Name the place on Cape Cod that was beloved by Jackson Pollock, Tennessee Williams, E. E. Cummings and Henry David Thoreau. These 19th and 20th century icons of American arts and literature each stayed (and created work) in the Peaked Hill Bars dune shacks of the Cape Cod National Seashore, nestled between Provincetown and Truro.
Though the artistic heyday of the dune shacks was between the 1920s and the 1950s, the shacks actually got their start as a life-saving station established in 1882 known as Peaked Hill Bars. There were shacks built by the Massachusetts Humane Society along the desolate dunes to house the members of the United States Life-Saving Service, whose mission it was to help survivors of shipwrecks. The shacks would provide shelter and supplies to shipwrecked sailors; in fact they’re mentioned in transcendental essayist Thoreau’s 1865 book Cape Cod.
The 19 shacks that remain there today were mostly built in the 1920s, supposedly using the scraps of shipwrecks that washed up on the beach and parts of the old life-saving station. Drawn to the nearby artist’s colony in Provincetown, artists and writers would escape to the solitude of the shacks for creative inspiration. The shacks have never been wired with electricity or running water, so staying in one offered the chance to escape from the daily grind and become immersed in the surrounding beauty.
One of the most famous early residents of the dune shacks was playwright Eugene O’Neill, who bought the original life-saving station from Mabel Dodge and moved in with his second wife, Anne Bolton. While living there, he penned both Anna Christie (1920) and The Hairy Ape (1921). His residence (which was later buried by the dunes’ shifting sands) added a sort of artsy cachet to the primitive shacks, drawing the likes of Tennessee Williams, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Norman Mailer, Mark Rothko, E.E. Cummings and Harry "The Poet of the Dunes" Kemp, to name a few, either to visit or stay in the desolate surroundings. Jack Kerouac developed some of his book On The Road in one of the shacks, too. It was an era of freedom, inspiration (and probably one hell of a party).
By the late 1950s, the dune shacks’ popularity began to wane as Provincetown’s bohemian renaissance was shifting. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy designated the nearly 1,950 acres of Peaked Hill Bars land as part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, protecting it from further development, but essentially beginning the end of the dune shack era by placing shacks under the ownership of the National Park Service (NPS). Several abandoned shacks were torn down, while others became embroiled in legal battles over ownership and dwelling rights. Most of the shack owners settled in 1967, with the exception of one that dragged on until 1991 and another that has remained privately owned. In 1989, the park-owned properties were designated landmarks by the National Registry of Historic Places, despite backlash from the Seashore.
In the mid-1990s, the shacks re-opened as week-long residence opportunities for artists, musicians and writers. Several non-profits in Provincetown help the NPS with the stays for the summer residency programs. The would-be residents must apply, and are chosen by jury selection or by lottery. Indeed, the NPS doesn’t mince words on how rustic a stay at the dune shacks can be: “No housekeeping services; Free assortment of mosquitoes, mice, snakes, voles, ticks.” It doesn’t seem to deter those who vie to stay for a week or two as a unique opportunity to dwell on the windswept dunes and draw inspiration from them. Far from the Cape's bustling (but charming) downtown hubs, the dune shacks are an icon of Cape Cod’s artistic history.
If you’re interested in visiting the dune shacks, Art’s Dune Tours is the best way to see them and learn all of the local lore surrounding them. The vehicles are outfitted with special fat tires that don’t damage the fragile dune ecosystem. The company was founded in 1946 by Arthur Costa, who worked at a local Ford dealership and started out by offering a taxi service to the dune shacks in his 1936 Ford Woody. Today, nearly 75 years later, the thriving business is operated by Art’s son, Rob Costa. In addition to touring the dunes, add-on experiences include sunset clambakes, sunrise photography, kayaking and tours of Race Point Light.
Alternatively, you can park at the parking lot on Route 6 across from Snail Road and hike the path through the dunes (just be sure to be respectful of people’s privacy).