This was then: Going up!

A brief history of elevators on the Island.

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The original Sea View hotel, built 1872 in Oak Bluffs, home to the Island’s first passenger elevator. - Chris Baer — Courtesy Chris Baer

Elevators have long remained off-Island curiosities for the entertainment of Vineyard kids visiting the mainland, as there have been precious few to ride here at home. But we have had a few.

The first passenger elevator on the Island was steam-driven. Built in 1872, it was a necessary, if luxurious, feature of the mammoth Sea View hotel, abutting the steamship wharf in Oak Bluffs. “An elevator takes guests to each story,” read an 1873 report, which also noted that “All rooms are provided with speaking tubes, water, and gas.”

Peter Jones, in his book Oak Bluffs: The Cottage City Years on Martha’s Vineyard, notes that the Sea View’s elevator was finished in black walnut and chestnut to match its staircases. The massive building dominated the view from the wharf and featured gas lighting, steam heating, and a billiard room for $4.50 a night. “From the wharf, the entrance is made through an ornamental gate-house,” reads an 1873 description of the hotel. “The basement of the hotel is approached by a private entrance from the wharf, by which the baggage stores are taken, and, by the steam elevator, raised to any part of the house.” The Sea View burned down in a conflagration in 1892.

There have been other elevators on the Vineyard. One operated in Crocker Harness Company’s second factory in Vineyard Haven in the 1890s. The Marine Hospital had an elevator in its 1938 addition, recently demolished. Peter Cronig recalls that his great-uncle Henry Cronig had an elevator installed in Cronig’s Real Estate on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. It held two or three people but was ultimately removed by Carlyle Cronig. (“It was expensive to maintain. Not many people could fix it,” recalls Peter.)

Rumors have it that there was an elevator in a large private home on New York Avenue in Oak Bluffs and another on Dukes County Avenue. There’s supposedly a historic home on Starbuck’s Neck in Edgartown with an elevator, and an old home on Peases Point Way is also said to have had one. There may have been a private elevator in Vineyard Haven (in West Chop or Tashmoo?) as well. Whether these were passenger elevators, freight elevators, or dumbwaiters is unclear.

Cornell & Mayhew’s grocery store in Cottage City had one, too. One day in June 1899, employee Herbert Cawthorne, aged 20, was loading their hand-cranked elevator with boxes of goods in the basement and proceeded to raise them to the third floor for storage. But one of the links in the chain broke, and the heavily laden elevator car fell some 20 feet, instantly killing Cawthorne and breaking the collarbone of a coworker.

 

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.