An Afternoon in Widow’s Hole

Sometimes even the smallest speck of shoreline can launch you in a time machine through the history human interaction with the land, unveiling the ghosts of ancestors and industry and history simply by existing.

Such is the case with Widows Hole Preserve in Greenport, a former 2.4 acre ExxonMobil oil tank farm site that was given by the oil company to the Peconic Land Trust in 2012.

While the uplands, where the six oil tanks stood during the site’s operation from the 1920s through the 1980s, are currently being restored, if you walk to the dead end of Clark Street off Fourth Street, you’ll find a little pocket oasis, a new drainage swale filled and surrounded with wildflowers in autumn but with snow in winter, neatly framing the North Ferry’s passage back and forth from Greenport to Shelter Island, the boatyards and bustle of downtown on the horizon.

Along the banks of Widow’s Hole, flanked with industrious oyster cages and looking out on the near-shore buoys of oyster farmers, at low tide you’ll walk amongst shoals of mussels and thick roots of cordgrass, in the clay-streaked mud that made this part of the Peconic Estuary a hotbed for brickbuilding centuries ago.

Kayaks filled with snow dot the shoreline, a reminder that recreation is now as much an economic driver of this estuary as oystering, brickbuilding and bunker fishing were in bygone years.


Above: Kayaks and oyster cages at Widows Hole remind visitors of the many uses of the Peconic Estuary, mussels on the shoreline, a peace sign, cordgrass plantings facing erosion and the ExxonMobil tank farm that stood at the site through much of the 20th Century in a photo from the 1940s.


Superstorm Sandy wrecked this shoreline the year the Peconic Land Trust took ownership of this property, dealing a blow to this sensitive, erosion-prone shoreline, but providing another opportunity for growth and change. 

Through burgeoning relationships with Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Peconic Estuary Partnership, this site has become a field laboratory for researchers, with the assistance of elementary and high school students, to attempt to build back a living shoreline, restoring habitat along the shore with natural buffers of low rocks and dunes planted with cordgrass, in an attempt to avoid the bulkhead arms race that has long plagued the Peconics. It’s a work in progress, and one that banks heavily on the kindness of Mother Nature as the plantings begin to take hold.

The restoration of our dunes, and salt marshes, and the building of oyster reefs, will be a key to slowing the wave action that devastates shorelines during storms that have buffeted our shores with increased frequency in recent years. 

“We’ve seen a large increase in hardened structures over last couple decades in response to rising sea levels and shoreline events,” said Peconic Estuary Partnership Coordinator Elizabeth Hornstein in a recent Peconic Land Trust Zoom discussion on living shorelines. “These structures do disrupt natural sediment erosion patterns, and put other properties in the area at risk, and then you have other property owners putting up hardened structures for protection… We want to use these projects to educate property owners on the benefits of living shorelines over hardened shorelines.”

“After Sandy, there was more and more erosion off of upland edge,” said Stephen Schott, a habitat restoration specialist who worked on the project for Cornell Cooperative Extension. ‘This is a shoreline that had been bulkheaded, and most likely backfilled behind the bulkhead. There was nothing natural left to that shoreline…. We decided to use a dune system with a rock underlayment — boulders on top of filter cloth underneath dune. The upland edge eroded regularly, but the dunes are kind of meant to be sacrificial. That’s the way nature meant it. Even on our South Shore beaches, in wintertime the dunes get blasted. It acts as a wave baffle, to dampen wave energy as it comes into the site.”                         —BY

Beth Young

Beth Young built her first boat out of driftwood tied together with phragmites behind her family’s apartment above the old Mill Creek Inn in Southold. Nowadays, she spends most of her time kayaking, learning about shellfish, writing newspaper stories, trying to sail a Sunfish, and watching the way the bay changes from day to day. You can send her a message at [email protected]

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