This Was Then: Journey to the center of the earth

Some say that below the earth’s surface, it’s as hollow as a gourd.

Less than 4000 miles to go. Courtesy Chris Baer.

The word “Chops” — as in East and West — derives its name from the business end of a mouth, the parts one might lick, or (proverbially, anyway) bust. While still a geographically rare name, there is another famous example: The English Channel also has chops.

Between our chops is the harbor known in the 19th century as “Holmes Hole,” or, earlier, “Homes Hole.” Like nearby “Woods Hole,” “Quick’s Hole,” and “Robinson’s Hole,” the name refers to an opening, a mouth. As Charles Banks wrote in “The History of Martha’s Vineyard,” “It is probably derived from ‘Homes,’ meaning an old man, and the entire name signifies ‘old man’s hole.’ …The word ‘homes’ indicates decrepitude as applied to an aged person, and probably was applied to an old chief who made this place his abode when the first settlers, in 1642, came to the island.”

Holmes Hole was renamed “Vineyard Haven” in the early 1870s — residents were tired of living in a “hole” — but the name lived on in some unusual circles.

In 1818, Army officer John Symmes of St. Louis published his theory — actually a variation on some very old legends — that “the earth is hollow, and habitable within,” with vast openings at both the North and South Poles. Inside was a “warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals, if not men.” His theory was widely circulated, and equally widely discredited, but never fully squashed. The alleged openings became known as “Symmes Holes,” and his theories would inspire much science fiction, most notably Jules Verne’s popular 1864 novel, “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

Edward Everett, who had served as both U.S. secretary of state and governor of Massachusetts, decried in a well-publicized 1861 speech, “The Causes and Conduct of the Civil War,” “There is, I am aware, no end to human credulity. Captain Symmes and his numerous followers were persuaded that the earth is as hollow as a gourd and that you can sail into the interior as easily as a Down-East coaster can sail into Holmes’ Hole.”

As often happens, the stories became garbled, and soon after Everett’s speech, Symmes’ hypothetical hole at the North Pole became known as “Holmes’ Hole.” A 1901 Ohio newspaper wrote, “Men stand on the street and talk of the flying machine as an assured fact, and of a descent to Holmes’ Hole not simply as a thing that is possible but as a very near probability.” In the retelling, “Holmes” became some legendary captain who had (according to one 1913 account), “invented an aperture at the North Pole through which sucks the Gulf Stream, and which was called ‘Holmes’s hole.’”

Nobody has managed to dig very far below Vineyard Haven, but in the fall of 1976, Raymond Hall and a team from the U.S. Geological Survey drilled an 860-foot borehole named “ENW-50” under the State Forest, in Edgartown, behind Dodgers Hole. The well penetrated 100 million years of accumulated sedimentary strata, unearthing geological samples and pollen from the Cenomanian age, when dinosaurs roamed the surface, but stopped just short of the (theoretical) bedrock below. Fortunately, no Vernean shark-crocodiles or Ape Gigans emerged from Hall’s hole.
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.