Letter from Cuttyhunk: Preserving our maritime history

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The U.S. Coast Guard Boathouse on Cuttyhunk at the Town Dock. The station was decommissioned in 1964. — Photo by Nancy Dunn

Happy Thanksgiving to all! I am thankful for so many things this season, including the unique and colorful maritime history we all share on these beautiful coastal islands. As I was researching the history of our Coast Guard and its landmark buildings on Cuttyhunk, I imagined this to be how the men’s presence there might affect an island girl’s experience in the late 19th century …

The southwest breeze blowing across Vineyard Sound ruffled my linen dress and ungraciously lifted the hem of my skirt, rudely exposing my ankle. I grabbed frantically at the material and nervously glanced up the beach to see if anyone had noticed my indiscretion. The uniformed men were unaware, and went about steadfastly performing their required breeches buoy drills.

This was one of my secret summer pleasures, sneaking away from the cottage to watch these handsome Life-Saving Servicemen from behind the safety of a sand dune as they practice their brave sea rescues. Ever since the new Canapitsit peninsula station had been built a few years ago in 1889, the island social life had come alive. I had come alive! And now it was almost over; we had spent the past eight weeks talking and laughing together. The dreaded last day of July had arrived all too quickly, and the annual dance was this evening.

Our bright, girlish faces twirling alongside those muscular, sunburned men in their blue and white service uniforms; it was always the highlight of the summer. I could already feel my heart pounding with anticipation as my mind drifted off. Yes, the light blue taffeta dress would be just perfect; it matches my eyes as well as the cap band he gave me from his uniform. I would wear his cap band as a belt around my waist to show that we were courting. My parents disapproved, of course, but I am 18 now and all of the Cuttyhunk girls are wearing their gentlemen’s cap bands as belts. Many of the island girls were marrying the Life-Saving men. Would I be next?

After tonight, he had to return to duty out at the Life-Saving Station, and would not be free again until next June. His rescue work is incredibly dangerous, with frequent shipwrecks occurring at the Graveyard and over at Sow and Pigs Reef. All I would see of him from now on would be the bright red glare of his two red Coston signals that he carries every night when he is back on watch, in order to warn ships that get too close to the reefs. It was better than not seeing him at all, I guess.

I jumped nearly a foot as a particularly large wave crashed nearby and loudly dragged the cobble across the shoreline. No, I’m not going to let myself think about all of that unpleasantness right now. Tonight the Life-Saving Station will be transformed under a full moon for a beautiful summer evening of dance, with the life belts, blocks, and tackle as our nautical ornaments and the giant coils of rope as our chairs. We will have each other until the fiddle and the banjo go silent at exactly midnight, and it will be magical.

(Sources: “The Story of Cuttyhunk,” Haskell, L. 1952; “Cuttyhunk Island & Striped Bass 1883-1897,” CHS 1980 and “Cuttyhunk as I Remember It in 1904,” Brewer, CHS 1979)

The United States Coast Guard traces its history to 1790, when the first Congress authorized the construction of vessels to enforce taxes and prevent smuggling. The fleet was known both as the Revenue Marine and the Revenue Cutter Service. Beginning in the 1830s, islanders were piloting and rescuing ships along the Cuttyhunk shores, which provided the islanders with a livelihood until the early 1900s and the industrial revolution.

The Massachusetts Humane Society established three buildings on Cuttyhunk in 1847, well-equipped with supplies, with mortars for shooting lines across the decks of stranded vessels, lifeboats, and surfboats, and manned by volunteers dedicated to sea rescue. Captain Frederick Allen was the captain of the Massachusetts Humane Society for many years, and invented an unsinkable lifeboat. Due to the prevailing southwest wind, strong currents and heavy fog, many sailing ships were driven aground on the Graveyard, as the south side of Cuttyhunk was known, and on the Sow and Pigs Reef lying to the southwest of the island.

The U.S. Life-Saving Service was organized later, in 1878, as a separate agency, but the station for the Elizabeth Islands out at Canapitsit was not built until 1889. In the meantime, lifesaving was carried out jointly by the local men of the Massachusetts Humane Society and those with the federal U.S. Life-Saving Service. Stations were placed at points where wrecks were unusually frequent, to improve a mostly volunteer network of rescue stations that assisted mariners in distress along the very busy coastlines. Life-Saving Keepers had to be “able bodied, of good character and habits, able to read and write and be under 45 years of age, and a master at handling boats, especially in rough weather.” Because of the excellent service of the Humane Society, Cuttyhunk received one Life-Saving Station, built near Canapitsit. Later there were as many as 16 men stationed on the island, but at first there was only one keeper and six surfmen. The keeper’s salary was not to exceed $800 a year, and the surfman received $50 a month plus living quarters. Some of the Cuttyhunk men at the first Life-Saving Station with Captain David Bosworth were Tom Jones, A.P. Tilton Sr., Walter Allen, Humphrey Jamieson, and Russell Rotch. Later on, an outbuilding formerly used as a shed by the Canapitsit station became a private residence, with an airstrip which is still there today. With both the Humane Society and Life-Saving Service, most island men were somehow involved in aiding or assisting in rescues when needed. At first, there was rivalry between the new Life-Saving Station and the long-established Humane Society to see which group could be the first to reach a shipwreck, even though some of the men served in both groups. Following the tragic loss of several Cuttyhunk rescuers in the attempted rescue of the brig Aquatic in 1893, the groups fully cooperated, and competition stopped. In the Aquatic disaster, widower Timothy Akin Jr. died with four other Cuttyhunk Lifesavers (Frederick Akin, Hiram Jackson, Eugene Brightman, and Isaiah H. Tilton) trying to rescue the crew when it ran aground on Sow and Pigs Reef. His death left the seven Akin children orphaned, to be raised by islanders. Josiah Tilton was the only rescuer to survive, but all on the brig were saved.

There were numerous shipwrecks around Cuttyhunk throughout the years, including the bark Wanderer in 1924, which was the last square-rigged whaler out of New Bedford; the Pilgrim Belle steamboat in 1985 ran aground on her maiden voyage; the Queen Elizabeth II in 1992 ran aground off Cuttyhunk in Vineyard Sound; and the scalloper Legacy ran aground near Canapitsit in 2001. Rescues became less frequent as there were fewer sailing vessels. The Cuttyhunk light was removed from the West End, Sow and Pigs Reef area, by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2006, so no navigational aids remain.

In 1915, an act of Congress merged the Revenue Cutter Service with the Life-Saving Service, creating a single maritime service, the Coast Guard, dedicated to saving life at sea and enforcing the nation’s maritime laws. President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the transfer of the Lighthouse Service to the Coast Guard in 1939.

One of the last two remaining structures of our rich maritime heritage on Cuttyhunk is the welcoming U.S. Coast Guard boathouse built in 1938, originally used to hold boats and equipment for sea rescues, decommissioned in 1964, and now town-owned. Coast Guard service for the Elizabeth Islands continues from neighboring stations in Menemsha and Woods Hole. In its original location at the town ferry dock, the one-and-one-half-story building is a classic example of Colonial Revival architecture with its dormered ridge-hip roof. The boathouse sits on pilings which form the foundation for the building. The three 12-foot bay doors facing the channel allowed the launching of the picket boat, lifeboats, and surf boats used by the Coast Guard for sea rescue. The interior is still original, for the most part. Three separate tracks, similar to a railway, extend from the boathouse to the water for launching and hauling the craft. There is wood-plank flooring with a pitch in the floor to aid in launching the boats. The building has survived four major hurricanes and their associated flooding since 1938.

The U.S. Coast Guard Station/Quarters at Cuttyhunk was built in 1954, shortly after the Canapitsit station was moved to Menemsha in 1952, where it stands today. Commissioning of the new station at Menemsha took place on March 12, 1954. Twenty years later, the Coast Guard officially changed the name of the station to reflect its actual location. The Coast Guard Quarters/Barracks building is located on a hill up the street from the boathouse. It is also decommissioned, and maintained and managed by the Coast Guard as vacation rentals for active and retired Coast Guard members. The basketball court at the barracks was recently rebuilt with a concrete surface and new nets and backboards. Both traditional structures are signature buildings with their distinctive regulation colors of white wooden shingle siding and red-cedar shingle-roof architecture, and are associated with assistance, rescue, and lifesaving on the island.

The boathouse is known for its association and contribution to the maritime history of the Elizabeth Islands and protection of the waters of Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound. Local Coast Guard history, especially during the WW II installations on the islands, is strongly linked to the lives of generations of local families. There is a unique local historical connection revealed in the genealogy of the island, where guardsmen served and stayed. There is also a significant historical relationship between the boathouse and the Massachusetts Humane Society (1847), the U.S. Life-Saving Service (1870) and the U.S. Lighthouse Service (1910). The building represents the island’s maritime history, culture, architecture, and tradition of lifesaving from the mid-1800s to the present. Its current use is mainly for town marine-equipment storage. The boathouse was given as a gift to the town of Gosnold in 1997 by the USCG, with a preservation restriction.

Since 1999, when resident Shelly Merriam prepared a historical survey of the property, the town has worked cooperatively with the Massachusetts Historical Commission. MHC deemed the boathouse is eligible for National Historic Register designation. There was a barge ramp completed next to the boathouse for container trash removal in 2001. It is the first phase of improvements at the harbor landing and transportation center. An exterior renovation of the boathouse was completed by the town in 2003, supported by donations, and in 2009 rebuilding of the town dock adjacent to the boathouse was completed. Three years ago Gosnold selectmen submitted the required forms and photographic documentation to the Massachusetts Historical Commission for recommendation to the National Register of Historic Places. Two years ago, the final phase of improvements to the harbor landing and transportation center next to the boathouse were underway, and recently, the town board of selectman sought and were awarded a grant of $782,000 by the Massachusetts Seaport Council. This year, painting of the west side of boathouse was completed, and the north-side green garage doors will be painted.

(Sources: “Cuttyhunk and the Elizabeth Islands from 1602, CHS 1993, and “Statement of Significance” — Cuttyhunk Historical Society, Merriam, S.L., 2012)

For Cuttyhunkers only

Upcoming meetings: Next selectmen’s meeting scheduled for Dec. 4, 2015.

Ferry schedules: Please contact J.P. Hunter at Sea Horse Water Taxi for information about holiday trips to and from the island: cuttyhunkwatertaxi.com.

The M/V Cuttyhunk ferry will run a normal schedule on Monday and Friday. Please contact Jono Billings with any questions: jono@cuttyhunkferryco.com.

School news: Cuttyhunk Elementary School celebrated Veterans Day with an outdoor patriotic ceremony honoring veterans and a rededication of the new school flagpole with a plaque honoring Mary Sarmento. Martha’s Vineyard resident Frank Raposa found and generously donated the new flagpole to the school, which came from a large catboat. Island resident Lee Lombard installed the flagpole.

Artists’ retreat: Cuttyhunk Island Artists’ Retreat for September 2016 at the Avalon Inn is filling up quickly! This sold out last year, so a few additional rooms have been added. Don’t be disappointed! For more information: Cuttyhunkartistretreat.weebly.com.

Job opening: Fire chief job is posted in the Town Hall.

Updates: There are only a few more locations to go, and the island septic projects will be finished. The deadline is Dec. 31, 2015.

Real estate tax bills will be coming out this week.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!