This Was Then: The Jetties

Terraforming Chappaquiddick.


Until a major storm reconstructed our coastline around 1725, Cape Poge and the whole northern tip of Chappaquiddick — the landmasses we sometimes refer to as Great Neck and Little Neck — were a distinctly separate island. It was referred to in 17th and early 18th century deeds as “the island of Natick, alias Capoag, near unto Chappaquiddick.”

“Capoag,” from which we evidently derive both the names “Cape Poge” and “Capawock,” was often used to describe both the northern part of Chappy, as well as the whole of Martha’s Vineyard. (Historians disagree as to whether the Wampanoag name for the Island at the time of first contact with the English was “Noepe” or “Capoag,” or both.) The little island’s alternate name, “Natick,” translates as “a place of search” or “lookout.”

Then, in the fall of 1926, Cape Poge was cut loose again, this time intentionally. Like Bugs Bunny sawing off Florida in the classic Looney Tunes short, the man with the plan was a colorful and ambitious local character. His name was António Silva, a.k.a. Tony King, an immigrant Edgartown fisherman.

António King Silva Jr. was born in 1869 on the island of São Jorge in the Azores. He immigrated as a child with his widowed mother and little brother Manuel to New Bedford; three years later the family moved to Edgartown. Learning English in the Edgartown schools, he worked as a schoolboy at Frank Alley’s fish market in Oak Bluffs. He was then employed by a series of Island fishermen before obtaining two boats of his own — the catboat Rita, named after his stepdaughter, and the 14-ton, gasoline-powered, two-masted fishing schooner Olive May. Silva was particularly well-known for mending, making, and hanging fishing nets.

During a gale in December 1910, the Olive May was wrecked on a rock 200 yards off Squibnocket. Four of his crew escaped in a dory, but a fifth crewman was washed overboard, and drowned while trying to escape in a second dory. Capt. Silva remained behind, clinging alone to the icy rigging for three hours until he was rescued by “Surfman Vanderhoop” of the Gay Head Life-Saving Station.

Capt. Silva — known locally as “Tony King” — afterward became a champion for the safety of Edgartown fishing vessels and the livelihood of the local industry, even as he diversified his own enterprises. By 1915, he ran the gasoline and oil depot at the corner of Dock and Kelley streets, as well as renting boats by the day or the week from Chadwick’s Wharf “for Fishing or Sailing Parties.” During the 1910s, ’20s, and ’30s, he hosted daily clambakes in his “pavilion on the fine South Beach.” In 1919, he sat on the executive board of the brand-new Massachusetts Fishermen’s Association, organized that year in Edgartown with 350 charter members, to oppose the restrictive practices of the Fisherman’s Union of the Atlantic and Fish Handlers Union in Boston.

And then in April 1920, Silva petitioned the Massachusetts Department of Public Works to build a “water passageway” between Katama Bay and the ocean, “for the purpose of affording a harbor of refuge to fishing vessels in that vicinity,” reported the Boston Globe. “Mr. Silva said the fishing industry about Edgartown has steadily declined of late because of the small protection for fishing vessels, and the lengthy journeys that now have to be made to reach a safe port.”

It was not the first time that a permanent artificial opening through what we now call Norton Point was suggested or attempted. After the natural opening sealed itself in 1869, after many decades of breach, worries were voiced that the harbor would silt up and that Chappaquiddick Point, then growing rapidly, would reach the shores of downtown Edgartown and close off the inner harbor altogether. So in 1873, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged a 6-foot-deep navigable channel through “the flats of Cotamy Bay” (Katama Bay) and reopened it. However, a series of severe storms and other problems depleted the funds for the project before they could install the granite jetties they had planned to make the breach permanent. Predictably, the opening soon shoaled up and closed, and the experiment was deemed a failure. A follow-up study done by the Army Engineer Office in 1875 recommended that two sets of three granite jetties each be built on the shore southeast of Cape Poge, and on the west shore of Chappaquiddick south of the entrance to Cape Poge Pond, to trap sand entering the harbor. It’s unclear what became of these 1875 plans, or of Silva’s 1920 petition.

But then Silva hatched a new plan, backed by the selectmen of Edgartown: to cut a navigable channel from Cape Poge Pond to the ocean. It started as a new petition, by “Antone K. Silva and others,” to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in January 1923. The plan slowly made its way through the State House, and by early 1926, was back on the Edgartown Town Meeting floor to appropriate the funds to dig an opening. It passed, the Bay State Dredging Co. was contracted (under the direction of the state Department of Public Works), and a 300-foot section of beach south of Cape Poge was taken by eminent domain from the Lee family in exchange for $24.

On Oct. 13, 1926, the work was completed. A 60-foot-wide, 6-foot-deep, navigable channel, flanked by two stone jetties into Muskeget Channel, was ready. The total cost was more than $36,000. It was named the Cape Poge Channel.

Ferrymaster Foster Silva, in a 1980 interview, recalled, “The jetties that opened the pond up to the ocean were put in primarily to promote better circulation in the pond, to see if they couldn’t raise larger scallops, plus being a shorter route to the outer ocean in their catboats, which were very slow, but it just didn’t last …”

The channel kept filling up. In early 1927, another 250 tons of stone was added to the jetties. In 1928, 600 tons of stone was added to reinforce the channel after an inspection noted an “urgent need for repairs.” In 1933–4, another $16,000 of federal funds were earmarked for dredging and jetty work there. In 1937, Edgartown selectmen pledged another $43,000 for dredging and jetty construction at the Cape Poge Channel. In January 1938, another $21,000 was spent on dredging the channel.

Then the 1938 hurricane struck the Island. Aerial photographs taken afterward show the channel again completely clogged. But this time, there appeared to be no further attempts to maintain it. Tony King retired and died in 1948, aged 79, at his stepdaughter’s home in New Jersey. By the mid-1950s, surveys show the channel nearly half-filled.

The town of Edgartown still maintains ownership of this two-acre lot, and the ends of the Cape Poge Channel jetties — now usually referred to simply as “the Jetties” — are still quite visible to those who stop to fish or to picnic here. But little Capoag Island is again a distant memory.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.


  1. There have been extensive efforts all over the American coast to preserve and control barrier islands and their habitats. Generally federal authorities have overseen many of these efforts and much has been learned about revetments, groins, sand migration and the movement of clay “shelves”. Only older observers of the shoreline on the cape and the islands can see these efforts over time and their near success, or outright failure. Failure, over inevitable time, happens slowly and then all at once. Still, some efforts can be effective. Witness the Cape Cod Canal, for instance. It is best to work with, and guide natural forces.

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