Last Refuge Building Comes Down

April 10, 2024

CHATHAM – With erosion knocking on its side entrance, the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge visitors center on Morris Island, the last building standing on the two-acre parcel, was torn down this week.

Starting Monday, U.S. Fish and Wildlife crews demolished the building and removed the parking lot and other pavement from the site. A 15-space gravel parking area will be added and the open areas seeded before the project is completed April 20. All that will remain will be a few small storage sheds.

Loss of the visitors center, which also housed the refuge offices, won’t impact its mission of safeguarding the shorebirds that nest or stage on the off-shore Monomoy Islands, said Refuge Manager Rick Nye.

“We’re getting into the field season, so we’ll be spending most of our time on the island,” he said.

The search for new office or visitor facilities for the refuge is ongoing, Nye said. Several spots have been investigated but so far none have been suitable, for various reasons. Any possibilities are sent up the chain of command, with the federal Department of the Interior having the final say. In the meantime, Nye and his staff are working out of their homes.

For 80 years, the refuge has had a presence on Morris Island, first occupying space in a former Coast Guard garage before converting a former U.S. Weather Service building into the visitor center and office. It was the last of three buildings on the site that had to be demolished due to erosion, which has carved more than 100 feet from the bluff overlooking the Atlantic.

The erosion began in earnest around 2020. Boardwalks through the woods were gradually removed as the bank fell away, and in 2021 stairs to the beach were taken out. That spring the National Weather Service closed its weather balloon launching station on the property and the building was razed. That fall, a dorm and garage — the former Coast Guard building that stood on the site for more than 100 years — was demolished to prevent it from tumbling down the bluff.

Established in 1944 on the off-shore Monomoy Island, the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge hosts the largest common tern nesting location on the eastern seaboard. Other species, including endangered piping plovers and roseate terns as well as red knots, either nest on the island or use it as a stopover during migration. South Monomoy (a 1978 storm split the island in two) is also home to one of the largest colonies of gray seals in the region.

Nye said that in the 1950s, before the Morris Island Road causeway was built, the refuge had an office on Chatham’s Main Street. The former Coast Guard garage served as office and dorm space and a small visitors center after that. The visitors center was built in the early 1970s by the Weather Service when it operated a weather radar station there. It was converted to a visitors center and offices in the 1990s.

The building was about 90 feet from the edge of the bluff before it was torn down, but the septic system was closer and had to be removed, Nye said, which rendered the building unusable. Waiting longer would have made it more difficult, if not impossible, for the necessary heavy machinery to do the work.

“Now is the time to do it, to get ahead of it,” he said.

The crews — who came from the Eastern Massachusetts Refuge Complex in Sudbury, other locations around New England and as far away as the Midwest — were also slated to remove the septic system that served the dorm as well as 60 feet of piping and two cisterns that served the property’s storm drain system. Sections of old foundation from a Coast Guard dorm that was removed in the 1940s — some of which can be seen at low tide on the beach below the bluff — were also removed.

A water bottle refill station that was next to the visitors center which was funded by CARE for the Cape and Islands was relocated to the Pleasant Bay Community Boating campus, according to CARE Executive Director Jill Talladay.

Nye extended thanks to Coast Guard Station Chatham for storing the refuge’s boats. The town also provided support in the form of water used to keep insulation from blowing away during the demolition. The town also accepted a large diorama depicting the islands’ flora and fauna that is now at the Chatham Town Hall Annex on George Ryder Road, he added.

“It was good to save that,” he commented.

The refuge Morris Island property will remain closed to the public until April 21 so that crews can complete their work, Nye said. The work has to be done carefully, given the unstable nature of the bluff.

“We’re not disturbing any more ground than we have to,” he said.

Although work on the refuge islands is getting underway about three weeks later in the season than usual — mostly due to weather — Nye said that remains the priority.

“We’ve been here 80 years, and have every intention of being here another 80,” he said. “I’ve got to think on that scale.”