Nomans Land is an uninhabited island situated three miles off the southwest corner of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s an isolated spot, laid bare to the open sea and shrouded in mystery and intrigue. In 1926, Joshua Crane, the former owner of the island, discovered a strange inscription on a boulder that was believed at the time to be a runestone containing Leif Eriksson’s signature.
There are tales of pirates and buried treasure; none other than Captain Kidd was said to have buried a treasure chest on the island. And during the Prohibition era, it was known to be a rendezvous for rumrunners. The yacht Flit was found anchored at Nomans after an encounter with the rumrunning yacht John Dwight that left the entire crew of the John Dwight dead. And more than a few fishermen, when foul weather forced them to spend the night on the island, spoke of spending a terrifying night haunted by ghosts.
But what drew Joshua Crane to buy Nomans in 1914 was that he saw it as one of the finest fishing and hunting destinations on the East Coast. Crane, who lived in Dedham, was believed to be a banker by trade, but he wasn’t defined by his occupation. His own daughter, Priscilla, described him as a “professional sportsman.” He was the national amateur tennis champion from 1902 to 1905, and a finalist at Wimbledon in 1914. But when not competing on the courts, he was most happy when he was hunting and fishing. And Nomans functioned as Crane’s private hunting and fishing preserve right up until World War II. That’s when things took an odd turn for Crane.
In 1943 the U.S. Navy leased Nomans from the Crane family trust, with the understanding that at the end of the war, the island would be returned to Crane in the condition it was in when they leased it. And that’s when Crane had his big idea. When he got his island back, he decided to take what was his private fishing and hunting club to the next level. He envisioned men fresh from the war coming home and needing a special sanctuary, a place where they could enjoy hunting, fishing, and golf in the company of like-minded sportsmen. He designed a whole community on Nomans based on that concept. It was to be called the No Mans Land Colony. (Yes, without an apostrophe.)
This was not your average sportsman’s club, nor was Nomans your average island. A prospectus was developed that positioned No Mans Land Colony as the sine qua non of resort communities. The prospectus paints the picture of an island paradise:
The fresh water ponds are six in number, and a seventh will be dammed and stocked with trout or bass … The vegetation consists principally of bayberries, huckleberries, wild roses, sweet grass, checkerberries, tiny wild strawberries, and pink and white orchids in their season.
… the prospectus suggests that there will be no coughing, sneezing, or scratching on the island …
Sufferers from hay fever will no longer be tormented, as the small amount of ragweed and goldenrod will be entirely eliminated. As there are absolutely no mosquitoes on the island, and none have ever been seen there, and almost no flies, the necessity for screens will be eliminated also.
… or offensive odors …
There are no malodorous and unsightly flats at low tide to offend the nostrils.
… ducks literally fall from the sky …
Sissons Pond lies just south of Loch Katrine … and is a favorite of the black duck flying off the island in the daytime. When they come in for their daily drink, often fifty to one hundred drop in for it.
… it’s a fly-fishing paradise …
Well over a thousand trout and five hundred bass should be killed every year in the ponds by the fly, thus affording both the wet and the dry fly devotees plenty of sport.
… the finest saltwater fishing …
Mackerel, cod, tautog, flounders, and striped bass are plentiful … A record bass of 90 lbs. was taken off Halbowline Head. In August come the albacore, bonita, and tuna to the waters south and east of the island, and sometimes can be seen close in. In fact there is no place on the New England coast which can compare with this for a variety of fishing. And its isolation makes it sure to continue for just so long as there are fish on the coast.
… Crane predicted it would have the most famous golf course in the world …
Having been pastured since 1680 by sheep, the grasses consist principally of fine bents, with some fescue, an important requisite of a fine golf course.The 18-hole course will offer sweeping views of the Gay Head Cliffs.
So there you have it, an island paradise, or so it would seem, except the prospectus left out one salient point: The Navy would be using Nomans as a bombing site. So instead of hunting duck, the sportsmen on the island would more likely be forced to duck and cover.
How did this happen; how did it come to be that Joshua Crane was trying to pass off a bomb site as a luxury resort? One explanation was that Crane was not even in America, he was living in England at the time. And he had no idea that the Navy was bombing Nomans into the Stone Age.
When he finally did learn of the bombing, Crane appears to have kept a stiff upper lip, knowing that at the close of the war the island would revert to him and he could go ahead with his plans.
But the Navy liked their bomb site, and they were not about to give it up without a fight. Besides, they could no longer return the island to Crane “in the condition it was in when they leased it”; it would cost the government a fortune to restore it. But they were able to buy some time. The war wasn’t over when Germany surrendered; technically, another seven years passed before all the treaties were signed making it official. In the meantime, Crane pursued the Navy for some kind of settlement, and then in 1952, the Navy just gave up on trying to make a deal with Crane and took Nomans by eminent domain. They gave the Crane family trust $100,000 — a fraction of what it was worth. And that was officially the end of the dream that was Nomans Land Colony.
Joshua Crane died at the age of 95, and in 1964 his daughter Priscilla was given permission to bury him on the island he so loved. And she was given permission to tend to the grave regularly, but on her last visit in the ’70s, so great had been the growth of underbrush that she was unable to find the grave. And the bombing continued on until 1996.
In 1998, Nomans was turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Joshua Crane might have taken some solace in knowing that Nomans had turned into a sanctuary after all. Not for well-heeled sportsmen looking for a place to hunt and fish, but a sanctuary for birds. It’s become one of the finest refuges for migratory birds on the East Coast. But no hunting.