The Norton of Norton Point

In the usual quirky way of Chappaquiddickers, they often call their home an island even during those eras when it’s very much a peninsula, attached to the rest of Martha’s Vineyard by the barrier beach known as Norton Point. And Norton Point is so-called even though it has no “point” at all. But why? And who was Norton?

The beach acquired its name at the end of the nineteenth century, first appearing on charts as “Nortons Point” in 1897. Before that, whenever the channel between Katama Bay and the Atlantic Ocean was open, surveys often called the two halves of the beach West Beach and East Beach. But that became confusing, because the whole eastern shoreline of Chappaquiddick has long been called East Beach. So the Atlantic beach needed a new name after a storm broke through it in early January of 1886.

According to Island legend, the beach’s new moniker came into use after Captain William Carroll “Wid” Norton and his catboat had an encounter with a bolt of lightning on that barrier beach one afternoon sometime in the late 1880s or ’90s.

Wid Norton, born in 1863, was the son of retired whaleman William Hubbard Norton and his wife, Elizabeth. He grew up on the water, and earned his living fishing for bluefish exclusively from the shore. In those days, surf-casting was by the heave-and-haul method, in which a fisherman whirled an eight-ounce jig around his head several times and let the lure fly. A skilled man could throw the jig more than a hundred yards, Norton told the Gazette in 1928, and bring home two hundred blues a day. He was known as “the champion fish killer of his day and age,” according to the paper.

The Gazette described Norton as “a square-framed man, quick in his movements, ruddy of face and keen of eye,” adding he did not like to talk about himself and that “it is seldom that the captain will consent to tell any stories of his exploits and he never enlarges upon details.” So it was a lucky thing for posterity – or at least Island legend – that Norton told the tale of what happened to him while fishing there that fateful afternoon.

Norton had sailed down Katama Bay in his catboat and anchored her just offshore. He was heaving and hauling when he saw a squall approach. He might have kept fishing, but he had no oilskin, so he pulled the bow ashore and took shelter under the foredeck. “The squall struck,” reported the Gazette, “and Captain Norton recalls a terrific clap of thunder, and after that there was a blank.

“When he recovered consciousness he found that the bow of his boat had been shorn completely off and her bilge was full of water. If she had not been hauled up on the beach he would have drowned. Lightning had struck the mast, run down to the bow, and shattered it.

“‘I had a mighty good headache,’ the captain says, ‘but I plugged up the hole with seaweed and got home with 200 fish. It should have been a warning to me, I suppose, for it was Sunday. But I always had better luck on Sundays and I didn’t stop fishing on that day.”

Married to Malvina B. Vincent, Captain Norton died in 1950 after a long career on the water. In later life he harvested ice from freshwater ponds, stored it in icehouses, and sold it house to house during the summer. He was “known familiarly all over the Island,” his obituary declared – and now we remember him more than a hundred years later for an afternoon on a barrier beach when fame, and lightning, struck.