This Was Then: The artificial creek

Prior to the ’38 hurricane, Lake Tashmoo was actually a lake.

The Herring Creek, Vineyard Haven, before the 1938 hurricane. — Courtesy Chris Baer

Tashmoo is a saltwater estuary today, fed by a small, spring-fed freshwater pond, but prior to the 1938 hurricane, it was a freshwater lake surrounded by cattails and marsh grass. (Long-buried clam flats suggest that the lake has seen many cycles of salt and fresh water throughout its history.)

Tashmoo’s opening to the sea and the adjoining shore to the north were long known as Ashappaquonsett — “where the nets are spread” in Wôpanâak — and are known today as both Chappaquonsett and Herring Creek.* The white settlers interchangeably referred to the pond itself as both Chappaquonsett and Tashmoo (a corruption of the word Kuttashimmoo, meaning “great spring”) until the turn of the 20th century. The 1807 book “Description of Duke’s County” described Tashmoo, which “by an artificial creek, called Chappaquonset, discharges itself into the Sound.”

Shacks at the Herring Creek, Vineyard Haven.

On the western side of the opening was the land known as Chickemoo (“place of the fish weir”; today part of what we today call Lambert’s Cove), where, historian Charles Banks wrote, “our Wampanoags predecessors undoubtedly set their nets for the alewives that annually ran up into Chappaquonset pond to spawn.”

This opening — which evidently moved about somewhat with the passing of years and storms and men with shovels — was an ancient spot for catching alewife, a freshwater-spawning species of herring. Banks wrote in the early 20th century of “the fine herring run and fishery at Ashappaquonsett [which] has been a famous and prolific domestic industry from time immemorial, and it is a common heritage of the townsmen unto this day,” even as he bemoaned its poor management.

A 1921 state report noted that Tashmoo was “connected with Vineyard Sound by a stream which passes through marsh and meadow land. At the outlet into Vineyard Sound bulkheads have been erected for the purpose of preventing the sand from closing the mouth of the creek. The fishery, established in 1847, is conducted by a herring committee from the town of Tisbury, the alewives being seined at night. This alewife fishery formerly flourished, and more fishing vessels were baited at Vineyard Haven than in Edgartown. In the palmy days there were some 155 houses on the beach near the outlet for the accommodation of persons who desired to share in the catch.”

A bridge once spanned the opening, notably used by actress Katharine Cornell to access her property. It was destroyed in the disastrous 1938 hurricane. Cornell petitioned the Tisbury selectmen and the State Board of Public Works to build a new wooden, drawless bridge. The state objected, on the grounds it would interfere with a proposed project to dredge the channel and open the lake to boating and shellfishing. Rep. Joseph Sylvia of Oak Bluffs suggested a compromise: build a temporary bridge, and later replace it with a drawbridge, but the bridge was never rebuilt. Shortly afterward the wide, permanent channel we know today was dredged.


* There are three — maybe four — localities named “Herring Creek” on the Island.


Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.