When you cross over the bridge into Vineyard Haven and face the line of traffic stretching into the sunset, you might fantasize about a bypass around Five Corners — instead of playing chicken with boat traffic, you could be cruising halfway up Edgartown Road by now!
Mourn, then, the loss of the Oklahoma Causeway, the old highway which stretched from the back of what’s now Beach Road Restaurant to the bottom of Skiff Avenue. Take a look at any map, and you’ll see its broken remains stretching clearly between Tisbury Marketplace and Paul Bangs’ shuck shack. Its marshy skeleton has undoubtedly been captured in the background of innumerable plein air paintings.
The causeway was built in the late 1870s by Wallace Barnes, a land speculator from Bristol, Conn., who struggled to provide transportation from Vineyard Haven to his new summer resort development, Oklahoma, a mile out of town on the high banks of the Lagoon. His hotel, originally called Oklahoma Hall (and later, Innisfail) was a popular destination for musicians and actors. Built in 1876, it earned “a wide reputation for its conviviality and parties, some of which enjoyed a rather noisy reputation,” according to one report.
The town turned down Barnes’ request to help them build a proper road to the resort, and for a time they relied upon a 40-foot steam launch, making three trips a day to Vineyard Haven or Cottage City. Then the causeway was built, and Beach Road deeds as late as 1981 make reference to “the Barnes road” and include right-of-way “for the purposes of passage to Oklahoma.” The solid roadbed was interrupted only by a small wooden bridge close to the Beach Road end, and travellers from Vineyard Haven continued on to the resort via the road now known as Weaver Lane.
The hotel was a hit, but Barnes’ attempt to develop the abutting lots for cottagers was not. He struggled financially, and lost more than half the property in 1883 for failure to pay taxes. He died in 1893, and while the hotel and summer resort continued on into the new century under new management, a raging brush fire burned Innisfail to the ground in 1906, and turned that neighborhood into a ghost town for many years.
But the causeway continued to be passable until 1920 or so. Some photos even show telephone or electric poles strung along it. The late Stuart Bangs (1923-2008) might have been among the last to cross. He told Linsey Lee of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in 2002, “I could [walk across] when I was a kid. There was two, couple of planks still left there, and a plank or two. We’d walk across there and get across without getting too wet and go over to up near the blacksmith’s shop, over there in the corner [of Beach Road].” Sometime before 1938, the beloved shuck shack we know today was built, smack in the middle of Barnes’ old roadbed, and used by model ship builder Anton Svensson, a Swedish native who lived at the Marine Hospital.
The land along Beach Road was substantially extended into the Lagoon and Bass Creek with fill from harbor dredging, and even the old hulls of ships wrecked in the Gale of 1898. Erford Burt bought the lot just to the west of the old causeway in 1945 to build his boatyard. “He took that little bridge out and dredged this out so the boats could get in here,” continued Bangs.
So, Five Corners it is.