136 years ago this week, Cottage City seceded from Edgartown

A dirty trick with a clean jug of water was the last straw.

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Scenes from another era. Photo from Oak Bluffs: The Cottage City years on Martha's Vineyard

Before there was Oak Bluffs there was Cottage City, and before Cottage City, there was a lot of bad blood. Back in the mid-1800s, the area we know today as Oak Bluffs was part of the town of Edgartown. The problem was that Edgartown was languishing while Cottage City was thriving. To thousands of seasonal visitors, Cottage City was the Vineyard. Cottage City was generating big tax revenues for Edgartown, but the up-and-coming resort had only 500 year-round residents, so they had little influence on the Edgartown establishment, and got very little in return.

Meanwhile, Edgartown, in an effort to attract business from the upstart resort, was spending wildly on two projects that the town hoped would draw visitors to Edgartown: a railway that would run all the way out to Katama (which Edgartown wanted to develop), and Beach Road, which would actually run parallel to the railway for most of its length and connect Edgartown with Cottage City.

So by the late 1870s, secession was in the air. A group of Cottage City residents banded together to launch the effort, and raised $1,000. Knowing that they had to drum up public support, they spent the money on buying a print shop, which they used to publish the Cottage City Star, even though, officially, there was no Cottage City at that point. And because they published news from all over the Island, not just Edgartown, they soon overtook the Vineyard Gazette, and public opinion (outside of Edgartown) began to bend in their favor.

Edgartown was not going to take this lying down. Knowing that sanitation in Cottage City was a potential problem during the summer months when too many visitors vied for too few public toilet facilities, they enrolled the Board of Health to see if any well water was being contaminated, and maybe shake up the secessionists at the same time. Joseph Dias was a leader of the secession drive and owner of the Vineyard Grove House, a popular hotel in Cottage City, and it was decided that his well would be tested first.

Dias put a water sample in a jug and sent it to Edgartown, where it was held overnight before being delivered to Boston for testing. The sample was deemed unfit for human consumption, and Dias went wild. No one who had stayed at his hotel and drank the water had ever been sick. So he sent more water samples directly to Boston, bypassing Edgartown, and the water tested absolutely fine.

This was all the Cottage City Star needed. They redoubled their efforts, and in 1879 they were influential in getting two prosecession candidates elected: a state representative and the county commissioner. With that added voice in the State House, the bill to secede quickly passed both houses on Feb. 17, 1880. And fittingly, to celebrate the occasion, a victory banquet was held at Joseph Dias’s Vineyard Grove House.