Only one Dukes County town is riding in the tumbrel, bound for the United States Postal Service guillotine.
The government of the United States — and by unfortunate extension, us — is beset by nearly $15 trillion in debt. It’s borrowing nearly half of what it spends and spending more borrowed money every day. The leadership in two of the three broken branches of government (the third branch has pulled its robes over its head hoping that the question of what to do about the debt and deficit doesn’t land on its doorstep) swears that fixing the problem is not political, although even Americans who live in the flyover states know that’s a lie. And although all these leaders, in their consummate self-satisfaction, consider themselves politicians, they’re unable to find a political solution, so they will certainly come to the conclusion that borrowing more and spending more are the only available answers. And that must inevitably lead them, as it has done, to turn their watery, frightened, searching eyes toward the Cuttyhunk Post Office to help save the nation.
The Postal Service, after an exhausting review, has discovered that the P.O. on Cuttyhunk, the westernmost Elizabeth Island and the headquarters of government for the Dukes County town of Gosnold, doesn’t do enough business to justify its existence.
I guess the Cuttyhunk Post Office has never done enough business to justify itself, not on federal government terms. No, but it’s the tiny social and business hub of a minuscule and iconoclastic demographic that has managed just fine on its own, perfecting a sort of genial back-off attitude. Measured that way, it’s immensely valuable, although for sure, the footfalls of change seem to be catching up.
Visiting Cuttyhunk has the flavor of exploration and discovery about it. That’s good, especially when nearly every other place you visit has a been-there, done-that quality that yields not very much that’s fresh. Cuttyhunk gives you something utterly different to think about.
A while back, on a mooring in Cuttyhunk Harbor one afternoon, we watched several disappointed late arrivals pass disappointedly by as we furled sails. They would have to retrace their steps along the shallow, snaky entrance channel to the outer harbor where the northeast wind, backing as forecast to northwest, promised a lumpy and anxious night. Out there, tiny, nearby Penikese Island doesn’t offer much protection.
When Cuttyhunkers, who are few indeed most of the year, think of neighbors they think of their fellow townsfolk to the east along the island chain, or they think of New Bedford, their link to the mainland, or they think of Bartholomew Gosnold. When they think of Gosnold, they are reminded of the happy remoteness of their attachments.
“The arrival in 1602 of the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold marked the beginning of major changes for the [Elizabeth] islands and the Wampanoags. Although many European explorers and fishermen had already traded with the Native Americans in the waters off New England, Gosnold was the first to attempt establishing a trading post.” This is from the introduction to the Cuttyhunk Historical Society’s “Images of America: Cuttyhunk and the Elizabeth Islands,” published to mark the 400th anniversary of Gosnold’s visit.
An August stop at Cuttyhunk, I assure you, demonstrates conclusively that what Gosnold, a shrewd trader and entrepreneur, began, his successors in ownership have carried on assiduously in his name. There must be very few Cuttyhunk residents indeed who have resisted the temptation to hang out a shingle inviting trade with eager 21st century explorers looking to swap greenbacks for Cuttyhunk swag. Certainly the cost of the goods has escalated from the days when Gosnold and his hungry, homesick crew set about opening their American franchise, but the commercial impulse is unchanged. And, just as Gosnold came, did business, and left, Cuttyhunkers make hay with the visitors in the summertime and kick up their independent heels when September comes.
Things did not work out well at first for Gosnold: “He and his men built a small encampment on the island at the West End Pond at Cuttyhunk. [A monument to the Britisher stands near the pond today, although these days it is, sadly, little remarked and hard to get to.] Their meetings with the Wampanoags were generally friendly, but when his men learned they would be left behind without sufficient provisions, the settlement was abandoned after only a few weeks, and Gosnold returned home,” according to the historical society.
Had Gosnold stayed on, rather than open the way for Thomas Mayhew, who arrived with a plan to trade for souls not arrowheads and skins, he or his descendants would have gaped at the gentrified complexion, albeit slightly askew, of the place in summer.
Everyone has a golf cart or an ATV, and the dearest-looking grandmotherly types go flitting along the narrow, curving lanes grinning madly and cackling in deranged delight at us scattering pedestrians. Unable to accumulate many highway miles on this speck of an island, the carters go round and round, giddy with delight at the sensation, plates of cookies and brownies on their laps.
Then there is the seaplane service that operates as it has for years from the float near the town landing. In three evening and three morning hours, that seaplane must have flown in and out four or five times.
Not to mention the fixed-wing aircraft that drops down from the sky just in time to land on the neck that runs east from Cuttyhunk toward Canapitsit Channel. The channel separates Cuttyhunk from neighboring Nashawena Island. The aircraft belongs to the owner of a modest but sensational house on the brief bulge of high land two-thirds of the way out the neck.
The low, sloping hills of Cuttyhunk are dotted with raw shingles and silvery Tyvek building paper. New, large, fully-functional, year-round houses are under construction. Each will have a spectacular view westward toward Westport and Newport, north toward New Bedford and the long reach of Buzzards Bay, south toward Gay Head and Nomans, or east along the entire reach of the Elizabeth chain. At night the lights of Cuttyhunk suggest a small, lively city overlooking the sea, perhaps a Mediterranean resort.
Electricity for those lights comes from a Caterpillar diesel generating plant that runs night and day just down hill from the Avalon, built in 1909 by William Wood, president of the American Woolen Company. Today those Cats purr endlessly between the Avalon and the Cuttyhunk Fishing Club, downhill to the east. The cost of delivering power this way is part of the reason that Cuttyhunkers have entertained the notion of permitting wind turbine installations in the shoal waters just west of the island.
“Alone among the [Elizabeth] islands,” the historical society notes, “Cuttyhunk hosts growing numbers of summer residents and visitors.” But, sadly, not enough of them stop at the P.O. for their mail.