This Was Then: Harry Horton

A mover of homes and people.

Harry Horton, mover of both homes and people. — Courtesy Chris Baer

The electric trolleys which ran between Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven for more than two decades ceased operation about 1918. One became a house, and then a pigpen. Another became a “lunch wagon” next to the Capawock Theater in Vineyard Haven, run by Ornan Slocum (brother of famous circumnavigator Joshua Slocum). For a brief period afterward, jitneys — unregulated, owner-operated automobile taxis which were successfully outcompeting streetcars nationwide — filled travelers’ needs.

But by the early 1920s and well into the 1930s, Harry Horton’s bus line was the principal service for down-Island summertime commuters. The late Stan Lair of Vineyard Haven recalled, “After the trolleys ceased running and jitneys had disappeared, the Vineyard Haven–Oak Bluffs route was taken over by Harry Horton, who had two of these Reo buses. The terminals were the old trolley waiting room in Oak Bluffs on the corner of Circuit Ave. Extension at Farland Square, and in Vineyard Haven in front of Tilton’s Drug Store,” later Yates Drug Store, on Main Street. Lair added, “Horton’s buses left for Oak Bluffs on the hour. I believe he had about two of them, so he gave pretty good service.” The fare was 35¢ one-way. John Canha of Vineyard Haven recalled this bus as “a thrilling ride in those days. Our spring school trip to Gay Head was our annual thrill, riding in Horton’s bus.”

But this was only Horton’s summer business. Both of his parents had died by the time he was 18, and Horton made a living first as a clerk for Bodfish & Call grocery, then as a Vineyard Haven express agent and mechanic. But he finally found his calling during the 1920s in house moving. Lair remembered, “He moved a heck of a lot of houses around on the Island.” Mrs. Ruth Peters of West Chop recalled, “Didn’t he move everything then?” Dionis Coffin Riggs called Horton “an artist in the business of house moving.” And Henry Beetle Hough noted, “Occasionally everything came to a standstill as Harry Horton moved a house (or part of a house) through the town.”

The Oak Bluffs Depot was erected here in roughly 1900 on the site of an early hotel called the Oak Bluffs House, but the building itself may be somewhat older and — as was once so common — moved from another location. In modern memory, the building was occupied by a popular coffee shop known as the Pit Stop, and by the mid-1970s as Big Belly’s Deli, owned by Skip Tomassian. Today the building houses Big Dipper Ice Cream.

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