This Was Then: Classic Rocks, Part II

Down-Island oldies (and animated skeletons).


Twenty thousand years ago, two colossal glaciers crossed paths to form Martha’s Vineyard as we know it. To the east was the mountain of ice now known as the “Cape Cod Bay Lobe,” a limb of the continent-spanning Laurentide Ice Sheet. It covered all of Cape Cod with more than a thousand feet of ice, and was responsible for Nantucket’s curves, as well as the eastern shorelines of the Vineyard. To the west was the “Buzzards Bay Lobe,” a second mammoth wall of ice stretching to the border of modern Connecticut, and responsible for the Vineyard’s western half. Retreating north, the two glaciers left behind a rich harvest of boulder “erratics” upon our northwest highlands — some brought from hundreds of miles to the north. I enumerated some up-Island classics in a recent column.

Down-Island, on the other hand, was mostly left with a whole lot of sand. But there are a few stones on our southern and eastern lowlands notable enough to earn names.

In Oak Bluffs, there’s Pulpit Rock, visible from the road leading to the Land Bank’s Pecoy Point, near Sengekontacket. The rock was said to be used as a pulpit in the 1640s by the Rev. Thomas Mayhew Jr., Martha’s Vineyard’s governor’s Wampanoag-speaking missionary son. Mayhew preached here regularly for more than 10 years, and services were held at the rock for some two centuries after his death, almost until the last of the Sengekontacket Wampanoags were gone.

Bookending Mayhew’s career is the boulder near the airport, adorned with a bronze tablet, which marks the spot where Mayhew said goodbye to his Wampanoag congregation before setting sail for England in 1657. (He never arrived, and was presumed lost at sea.) For more than two centuries afterward, small white stones were left at this spot, known as the Place on the Wayside, by passersby, in his memory. Hiacoomes, Mayhew’s first Wampanoag convert, is said to have placed the first stone. But the boulder you see today was moved from Aquinnah in 1901 by the D.A.R. to mark the place where stones had been traditionally piled. Alas, part of Pulpit Rock was blasted away for building stone, and the original stones at the Place on the Wayside were all pocketed as souvenirs a century ago.

Speaking of missing stones, Great Rock Road in Oak Bluffs is a vestige of one of the oldest paths on the Vineyard: Sachem Ponit’s footpath, marking the southern bounds of the sachemship of Nobnocket. But if there was once a Great Rock from which the road gets its name, its location is a mystery. And it’s not that hefty boulder sitting on Edgartown Road; as geohydrologist Craig Saunders (who recently moved from Rock Pond Road in West Tisbury to Little Rock Way off Great Rock Road) reports, “The rock at the entrance of Great Rock Road was moved there by Peter Palches from a cellar excavation.”

Lovers’ Rock, traditionally Oak Bluffs’ most photographed rock, is also missing, at least from view. As early as 1873, the huge boulder was a popular sunbathing spot, accessible at low tide, near Waban Park. Uncounted families and gatherings of summer folk were photographed upon it over the years, and it traditionally marked the starting line for swimming races to nearby Sea View pier (for which Ernest West of Vineyard Haven took home the $15 first prize in 1882), or to Highland Wharf a mile away (which three swimmers completed in 30 minutes in 1900).

Lovers’ Rock was buried in the summer of 1973 in an erosion control project along Seaview Avenue. “I remember the beach refurbishment well,” recalls Casey Reagan of Oak Bluffs. “Town Beach had eroded to practically nothing, so O.B. got a federal grant to rebuild the beach. Loads and loads of big construction trucks brought tons of sand and dirt from the O.B. dump. There were mountains of orange dirt on the beach as high or higher than Seaview Avenue. Then they spread it out far into the water. That must have been when they buried Lover’s Rock. The water turned orange, and when you went swimming you got a kind of orange tint to your skin. It seemed kind of gross, but by the next summer the sand was pretty much white, except way up on the beach near the seawall.” Unable to move Lovers’ Rock, the engineers had decided to bury it where it lay. Today, a modest granite slab on the beach marks the interment of this former landmark.

Edgartown has Three-Cornered Rock, which can be found in Pennywise Preserve off Eighteenth Street. The triangular boulder, once a surveying landmark, lies near the intersection of Dr. Fisher’s Path and an ancient way known as Three-Cornered Rock Path.

Chappaquiddick once had a stone known as “Momachegins Rock,” located somewhere on the southeast side of that isle, and mentioned in at least one early 18th century deed. Eleanor Mayhew, in her 1956 Vineyard history, curiously refers to an unnamed boulder by the site of the old Meeting House on Sampson’s Hill, “which anchored the Huxford bull one Sunday to keep the Peases out of church” — a tale that sounds like it needs to be found again.

A visitor to Chappaquiddick in 1807 remarked on an unusual erratic on the northwest side of the isle: “On the island of Chabaquiddic, there is said to be a rock, which, on every side, drives the needle from the pole.” The rock, he said, “possesses a strong magnetick quality: it attracts the needle of the compass, and fixes it south-west and north-east. Pieces broken from it retain the quality but a short time.”

But the most storied rock on Chappy is the so-called Blue Rock. Modern sources claim that it is on the southern part of Poucha Pond, on The Trustees of Reservations property. Charles Hine, in his 1908 book, “The Story of Martha’s Vineyard,” refers to a pot of pirate’s gold buried underneath it. It is guarded, Hine reports, by no less than a ghost ship crewed by animated, glowing skeletons. There are many versions of the tale, but most involve a Vineyard farmer (sometimes named Trapp) who secretly witnessed the burial, often accompanied by lurid, supernatural flames. In some versions, the pirate was Captain Kidd himself; in others, it was a pirate who settled afterward on the Island and established a “respectable family.” One tale, repeated in an 1890 New York Evening Post article, suggested that Captain Kidd cut an “inscription” 40 feet below the “huge elephantine-backed rock.” “I suppose not a youngster that ever grew up on the island has not dug for gold,” added the newspaper. “There is not a rod of ground about this rock that has not been turned up and down to the sea level.”

Erratum: Bill Austin of Vineyard Land Surveying mentions one big Chilmark rock I forgot to list in the last article: Elephant Rock, off Tilton Farm Road, off Middle Road. “Peter Colt Josephs showed it to me in the ’80s,” he recalls.