This was then: The Zeno

What lies beneath five corners?

Five Corners, circa 1925. What lies beneath? — Courtesy Chris Baer

At the turn of the 19th century, a broad body of water seven feet deep connected Holmes Hole Harbor to the Lagoon, along what’s now Lagoon Pond Road and parts of Water Street. It was called Bass Creek. It allowed large vessels to pass into what then served as an inner harbor (and today is just a shallow, mucky appendage of the Lagoon adjacent to the marina.)

After a major hurricane known as “the Great Gale of 1815” blasted open a new passage now spanned by the Vineyard Haven-Oak Bluffs drawbridge, Bass Creek began to silt up. The new opening, wrote Eleanor Mayhew in her 1956 book, “Martha’s Vineyard — A Short History,” caused Bass Creek “to fill in gradually with sand. In 1835 the town voted to close Bass Creek completely.”

1821 advertisement in Philadelphia’s National Gazette. Was this the vessel used to plug up Bass Creek?

Town meeting records from 1835 verify Mayhew’s story: “Voted that the Town of Tisbury will close the Bass Creek so called at the head of Holmes Hole harbour.” The proposal went before the state legislature, and the lieutenant governor approved the plan “to close up the creek . . . so as effectually to stop communications of the waters of the harbor of Holmes’ Hole with the waters of the Lagoon Pond.”

Mayhew explained how they did it: “This was finally achieved in 1838 when the sloop ‘Zeno’ loaded with stone and sand was sunk at the mouth of the Creek to keep the fill from washing away. A road along the beach,” — Beach Road — “was then opened.”

What was the “Zeno?” There were several ships named “Zeno” in the early 19th century. A packet schooner called “Zeno” was based out of Wilmington, N.C., in the early 1820s, and may have visited Holmes Hole at least once. A half-brig called “Zeno” was bought by John Eagleston, father of the Eagleston brothers (who would later open the Eagleston Theater, the Eagleston Tea House, and the Eagleston Dry Goods store in Vineyard Haven) — but he sailed it to California long after Bass Creek was filled.

The most likely candidate was the brig “Zeno,” originally of Philadelphia but later of New Bedford, which ran freight between the Caribbean and cities along the Atlantic coast, from New Orleans to Boston, during the 1810s and 1820s. It carried everything from salad oil, turpentine, and shoes to coffee, Jamaican rum, and “Havana segars.” It was described as a “substantial good white oak vessel” with a “burthen” (cargo capacity) of about 106 tons, or 700 barrels. It struck rocks off the coast of Bermuda in a 1827 storm, and was condemned. The hull of the vessel was sold by its New Bedford owners, and its whereabouts afterward were unknown. Could it have been filled with rocks and sand and dumped in Bass Creek?

In 2006-2007, an engineering study was done to track soil contamination from fuel spills at the gas stations, which have been located in the Five Corners area for more than a century. Test wells were drilled into the fill in and around the location of Bass Creek. One found “gravel, ash, glass, and brick” at about three feet, and another found “black peat” — the old estuary — at 10 feet.

Alas, no “good white oak” was found, nor any Cuban “segars,” but that doesn’t mean they’re not under there somewhere.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales” containing many “This was then” columns, will be released June 1.