show the wayfarer how far he had traveled from Lewes to the Cape Henlopen lighthouse.
In making the survey, General Johnson, noted whenever the wind came from North'erd it picked up sand on the weather side of the great ridge in such clouds that one could not travel the ridge except with face covering and then with great effort and pain, it was sometimes almost like facing a charge of birdshot. The sand thus picked up by the wind was carried over the brow of the hill where the wind formed an eddy that could not support the weight of the sand. With every northerly gale, inch after inch was cut away in front and carried to the back. The gnarled and twisted pine on the back disappeared under the wave of sand. The edge of the salt marsh was covered, the tree covered ridges were next buried out of sight. Then the great forest was reached. Where the trees stood thick and formed a solid wall of limbs and leaves the sand wave rolled up into a perpendicular wall before them, higher and higher, until level with the tree tops and then curled over and broke on them as a wave of water might have done. Where the trees were far apart the sand flowed in and filled the opening. It steadily advanced and the people saw with wonder the forest buried before their eyes. The great trees that seemed to be able in their strength to defy all that nature might bring against them, strove to put forth new branches above the rising tide, grew faint in the struggle, turned their green leaves to yellow, the yellow cones to grey and black, then died of suffocation.
As the years passed the receding wave began to uncover the old surface that had been buried. Old land marks along the edge of the salt marsh reappeared. Finally the winds scooped the sand out of the ridges and hollows of the marsh and today the the tide ebbs and flows there and at low tide the water is as deep as it was before. Then, strange to tell, a new growth of pines sprung up on the little old ridges and a new ridge of sand formed alongshore where the old one had stood. The new ridge alongshore is only a
small one , twelve to fifteen feet above high
water, but it is growing as the new trees behind it grow and it may be possibly start inland as the big one that proceeded it did. As the big sand wave continued its way, the old forest that had been buried began to be uncovered again, so that now the stranger that traverses the ridge sees on one hand the living giants of the forest grasping in the last throes of death and one the other the bleached and decaying skeletons of those that had succumb. The picture is desolate and depressing.
Judging from what the local people say here, the wave travels now from fifty feet a year to thirty feet a year where it is obstructed by the forest. It has covered one-half a mile in the last forty years.

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