A guide to ancient ways in West Tisbury
The West Tisbury Byways Committee (WTBC) has published a guide to the ancient ways in their town, which should be of interest Island-wide to nature lovers and history buffs.
There are more ways to see Martha's Vineyard than most people know. Tourists ride the tour buses over the main roads. Residents and summer residents travel back roads and unpaved driveways. Cyclists and hikers walk the bike paths and fire lanes in the State Forest. But there is still more to see. Unknown to most Vineyarders, there are old ways that pass through woodlands and meadows, by ponds and streams, where the Wampanoags traversed the Island for hundreds of years, and where the first European settlers walked, drove carts, and rode horseback.
Many of those ancient ways still crisscross the Island out of sight and out of mind. A few have been protected by town meetings as "Special Ways." Some of these are maintained by the Land Bank for public access, trimmed wide enough for two to walk abreast and high enough for a rider to pass on horseback or a bicycle.
The WTBC has been active on and off since the late 1980s, according to its chairman, Ann Bassett. She credits the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) for designating Special Ways as districts of critical planning concern, a first step in protecting them. Many of the trails in the WTBC guide are maintained by the Land Bank, which keeps vegetation trimmed and assumes liability protection. The new brochure, designed by committee member Cynthia Aguilar, is available at libraries, town halls, and elsewhere.
Public access is widely misunderstood. According to attorney Ronald Rappaport, town counsel to West Tisbury and other Island towns, an "ancient way" has been defined by the courts as a road or trail which is shown on maps before 1846. However, just because a road has existed for hundreds of years does not guarantee that it is open to public access now, or that it is protected from development or change.
Public access is complicated, Mr. Rappaport says, and it gets more complicated the more one investigates it. The short explanation is that a path must continue to be in use by the public to maintain a public right of access. If, for one example, a landowner can show that the old road or trail has not been in use by the public for 20 years, public access is lost.
West Tisbury and Edgartown have designated some ancient roads and trails in their towns as "Special Ways." The designation as a Special Way does not allow, of itself, public access to the pathway. Public access is a separate issue. If there has been no public access to a trail, there is none granted by the Special Way designation. But the designation does impose restrictions, similar to zoning ordinances, on the landowner's use of the trail in order to preserve its character. West Tisbury town meetings have several times voted regulations and designated Special Ways, most recently in April of this year.
There are also old ways in West Tisbury that are not yet open to the public or protected by town bylaws. For example, Ms. Bassett reports that the MVC is beginning to investigate the King's Highway, which in colonial times ran from West Tisbury along the Tiasquam River and over the ridges to Abel's Hill in Chilmark. Public access will require negotiation with landowners. Perhaps the route will appear in a future brochure.
The members of the West Tisbury Byways Committee are Ann Bassett, chairman, Cynthia Aguilar, Jeanne Barron, Harriet Bernstein, Ashley Hunter, Nina Meyer, and Rez Williams.
West Tisbury Ancient Ways
Old Courthouse Road. At the end of the paved portion of Old Courthouse Road, this path continues through the woods and meadows to Old County Road across from the Granary Gallery, just north of Scotchman's Bridge Lane.
Watcha Path. This is an extensive trail and road system south of the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. There are connections and access points at Tiah's Cove Road, Sepiessa, Deep Bottom Road, and on the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road just east of and across from Airport Road.
Old Tiah's Cove Road. This way links Scrubby Neck and Watcha Path to the paved Tiah's Cove Road and Sepiessa Point. At the end of New Lane, just past Sepiessa, Old Tiah's Cove Road is on the left.
Old Holmes Hole Road. One portion begins on the west side of Old County Road, just north of Nat's Farm Field parking lot. It runs northeast, parallel to Old County Road, to State Road just west of the intersection with Old County Road. Both ends are marked with big rocks.
Another section begins on the left side of Stoney Hill Road, 0.2 miles from State Road on a Land Bank path. This section ends in Vineyard Haven, near SBS.
Stoney Hill Path. Stoney Hill Path connects with Old Holmes Hole Road on the west side of Old County Road near Great Plains Road (the first part of the path is referred to as James Way on a sign on Old County Road). It crosses Old County Road and runs east to Stoney Hill Road. Go right on Stoney Hill Road to the Land Bank trail that connects with the Vineyard Haven section of Old Holmes Hole Road.
Checamo Path (Chicama Path, Little Pond Road). This is a very ancient way used by the Wampanoag to reach both north and south shore fishing grounds. It starts on Stoney Hill Path 0.3 miles east of Old County Road and proceeds east along the north side of the West Tisbury Greenlands, where there are trails that connect to Tisbury and Oak Bluffs.
*Dr. Fisher Road. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this road was the main road between West Tisbury (then part of Tisbury) and Edgartown. A portion open to motor vehicles starts as a dirt road at the end of Old Stage Road by the West Tisbury transfer station and runs to Old County Road just north of the West Tisbury School. The road continues across Old County Road as a path through the State Forest and across Barnes Road, and ends on the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road near Meeting House Road in Edgartown.
*Pine Hill Road. Connects Old County Road at Nat's Farm Field parking lot to the Dr. Fisher Road near the West Tisbury transfer station.
*Motts Hill Road, Red Coat Hill Road, and Shubal Weeks Path. These roads are part of an old cart path and trail system between State Road and Lamberts Cove Road. Off Merry Farm Road (near the Tisbury town line), they are important connectors to Land Bank and Nature Conservancy trails and conservation areas in West Tisbury and Vineyard Haven.
* - not yet protected as Special Ways.
Adapted from the West Tisbury Byways Committee brochure.