Keeping the past alive

Edgartown Harbor Tour takes you back to the whaling days.


If you want to get a taste of Edgartown’s seafaring days, then I suggest the Edgartown Harbor Tour by the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, which has rolled out for the first time this summer. Although shorter than the Trust’s architectural walking tour of Edgartown, which I took last year, it equally transported me to the height of Edgartown’s whaling age.

We left from The Carnegie on 58 North Water St. on one of those spectacularly crystal-clear Vineyard days. Our first stop was the cedar-shingled Old Sculpin Gallery, which was initially a sail loft and, appropriately, stood at the water’s edge. Later, Dr. Daniel Fisher purchased the building and moved it to its present site. Recalling the grandeur of his house on Main Street, it didn’t surprise me that the good doctor had become an immensely successful entrepreneur. Fisher had a whale-oil refinery, hardtack bakery, and spermaceti wax candle factory. Over the course of its history, the building was a ship chandlery, granary, and in 1905, a boatbuilding shop owned by master shipmaker Manuel Swartz Roberts.

Apparently, Roberts was a much-beloved, affable character known to his friends as “Old Sculpin” — so nicknamed after the small fish bearing its name. Roberts was best known for building catboats, some 200 during his lifetime. The building’s post and beam construction allowed for large rooms with the additional ability to take the walls out so he could build an entire boat inside and its sails in the upstairs loft. Roberts sold the building to the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association in 1953, and the Trustees acquired it in 2005, allowing the Art Association to call the building home for its exhibitions and events.

We next mounted to the top of Memorial Wharf, looking down on what in its day was a busy port populated with chandleries and boat houses, and then out to Chappy, which is officially part of Edgartown. I heard the real story of the Chappy ferries, dispelling the myth how they came by their name. 

In the 1920s, Commodore Yates would row his boat back and forth to carry passengers from one side to another. People eventually grew tired with this arrangement, and Emanuel Schwartz was hired to build a barge that could carry one car that, because it operated by a rope pulley system, was quite cumbersome and could only operate when the tide was right. Then, in the late 1920s, Edgartown commissioned boatbuilders to construct car-carrying ferries, but gave them only a very short time to do so. As it turns out, they accomplished the task “on time,” and thus the ferries acquired their name despite the local lore saying it’s because they don’t run on a set schedule and thus, always on time.

From our perch, we also looked out at the Edgartown Lighthouse, owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and learned that in the early 1800s it was a two-story structure with a Fresnel lens on top, attached to the mainland by a wooden walkway. A hurricane in 1938 destroyed it, and in 1939 the Coast Guard purchased the property and moved an iron tower from Ipswich to the site, onto the footprint of the original house. Major renovations in 2007 include the installation of a winding staircase you can climb to the lantern room, and the lighthouse keeper will enchant you with stories of its past — and present.

We next meandered down to the Norton Boathouse. Built in 1840, it was the headquarters of Norton family sea captains, and contains a rich collection of evocative maritime artifacts and photographs. Capt. Samuel B. Norton, who constructed the building, was known for his huge 120-foot cruising yawl. The snug boathouse was ideally situated at the water’s edge to originally store small boats, and then became a summer retreat for generations of the Norton family, whom I could not only easily imagine but envy as they watched the comings and goings in the harbor.

While the Norton building is demure, the handsome Osborne Wharf Building is stately with its expensive, slate-blue clapboard façade. Needing continual upkeep, we see the money-saving choice of using shingles on the sides and back of the structure. The building is a 1940s replica of the marine warehouse that was originally constructed by, as the name suggests, the prosperous Osborne sea merchant family in 1840 as a warehouse for whale oil, spermaceti, and baleen that their ships then brought to auction in Vineyard Haven. Given the structure’s size, it’s amazing that Samuel Osborne Jr. (1823–95) also operated a ship chandlery from here, where you could come to buy salt fish, hardtack, potatoes, winter vegetables, molasses, ropes, sails, winches, rum, tobacco — everything necessary for your next voyage at sea.

We ended the tour at the whimsical Whale Tail Park, donated to the Trust in 1983 under the agreement that it remain a park dedicated to the Edgartown whaling heritage. And it does indeed evoke the town’s maritime history. Ovid Ward fashioned the whale tail, which appears as though the rest of the mammal has just taken a dive. It’s a little unnerving to imagine the harpooners toiling in the accompanying whaling boat and possibly going on what is humorously called a Nantucket sleigh ride, in which the harpooned whale drags it all around until tiring out. The rowboat would then tow the dead whale to the ship, cut it up for blubber, which was boiled in a huge metal tryworks and stored in caskets, and at the trip’s end, brought to shore for sale.

The park was the perfect transition back to the present, which I re-entered in my mind when taking a final glance of the harbor where instead of whaling ships, it was filled with leisure crafts and only echoes of the port’s past.


Edgartown Harbor Tour, Tuesday through Saturday, 12:30 pm, through Oct.14. Tickets: $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, and $5 for children.