Relics, Ruins, and Remnants

The story behind some of the old things you can see around the Island.

About twenty years ago, I was given a booklet sold by what is now the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Edgartown entitled Tracing the Route of the Martha’s Vineyard Railroad, 1874–1896 by Walter Blackwell. I’d heard about the little narrow-gauge railroad and seen all the famous pictures: of the shiny black locomotive Active huffing away from the steamship wharf in Cottage City (now Oak Bluffs); of the train clipping down State Beach to Edgartown, hauling her open coaches and planked-up baggage car; and of it idling on the plain at the far end of the line at Katama, where a scary-looking Victorian hotel – the Mattakesett Lodge – once stood.

But I didn’t know why the leading businessmen of Edgartown, several of them retired whaling masters, dreamed up such an implausible thing as a short-haul Island railroad. I learned later that an economic crash in 1873 had terrified them into building it. Edgartown was in a poor position to weather the depression that followed the shock; whaling had died away to nearly nothing after the Civil War, and the town was too quiet and gloomy to attract vacationers on its own. The new railroad magnates figured a train was the best way to lure vacationers – and what little cash they still had in their pockets – from the festive seasonal village of Cottage City down to the shire town, which faced ruin without a regular supply of tourists.

I had assumed that just about everything to do with the railway itself – rails, ties, ballast, and bed – had been swept away long ago by the forces of erosion, storm, and development. But if Blackwell had found hints of the railroad embankments and cuts back in 1969, perhaps I might still find them in the middle 1980s. On a clear, cold morning in January, Elizabeth Hess, a friend from Boston, and I got on our bikes with Blackwell’s booklet and began to follow the impressions on the land that still showed, faintly here and impressively there, where the train had run.

You can imagine what it was like for an amateur Island historian to stand with a friend, on a brisk and windy morning, on a rise over which a train had clanked and clattered, carrying visitors to hotel lunches and South Beach clambakes a hundred summers before. I started looking for papers, maps, newspaper stories, and guidebooks that could lead me to other ruins and remnants of old Martha’s Vineyard. In the years since that January expedition along the spectral right-of-way, I’ve seen bits of a sluiceway that ran from a grist mill in Chilmark, a berm from an aerial target range built during World War II at Katama, and stumps of wood parading into Vineyard Haven harbor – relics of a great passenger-steamer wharf that once stood in the Eastville section of Oak Bluffs.

Those stubby relics, and traces of other things left behind, remind us that this was a genuinely industrious Island once, and that despite what people do in a more recreational and transitory age, the past will leave marks on the land – perhaps until the land itself is lost to a rising sea. On these pages you’ll see some of the man-made traces of a Vineyard that – not so long ago – was more isolated, self-reliant, and venturesome than the one we know today.

An observation bunker washed by the sea

Lying offshore, mostly rural and unpopulated, the Vineyard proved useful to the war effort between 1941 and 1945: The airport was built to train pilots to take off and land from carrier decks, the beaches were used for practice landings in advance of D-Day, and target ranges were strafed and shelled by torpedo-bomber fighters flying in from the sea at Katama. And here, at the base of the highest promontory of the Gay Head Cliffs, rests the oldest war relic of them all: a concrete bunker from which observers watched for Nazi submarines or aircraft for the duration of the conflict. (Enemy U-boats sank several American ships not far from the Vineyard in the first six months of 1942, but there is no record that anyone in this observation post saw the subs coming.) In December 1940, a full year before Pearl Harbor, the War Department ordered a survey of the land where the Gay Head bunker would stand – showing how early the nation was preparing for war on this side of the continent. And lying on the most seaward point of the beach, easily seen from the public lookout, the bunker today suggests how much the Cliffs have eroded in the intervening sixty years.

A seamen’s cemetery, hidden in the brush

There were three marine hospitals on Martha’s Vineyard, all of them built along the coastline of Vineyard Haven harbor, which for more than one hundred years served as a crucial port of refuge and way station for coastal traffic sailing between New York and Boston. The first marine hospital, built in 1789, was located on the shoreline of the Lagoon at the site of the Massachusetts State Lobster Hatchery and Research Station on the Oak Bluffs side of the harbor. Hidden in the brambles of a woody area close by the station stands a small collection of canted, moss-covered, and mostly unreadable headstones of those sailors for whom the first seafarers’ hospital on the Vineyard was the final port of call.

The Brickyard towers over scrub and briars

Hard to believe now, but rural Chilmark was once the Island’s most industrial town, a village of tanneries, mills, and this brick-making factory, which, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, employed as many as seventy-five men – more than any other contemporary Vineyard business. We know that a brickyard stood on this site as early as 1821 and that in the two decades following the Civil War, the Boston Fire Brick and Clay Retort Manufacturing Company turned Island clay into bricks that built mills in New Bedford, Fall River, and Providence. What doomed the Brickyard – that’s its proper name nowadays – was the fact that the Island finally ran out of wood to heat the furnaces enough to fire the bricks. Today the pitted chimney of the Brickyard rises out of the scrub and briars on private land near Roaring Brook. It’s a north-shore sentinel from a distant, enterprising past.

Anchors by a busy roadway

Embedded in the roadway, hard by Dock Street and just before the parking lot at Memorial Wharf in Edgartown, rests a small clutch of rusted anchors belonging to the Norton family, which once owned the home across the street where the Edgartown Council on Aging now operates. Through the age of sail in the 1930s, coastal schooners tacking across Island waters would sometimes lose their anchors to accidents or storms, and S. Bailey Norton recalls that fishermen of the town would occasionally snag and damage their nets on them. Whenever possible, the fishermen raised the offending anchor and brought it ashore to keep from snaring it again. Bailey’s father Samuel collected these anchors and sold or gave several to summer people “who put them on their lawns or near their boathouses” as ornaments, Bailey says. This collection is what’s left over from those days of plentiful fishing and frequent shipping under sail.

Where the railway ran

After the Depot Corner Service Station at the corner of Pine and Main streets in Edgartown (in those days the town railroad station), the most prominent and useful relic of the Martha’s Vineyard Railroad is a ruler-straight lane, overhung with trees, serving as a private road near the Edgartown Golf Club. This was the railroad bed as it turned inland from State Beach, running south from its main terminus at what is now the Steamship Authority wharf in Oak Bluffs. For twenty-two years, the train was both an adventurous and convenient way to travel between Cottage City, Edgartown, and the wilderness of Katama and South Beach. But a railroad is a huge year-round liability, and this one – just nine miles long – earned revenue only in the summer. The line went bankrupt and the last train ran in 1896. This narrow drive is the one remnant of the railroad that still moves people from one place to another.

A derelict rocked by waves of sand

This old dory, heeling over to starboard in the breaking wave of a sand dune, lies near the entrance to Lake Tashmoo. This weathered vessel has been a part of the landscape at Tashmoo for so long that several Vineyarders with comprehensive knowledge of the waterfront and Island history had no idea it was even there, let alone to whom it belonged or for what, specifically, it was used. Our best guess? The vessel, about twenty-five feet long, may be the remains of a Noman’s Land Boat, a fishing smack whose name comes from the clog-shaped little island lying two miles off the point at Squibnocket. From the 1800s through the early 1900s, a colony of up-Island fishermen lived on Noman’s in summer, angling for cod during the day and using oxen to haul their double-ended Noman’s Land Boats over wooden rails onto the beach at night, because the island had no harbor to shelter them. If you know anything about this mysterious relic at Tashmoo, e-mail us at

The magazine thanks Robert C. Cleasby of Cranston, Rhode Island, and the Camp Ground of Oak Bluffs for help in the research of this photo essay. Other sources include the Chilmark Free Public Library; the library of the Vineyard Gazette; Martha’s Vineyard Summer Resort, 1835–1935 by Henry Beetle Hough (Tuttle Publishing Company, 1936); and They Kept the Lower Lights Burning: The Story of the Seaman’s Bethel and Its Chaplains by George W. Wiseman (self-published, 1979).