The Pleasures of the Far Away Island of Nantucket

Published: June 25th 2017
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Poet, novelist and travel writer William Graham lives in Stowe, Vermont. His latest novel is Atacama Red: A Pablo Nelson Mystery, which is set in Chile’s Atacama Desert. His latest poetry collection is Mountain Springs:Haiku from Vermont and Other Poems.

Nantucket is an island 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. But at one time it was part of the mainland until about 5,000 years ago. After the glaciers had receded, the ocean crept into the valleys and cut the land off, creating the island we know today. That is the dry, scientific explanation. A more colorful story involves the Wampanoag legend of Maushop, a giant who could only sleep comfortably along the south coast of Cape Cod. But he did not like getting sand in his moccasins. One night he became so restless that he kicked one moccasin off a short distance, and it became Martha’s Vineyard. Increasingly annoyed, he kicked the other moccasin off even farther, and it became Nantucket, which means “far away land.”

I had wanted to visit Nantucket since I first read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in high school. That mighty book based on the mighty subject of whaling—to paraphrase the main character Ishmael’s description of his narrative—has always captured my imagination. I have read the novel at least 15 times, including once again on my recent sojourn in Nantucket. A journey to Nantucket today involves getting on a ferry—either one for passengers only (which takes about one hour from Hyannis) or one that carries vehicles, which is slower (taking a little over two hours).

The day I took the ferry the weather was chilly and overcast. I peered over the railing to get my first glimpse of the island through the low sky, just as Ishmael had done in Moby-Dick. And then, like Ishmael, I spied the island. “Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse.” (Moby-Dick, Chapter 14).

After settling in to my quaint, silver-shingled Nantucket cottage just west of the main town (also called Nantucket), I went straight for the Nantucket Whaling Museum, which contains a terrific collection of all-things pertaining to the whaling history of Nantucket. From the middle of the 18th century to around 1840 and overseen primarily by the Nantucket Quakers, whaling was America’s first truly global business enterprise. One of the best moments from the museum visit was a lecture and accompanying film about the mechanics of whaling two centuries ago. I learned that before the whalers cast off in their smaller boats in pursuit of the whale they took their shoes off so that the whale would not hear the clomping of their shoes on the wooden hull. In addition, if the second lance that was tossed into the whale did not kill the creature, it would be thrown overboard because there was too much danger of the sharp harpoon cutting and severely injuring the barefoot whalers as it ricocheted around the small boat.

Whaling made Nantucket and many island families—like the Coffins, Folgers (of roasted coffee fame), Macys (of the legendary department store), Mitchells and Starbucks—very wealthy. The village contains many impressive homes built from whaling money that are still lived in today and, in most cases, still owned by the original families—as I learned from partaking in an excellent walking tour run by the local historical association and led by a nice lady who wore sensible shoes that resembled ballet slippers and who shared many interesting facts and local lore.

Our guide told us about one of the more notable figures in Nantucket history---Maria Mitchell. On October 1, 1847, while peering through a telescope atop the roof of the Pacific National Bank (which was owned by her father and which still stands today), Mitchell discovered a comet that was previously uncharted by astronomers. The comet was eventually named after her. Later in her life, Mitchell became the first professional female astronomer in the United States.

Another fascinating site that I visited was the oldest house in Nantucket. Dating back to 1686, the Jethro Coffin house was the residence of Coffin and his wife Mary Gardner. The couple lived in the house with their six children. The house is very spacious and comfortable, albeit spartan in its appointments--as was the case with most Quaker homes. The house was well insulated with clay between the walls. Its large garden remains and is tended by the historical association's volunteers. Among the interesting facts that I learned from the tour was that the kitchen boasted a rudimentary bread toaster and a waffle maker. Apparently, some Quaker families that had stayed for a time in the Netherlands before migrating to the New World had developed a taste for waffles--which they brought to Nantucket. Finally, Mary Gardner had one blue eye and one brown eye. This genetic trait has been passed down through the generations of Gardners to this day.

Life was good for these Quaker families on Nantucket for over a hundred years, but the good times would not last. Many factors led to the demise of whaling. Among them were the discovery gold in California, which depleted the available supply of able-bodied men to crew the whaling ships and the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania. Oil was cheaper to produce than whale oil. By the end of the Civil War, the once booming island of Nantucket faced an economic crisis. The population fell from 10,000 to just 3,000. But then Nantucket reinvented itself as a tourist destination for well-heeled New Englanders. One of the real-estate visionaries was a man named Edward Fitch Underhill, who came to the island in the 1870s to escape the heat of New York City. He bought land on the island’s eastern shore in a village named Siasconset, which is routinely spelled and referred to by locals as just “Sconset.” Underhill built numerous furnished vacation homes that he patterned after the modest fisherman’s cottages in the area. He billed Sconset as the “Comfort Capital of the Coast” and said the village was a “haven for rest” and free from the “troubles that are common on the continent.” The man knew how to market! Sconset became a destination for actors and other elites on the eastern seaboard. To this day, Sconset retains its charm, although the modest cottages now cost thousands of dollars a week to rent and millions of dollars to purchase. (Too bad the Underhill family heirs sold off the rights to the homes they owned over 100 years ago.)

One of the highlights of my stay on the island was taking a 20-mile round trip bike ride to Sconset on the Polpis Road bike trail, which winds its way through many miles of a nature preserve. The bike trail has a few hills but is primarily flat, and it is a wonderful way to spend the day. After arriving at Sconset, we enjoyed lunch at Claudette's Sandwich Shop, and then rode to the nearby picturesque Sankaty Lighthouse. The trip to Sconset, however, was not without its excitement. While biking with my wife and son on the trail, we came upon a woman who was bleeding severely from her hands, legs and chin. To hear her tell it, her husband swerved unexpectedly, which caused her to crash her bike. We called 911 and waited for the emergency services team to arrive. While we waited we heard the women hurl all sorts of vulgarities at her clearly distressed and upset husband. At one point, the husband offered his distraught wife some water, which she summarily threw back at his face. Thankfully help arrived. We then rode off, putting distance between us and the marital turmoil until we could no longer hear her epithets.

Another bike trip involved riding to Cisco Beach, which is on the south-western shore of the island. Its long sandy beach is not crowded and affords a terrific location to have a picnic, to watch the sunset and then catch the unveiling of a star-filled sky. The water is very cold, however. While I was there in June the water temperature was a brisk 63 degrees F. Most people who ventured far off shore to swim or surf wore wet suits.

For me, Nantucket was a terrific locale to relax, enjoy nature and to learn about American history, from whaling to the Quakers. As I departed on the ferry and the island disappeared from the horizon, this “hillock” and “elbow of sand,” to use Melville’s words, will linger in my memory for years to come.

Recommended Reading: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville; Away Off Shore by Nathaniel Philbrick; Edward Fitch Underhill: Renaissance Man of Siasconset and Among the Stars: The Life of Maria Mitchell, both by Margaret Moore Booker.


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