This Was Then: The State Road

Otherwise known as the the Gay Head Auto Drive.

The builders of the State Road, about 1912. Steamroller operator Ellsworth Norton of West Tisbury sits with his arms crossed at upper right. — Courtesy Chris Baer

In the late 19th century, Martha’s Vineyard’s concrete down-Island roads were said to be among the best in the nation, and were a renowned attraction for bicyclists from all over the Northeast. “Cottage City has over 40 miles of concrete pavement,” declared the New York Times in 1894, “and thus affords better wheeling than any city in the country except Washington.”

“There are miles and miles of concrete roads,” wrote a Pennsylvania reporter the same year, “making it a paradise for bicyclists.”

But up-Island roads were a different story. In 1894, a Boston Globe reporter headed to Gay Head noted, “A peculiarity of the Vineyard roads is the width of the track, which is six inches broader than those used on the mainland; if any “off-Islander” — so called by the natives — brings his fashionable cart, he will find himself with one wheel in the rut and the other bowling along on the summit of the space between.”

Engineers struggled with building atop sand. In 1888, the West Chop Land Co. built a shell road from the concreted village of Vineyard Haven to their new resort on the chop. (In 1914, 600 tons of shells from Chesapeake Bay were shipped to Vineyard Haven and crushed, to replenish it.)

In 1895, newspapers around the country reported that the Massachusetts Highway Commission had resorted to a surprising new material for supporting road construction on the Vineyard: cheap cotton cloth. “In localities where the soil is sandy,” wrote the Syracuse Standard, “much stone has hitherto been wasted, the sand forming a loose and shifting bed on which the stone made very little impression. At Martha’s Vineyard gravel was not obtainable, hence the experimentation with cotton cloth. The material is even better for the purpose than the gravel, as none of the sand works through to the stone.”

The road from Vineyard Haven to Chilmark, 1893, somewhere in Tisbury or West Tisbury. “Flat, soft, uneven, loose sand, ruts 9 in. deep. Road is very poor indeed,” wrote the Commission to Improve the Highways of the Commonwealth, which commissioned a photographic survey of Vineyard roads.

The road from Vineyard Haven to Chilmark was among those carefully surveyed in 1892-93 by the Commission to Improve the Highways of the Commonwealth. It described “a very bad road” consisting of “soft, uneven, loose sand and stones” with ruts a foot deep in places. Parts of the tree-lined road through West Tisbury were as narrow as six feet. Much of it drained to its center, where water would pool. “Road is very poor indeed, for a heavy load could not be hauled through it,” read the report.

The road became even worse as it passed into Chilmark. It was very narrow in some spots, and quite steep in others. “Road is very bad, for sand is deep and grade is heavy,” the 1893 commission reported. “Road is rutted badly and has no drainage … Uneven, soft, loose sand and stones with ruts 14 in. deep.”

Needless to say, it was no paradise for bicyclists, nor the automobiles which soon followed. In fact, it was virtually impassable for those not propelled by either hooves or feet.

A massive initiative to modernize (and macadamize) the road from Vineyard Haven to Gay Head began in the early 1910s. The job was completed by the fall of 1914. “In a week or so, the State road will be completed,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in July of that year, “making a stretch of twenty-five miles of perfect road for motoring, ending at Gay Head, that marvelous geological formation of multi-colored clays, unequaled in the world.”

Sometimes referred to as the Gay Head Auto Drive, it was considered an important boon to the tourist industry. As the New York Herald noted in June 1915, “The state road to Gay Head has made new possibilities for that place as a goal for automobilists. The gorgeous cliffs of multicolored clays are always an attraction, but there is also to be a tea room, with tennis courts in connection, which will appeal to the less aesthetically inclined.”


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