400 years of tourism
Maybe no island is one, but for sure, none is exactly like another. At Cuttyhunk late on a July afternoon, the inner harbor was packed. We took what proved to be the last available mooring. Several glum late arrivals passed disappointedly by as we furled sails. They would have to retrace their steps along the shallow, snaky entrance channel to the outer harbor where the northeast wind, backing as forecast to northwest, promised a lumpy, anxious night.
The municipal seat of Gosnold, Dukes County's seventh town is a different sort of place. Like the Vineyard, it bustles in the summer. But, early in the spring and late in the fall when we've visited, the mood is drowsy, a kind of happy go lucky, reggae rhythm. In July, Cuttyhunk's music is rock and roll, though not as high powered as the term suggests. It's more rock and roll, as performed by a garage band.
First tourist Bartholomew Gosnold got things going: "The arrival in 1602 of the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold marked the beginning of major changes for the [Elizabeth] islands and the Wampanoags. Although many European explorers and fishermen had already traded with the Native Americans in the waters off New England, Gosnold was the first to attempt establishing a trading post." This is from the introduction to the Cuttyhunk Historical Society's "Images of America: Cuttyhunk and the Elizabeth Islands," which is available at Vineyard bookstores, as well as in most of Cuttyhunk's astonishing inventory of homes-slash-shops. A similar volume, devoted to Oak Bluffs, the Cottage City, is now available.
A July visit to Cuttyhunk, I assure you, demonstrates conclusively that what Gosnold began, his successors in ownership at the westernmost of the Elizabeth Islands have carried on assiduously in his name. There must be very few Cuttyhunk residents indeed who have today managed to resist the temptation to hang out a shingle inviting trade with eager 21st century explorers, looking to swap greenbacks for Cuttyhunk swag. Certainly the cost of the goods has escalated from the days when Bartholomew Gosnold and his hungry, homesick crew set about opening their American franchise, but the commercial impulse is unchanged in more than 400 years.
Things did not work out well at first for Bartholomew Gosnold: "He and his men built a small encampment on the island at the West End Pond at Cuttyhunk. [A monument to the Britisher stands near the pond today, although these days it is, sadly, little remarked and hard to get to.] Their meetings with the Wampanoags were generally friendly, but when his men learned they would be left behind without sufficient provisions, the settlement was abandoned after only a few weeks, and Gosnold returned home," according to the historical society.
Had Gosnold stayed on, rather than open the way for Thomas Mayhew, who arrived with a plan to trade for souls, not arrowheads and skins, he or his descendants would have gaped as I do at the gentrified complexion, albeit slightly askew, of the place.
Cuttyhunkers flaunt a rich style of their own. For example, there's the moped-like abundance of golf carts. Everyone has a golf cart or an ATV, and the dearest looking grandmotherly types go flitting along the narrow, curving lanes grinning madly at us scattering pedestrians. Unable to accumulate many highway miles on this speck of an island, the carters go round and round, giddy with delight at the sensation, plates of cookies and brownies on their laps.
Then there is the seaplane service that operates as it has for years from the float near the town landing. In three evening and three morning hours, that seaplane must have flown in and out four or five times.
Not to mention the fixed wing aircraft that drops down from the sky just in time to land on the neck that runs east from Cuttyhunk toward Canapitsit Channel. The channel separates Cuttyhunk from neighboring Nashawena Island. The aircraft belongs to the owner of a modest but sensationally sited house on the brief bulge of high land two-thirds of the way out the neck.
The low, sloping hills of Cuttyhunk are dotted with raw shingles and silvery Tyvek building paper. New, large, fully-functional, year-round houses are under construction. Each will have a spectacular view westward toward Westport and Newport, north toward New Bedford and the long reach of Buzzards Bay, south toward Gay Head and Nomans, or east along the entire reach of the Elizabeth chain. At night, the lights of Cuttyhunk suggest a small, lively city overlooking the sea, perhaps a Mediterranean resort.
Those lights are supplied with electricity from a Caterpillar diesel generating plant that runs night and day just down hill from the Avalon, built in 1909 by William Wood, president of the American Woolen Company. Today those Cats purr ceaselessly between the Avalon and the Cuttyhunk Fishing Club, downhill to the east.
"Alone among the [Elizabeth] islands," the historical society notes, "Cuttyhunk hosts growing numbers of summer residents and visitors."
Her lonesome pleasures discovered, Cuttyhunk, 400 years later, continues to trade upon its charms, to the delight of all comers.