The history of Billingsgate Island

There have been many educated (and uninformed) guesses about where the ancient city of Atlantis might be hidden underwater. Although the city has yet to be seen both literally and figuratively, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other cities that have been covered in water and forgotten. On Cape Cod, there is such a town that only reveals itself at low tide – or, what’s left of it, anyway.

The story of Billingsgate Island reads like a story of Atlantis, with its main lighthouse facing destruction not once, not twice, but multiple times after it was built. Along with these ruins, visitors can sometimes see the remains of those who once lived on the island, making it a weird, but cool place to visit on Cape Cod.

The Fatal and Fascinating History of Billingsgate Island, aka “The Atlantis of Cape Cod”

About a century ago, Cape Cod was home to more than water – there was a veritable island in the middle. This island was known as Billingsgate Island, and it was not just any small island. It was inhabited by residents who owned homes there and was what many people thought was a permanent fixture on Cape Cod, which makes its demise all the more tragic. The island itself was once home to 60 acres of land, which is quite large considering the size of Cape Cod Bay, and was known to be a healthy fishing village. According to CapeCod.com, the island would see over 80 people – which was a lot for an island like this – during the peak summer months.

As time passed and the island became more popular it was determined that a lighthouse would be built in 1822. The 19th century was when Billingsgate Island saw its largest population and highest levels of tourism high, and it was a well-known attraction for those visiting Cape Cod. With the introduction of plans for a lighthouse, it was thought Billingsgate Island should continue to be a hot summer attraction, with the lighthouse keeper retaining a permanent residence on the island. However, the lighthouse was only the beginning, and soon enough the island saw 30 residences, a school, an oil plant, a general store, and even a baseball team.

  • Fun fact: The baseball team that played on Billingsgate Island rowed across Cape Cod Bay to compete against teams from the Outer Cape, making sporting events a tourist attraction.

Related: A ‘food tour’ is the new way to explore Cape Cod

The Fall and Eventual Rise of the Lost Island Community of Cape Cod

Unfortunately, the construction of the lighthouse was the last good thing to come from Billingsgate Island. Shortly after it was completed, people started noticing something strange about the island. The rate of erosion of its beaches seemed to be occurring at a faster rate, which caused some unease among those who had permanent residences on the island, such as its fishermen.

Despite the erosion, many people remained on the island until the end of the 19th century. However, following this, many started leaving as the water got closer and closer to their backdoors – literally. The first to leave were the fishermen, followed by the locals who lost their homes one by one as they were finally swept out into the bay. Although the lighthouse was moved to prevent it from falling into the bay, this measure was only a short-term solution and eventually it too suffered the same fate. The island was finally submerged in 1942, earning it the nickname “Cape Cod Atlantis”.

  • Fact: The lighthouse was flooded three times during the 190th century – 1873, 1875 and 1882.

Visit Billingsgate Island Today

While the island remains flooded and exists mostly underwater today, parts of it can be seen at low tide in Cape Cod Bay. It’s still a tourist attraction for those fascinated by Cape Cod’s Atlantis history, and it’s also a popular spot for those who enjoy shellfish fishing. In 1928, the island was turned into a bird sanctuary, so it’s a great place for birdwatchers and nature lovers.

Those who visit the island might be able to find anything from masonry blocks to old household items that have been left behind. Therefore, it is also an ideal place for beach lovers! Finding an artifact left behind by Billingsgate Cottages is a real treat for visitors. The remnants of the island are accessible by boat and at low tide the sandbar will be visible.


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