Chapter 23

Chapter XXIII

Martha's Vineyard, 1882

One summer day, in 1882, at the old whaling port of New Bedford, we boarded the steamer River Queen for the Vineyard. Our steamer we soon discovered to have a history, having been President Lincoln’s despatch boat during the late war, and on board of her, at Hampton Roads, in that memorable February of 1865, he met the Peace Commissioners to arrange the terms of the great treaty. It was some satisfaction to know that the armchairs and other furniture of the cabin were the same used on that famous occasion. To-day the Queen ploughs the waves as sturdily as any craft of more prosaic antecedents. Our direction is nearly due east, across Buzzard’s Bay. Land is in sight on all sides. Southward a great whaler looms up while making her offing. Another is coming in, escorted by a tug. A hundred sails fleck the bay. Fishing-boats, "held to the wind and slanting low," are trolling for bluefish and bass. The incoming Vineyard steamer sweeps by cityward, with a salute. The sky is as blue as the waves, and the salt sea-breeze exhilarates one like new



Martha's Vineyard, 1882

wine.  By and by — it is an hour and a half, to be exact — we approach the opposite shores — the Elizabeth Isles — and seem to be running directly upon them, when suddenly we veer to the west and enter a narrow passage that for its rocks, currents, and general intricacy must have been made solely for Captain Kidd and other freebooters. It connects Buzzard’s Bay with Vineyard Sound. Jagged boulders rise perilously near the steamer, and the water rushes through with the velocity of a mill-race; but our captain has never known an accident to occur here.

Through this passage the steamer picks her way, stopping in the midst of it at Wood’s Holl, terminus of the Wood’s Holl branch of the Old Colony Railroad, to receive passengers from Boston to the Vineyard. Then it goes on, and a few moments later glides out into Vineyard Sound, and we see across its water, seven miles distant, a low, irregularly outlined island, whose salient features seem to be clay headlands, barren plains, and hills crowned with groves of stunted oaks. This is Martha’s Vineyard, seen at its northern and most sparsely populated end. It is twenty miles long east and west, the captain tells us, and twelve in width. Its northern, western, and southern shores contain scarcely a hamlet, and but a few scattered farmers and fishermen for inhabitants. The eastern shore is but a sue-cession of cottage cities Vineyard Haven, Eastville Highlands, Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, and Katama.



Martha's Vineyard, 1882

Martha’s Vineyard, so recently discovered by the moderns, is really quite venerable in history. That famous navigator, Bartholomew Gosnold, discovered it in 16O2, sailing southward from Cape Cod, and landing here to get water for his ships and provisions from the Indians. He found here trees, shrubs, and luxuriant grape-vines, and the natural inference is that he gave the island its peculiar name. But from the pleasant after-dinner talk of the antiquaries of the Corn Exchange here in Edgartown, I gather that there is a different version of its origin. All these coast islands so the legend runs once belonged to a great magnate, who was blessed with four daughters. Dying, he gave Rhode Island to his daughter Rhoda, the Elizabeth Isles to Elizabeth, Martha’s Vineyard to Martha. Here he died, and as to the fourth island, the last daughter Nan-took-it.

Most visitors to the Vineyard stop at Cottage City, of which I shall speak more at length presently, but Edgar-town has proved more attractive to me. It is quaint, old-fashioned, wealthy, conservative, one of the oldest towns on the continent, for it has been well established by the village antiquarians, that a famous recluse, Martin Pring, landed here seventeen years before the coming of the Pilgrims, and here lived, a settled inhabitant, from June until August. No permanent settlement was effected, however, until 1642, when Thomas Mayhew founded a colony here, and in 1671 succeeded



Martha's Vineyard, 1882

in having it incorporated a town by the Government of New York, with himself as Governor. The town was one of the earliest ports to engage in the whale fishery; indeed, the islanders have a saying that it was founded on the backs of the whales it captured. The delightful old mansions that line its streets were gained in this way; and the portly, well-preserved old gentlemen, who live in them, and who retail such pleasant marine gossip and old-time sea tales in the Corn Exchange of a morning, were the men who pushed the enterprise forty years ago. It has a fine harbor and an abundance of pure water, and was a famous resort for Nantucket whalemen in other days. The town is very proud, too, of its record in the war of the Revolution and in that of 1812. Its exposed position subjected it to frequent descents from the enemy. On the 10th of September, 1778, for instance, the frigate Scorpion burned in its harbor one brig of 150 tons, one schooner of seventy tons, and twenty-two whale-boats, and captured in the town 888 stand of arms, with bayonets, pouches, powder, and lead. The enemy also took from the farmers of the vicinity at various times 800 oxen and 10,000 sheep. The town is also the capital of the island, being the county-seat of Duke County, which embraces the Vineyard and Elizabeth Isles, and is fully conscious of the dignity of its position. The Vineyard affords some striking contrasts. Here in Edgartown are old houses built by governors, judges,



Martha's Vineyard, 1882

and elders two centuries ago, and in the little private burial-places are headstones of these worthies quite as mossy and venerable. In fifteen minutes, taking the little narrow-gage railway that skirts the eastern shore, you stand in busy, bustling Cottage City, fresh from the builder’s hands, a center of modern activity.

This city might be aptly characterized as a modern miracle. To-day fifty thousand people are gathered in its cottages. Six weeks hence there will not remain as many hundreds. Twenty years ago it was represented by a few tents. To-day it has avenues with cottages, public parks and drives, concrete streets, miles of shops, a horse railroad, hotels, churches, schools of fame, a Board of Health, a Fire Department, a city charter, and other municipal conveniences and privileges. The town is built on ground that rises gently from the shores of Vineyard Sound, and is prettily laid out in avenues, squares, circles, triangles, and parks. The cottages are ranged along the side of the street in most cases as thickly as hives in an apiary, and present all gradations, from the tent-roofed cot to the ornate Elizabethan villa. The shops have a quarter to themselves; the great hotels are on or near the beach.

One cannot be said to have fairly seen cottage life until he has visited this summer city. A walk through one of its streets affords the stranger a novel experience. It may be Pequot, Massasoit, Hiawatha, Acushnet, Pocasset, Samoset, or Tuckernuck Avenues that you



Martha's Vineyard, 1882

take, for all these names, and many others of aboriginal origin, are found in the city. It begins at one of the circles, and curves about gracefully between grass-plots and flower-beds, and beneath young oaks, until it debouches on one of the parks. The first cottage you meet is of the simplest kind, perhaps, known here as "tent-roofed," and, the curtains in front being drawn to admit air, its internal arrangements can be studied to advantage. They seem to be intended entirely for sleeping. Each apartment is separated from the other by curtains, and is furnished with carpet, chairs, washstand, and a dimity-clad cot at each side. Kitchen and dining-room are invisible, and you are forced to the conclusion that the occupants take their meals at the boarding-houses. Cottages in every variety of style Chinese pagoda, Greek villa, modern Elizabethan succeed as you pass along, and quite likely you will find, fronting the park, a fine country seat, with all city conveniences, there being several of these on the island. The cottagers are seated in front of their dwellings, recline on couches, or swing in hammocks, under the oaks. Here, as at other summer resorts, a dearth of gentlemen is apparent, the fair sex greatly predominating. It is a mild form of dissipation that obtains here. Lectures, sacred concerts, and camp meetings are the chief. There are billiard saloons, bowling alleys, bicycle clubs, and a great roller-skating rink, but no liquor shops or gambling dens. Fish-



Martha's Vineyard, 1882

ing, sailing, driving, bathing, and tea-drinking are popular.

The social and religious features of Cottage City have been often dwelt on: a sketch of its marvelous development will perhaps have more of the merit of novelty. The city is divided into three principal sections Wesleyan Grove, Oak Bluffs, and Vineyard Highlands which began as little centers of population and spread until they now form a corporate whole. Wesleyan Grove, the oldest, bad its inception at a Methodist camp-meeting held on its site in 1835. At this meeting there were a rude shed for the. preacher’s stand, rough planks for seats, and only nine tents, furnished with straw, for lodgings and shelter. Thomas C. Pierce, father of the late editor of Zion’s Herald, presided, and there were about a thousand persons present. Since that time, with the single exception of 1845, an annual "camp" has been held here. In 1841, twenty tents were reported. In 1844 three thousand persons were present. In 1850, a lease of the Grove, running till 1861, was secured, at an annual rental of thirty dollars. In 1853 there were four thousand persons present. In 1855 two hundred tents were pitched in the grove, and two steamboats made daily trips from New Bedford. Sunday, 1858, was a red-letter day. Twelve thousand persons were present, including Governor Banks, of Massachusetts, ex-Governor Harris, of Rhode Island, several members of Congress,



Martha's Vineyard, 1882

and more than one hundred ministers of various denominations. In 1859 the grove began its metamorphosis from a camp to a permanent city. This year Perez Mason, a wealthy layman, of Providence, erected a cottage in the grove and spent the summer there with his family. Other laymen built other cottages, following his example, and from this humble beginning Cottage City has sprung. The annual camp meeting is still held in a grove of venerable oaks, a few minutes’ walk from the Oak Bluffs wharf, generally during the latter part of August.