100-year-old Cape Cod Hoofprints Preserved in Peat
A few weeks after last month’s storm I walked down to Pochet Beach in Orleans to see what might have been uncovered – for the beach obliterates, but it also reveals. I stopped to chat briefly with one of several men who were sweeping the strand with metal detectors. He pointed down the beach to a long dark stripe about 200 yards away, just where the first major overwash was.
“See that stretch of peat, just below the foredune? I’ve found some old coins there and you can see wagon tracks and footprints in the peat”
I had read about this phenomenon, but I had never seen it for myself. I walked down to where a large shelf of peat lay exposed on the lower beach. Runoff from above it was seeping seaward and cascading over the exposed, fibrous peat ledges in small waterfalls. Such exposed ledges of peat are not uncommon on barrier beaches and are good indicators of how dunes retreat. These peat ledges are intact portions of a salt marsh that once grew behind the dune line of the barrier beach. The beach had migrated landward, rolling over the salt marsh and burying it, but in time erosion had exhumed it, leaving the peat substrate exposed on the lower beach.
This peat ledge contained a remarkable number of signs of past human passage. There were dozens of hoof prints in the peat—some were deep, bowl-like indentations; some shallower, but each one showed clearly the perimeter of an iron horse shoe. Most prints ran roughly parallel to the beach, and crisscrossing them was a veritable railroad yard of wagon tracks, 3 to 4 inches wide, all also tending north to south. I felt as if I had come upon the remains an ancient Mesopotamian village.
It is the history of this particular stretch of beach that likely explains the profusion of horse prints and wagon tracks. The Pochet Lifesaving Service station stood just south of here in the late 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century, and much traffic no doubt occurred between the station and Nauset Beach to the north.
I took out my penknife and carefully carved out a block of peat from the edge of the ledge that contained a deep bowl-like imprint of a hoof about 5” x 4” and brought it home with me. As an artifact, I suspect this peat impression will only have significance for those who already knows what it means. Moreover, I know it will not survive as a preserved specimen, but will crumble to dust when it dries out. Still, these are our Cape fossils, if only 100 or so years old, and we must take them as such, for they are all we have. They have that draw of a vanished past made more intense by its transported and revealed-again nature. They represent a mark we once made on this land, now in the process of vanishing once again, this time for good, at the behest of the tide and the waves.