If you’ve ever gone boating on Pleasant Bay, played a round of golf at Eastward Ho County Club, or driven Nauset Beach South, you can't help but notice Strong Island, a large landmass that is just 930 feet off the banks of Eastward Point, one of Chatham's most exclusive neighborhoods.
You'd also quickly realize that Strong Island isn't just an uninhabited lump in the middle of Pleasant Bay, as there is a single, large home on the island, complete with a swimming pool and private dock adorned with luxury boats.
But, what is the story behind this island and how did people end up living inside of what is now mostly a conservation area?
The tale goes back to the 1930s and involves numerous characters and an ongoing dispute between Strong Island’s inhabitants, the Chatham Conservation Foundation, and the town of Chatham. The good news is that despite the problems between the homeowners and town officials, you can visit most of the island, save the three-acre residential zone.
Be sure keep this story in mind if you plan to check out the beaches, forests, and marshes of Strong Island this summer, as it adds another dimension to the mystery surrounding Pleasant Bay’s inhabited island.
The Original Owner
Before 1936, Strong Island didn't have any full-time inhabitants, although research suggests that the Monomoyick people spent their summers there before the arrival of Europeans, and would head to more protected inland areas for the winter. That all changed in 1936 when banker William H. Potter Jr. purchased the island and built a home on its banks.
The Potter family would spend the next 15 summers on the island, using rafts to collect supplies and running electrical and telephone cables to the mainland along the ocean floor, bringing the necessary services to their home.
By 1951, however, the Potter children had grown, and William was looking to sell the island. A chance meeting between the property's custodian and Victor Horst, a dance studio owner who was looking to get involved with real estate development on the New England coast, would drastically change the island's future.
Sold to Victor Horst
One fateful day in 1952, Horst was flying his small airplane on a fishing expedition when he decided to land in a field on Strong Island. He was immediately greeted by the property’s caretaker, who told him the island was for sale.
Horst didn’t waste much time purchasing the island, although he liked the area so much that he decided against immediately developing it. Instead, Horst and his family would migrate from their Miami home every summer and spend time enjoying Strong Island’s natural beauty.
Development, Disputes, and Compromise
In 1960, Horst finally put forth his first development plan, calling for 21 residential lots on the island. Later, in 1972, Horst changed his plans to include 50 building sites, a move that was approved by town officials. This decision angered Chatham residents, however, as they didn't want to see Strong Island become just another suburb along the east coast of Cape Cod.
This backlash from locals ended up being a good thing, as it made Horst realize how much the island meant to area residents. It was also the catalyst for him donating 70 acres of marshland to the Town of Chatham and bestowing and selling the rest of the land to the Chatham Conservation Foundation in 1974.
As part of this agreement, Horst would keep exclusive access to three acres of land around his house, along with several other buildings on the island, until 2073, while the Conservation Foundation could use the rest of the island and make it accessible to the public. Horst also received a one-time $700,000 payment for the property.
Horst and the Conservation Foundation lived in relative harmony until 2000, when the underwater cable supplying power and telephone service to the island failed, making the house virtually inhabitable. A dispute regarding who was responsible for replacing the 1,500-foot cable came about, with Horst eventually filing a lawsuit asking the foundation to sell the land back to him at the original $700,000 price tag. Horst argued that because the foundation had abandoned its responsibilities and cost him $300,000 in rental income, he should have the opportunity to reclaim the island.
The lawsuit was troublesome to locals because they feared that if Horst re-purchased the island, he might try to develop it once again.
By 2008, Victor Horst had passed away and his widow, Elizabeth, finally reached a settlement with the Chatham Conservation Foundation on who is responsible for maintaining various aspects of the island. The agreement also put restrictions on new buildings.
In years between the original dispute and its final resolution, however, a new family would make its summer home on the island, and more conflict would follow.
The Arrival of Jay Cashman
We said there were numerous characters in this story and, today, none is more important than Jay Cashman. Few people know how Cashman came on the scene and ended up living on Strong Island with his family, other than that he has a financial arrangement with the Horst family and his name is on a document at the Barnstable County Registry of Deeds granting him a partial assignment of the reservation.
The prevalent theory is that Cashman, a notably successful construction contractor who employs over 1,000 people worldwide and has headed some of Massachusetts’ most ambitious projects, including the Big Dig in Boston, befriended Victor Horst, leading to his company repairing the broken underwater cables. Cashman claims the job cost $500,000 to complete.
Cashman’s connection to Strong Island and why he contacted Horst in the first place goes back much further, however, as he originally visited the island's banks with his father as a 12-year-old boy in 1965. Despite his success, Cashman never forgot about this visit, eventually approaching Chatham Town Hall and inquiring about the land. The town sent him in the direction of Victor Horst, and many believe the two of them came to an agreement of some description in 2003, although no one will discuss the details.
Upon receiving a partial assignment of the island, Cashman immediately began looking at how he could improve the property's only home. For him, a larger house was a must because his family, including his four children, was sharing the existing home with the Horst family. When Victor died, Cashman still wanted to have a separate area for Elizabeth when she visited in the summer. Also, being a bit of a socialite, Cashman also wanted to host lavish parties for his friends, something he’d need more space to accomplish.
Unfortunately for Cashman, the rules in place put a limit on new construction and banned dual-family properties altogether.
In 2009, however, Cashman finally received permission to expand and reconstruct the original 70-year-old house, creating the current nine-bedroom, two-story property that sits there today. The new home is 10,000 square feet and actually sticks into the island's no-build zone, a move Cashman says was necessary to preserve some historical features of the original building.
The Island Today and in the Future
Today, Cashman and his wife Christy continue spending much of the summer on the island with their children. While there remains some worry among residents that Jay Cashman will attempt to develop the island at some point, he doesn’t actually own any of the land and, therefore, his ability to do so is extremely restricted.
Cashman and his family will have rights to the island until the current agreement expires in 2073, but there’s no telling what will happen between now and then in regards to development or even if the island will still be there, as rising ocean levels could eventually become a concern.
For now, the mansion on Strong Island remains a point of intrigue for Cape Cod locals and visitors alike, as it's an isolated location that is just far enough from civilization to be mysterious.