Since we were already on Cape Cod, we took a fast, hour-long fast ferry (you could also take a 15 minute flight) to traverse the 30 mile stretch from Hyannis to Nantucket. The island, first settled in 1659, became the world’s largest whaling port and one of its most wealthy and progressive towns in the 18th-century. The whale oil industry eventually crashed (primarily due to competition from petroleum), throwing the island into a deep depression into the beginning of the 20th century.
By then, artists, drawn by a combination of the island’s exquisite scenery, good light and very cheap, rundown homes, moved in and created an important art colony. The combination of the scenery, the art and a prescient Nantucket Historical Association program to position the island as a historic tourist destination, began drawing ever larger number of increasingly wealthy summer tourists. These vacationers renovated and built million-dollar cottages, multi-million dollar homes and multi-multi-million dollar mansions.
True, there are “affordable” summer homes that cost only $1-4 million, and apartments that rent for as little as $4,000 per month. But the expensive homes are summer homes—and go for $10-50 million for a place that is typically occupied only a couple months (especially July and August) per year. All of this is on what is essentially a large sand bar that is continually eroding and is widely expected to disappear beneath the waves in fewer than 400 years!
While the summer population can exceed 60,000 people, a heady few—about 18,000 in total—live on the island year-round. Few of of the year-long residents can afford such prices. They have to struggle to find and pay for the dwindling number of “regular” homes that are still available, and whose prices continue to rise at a frenetic pace. As if these permanent residents didn’t have a difficult enough time, another type of summer resident who finds it even more difficult. These are the thousands of students and other temporary workers (often from the Caribbean, Latin America and Eastern Europe) who work as servers, chambermaids and cooks for the restaurants, hotels and stores that service the flood of summer residents, tourists and day-trippers. What happens to all these souls?
And what about the island’s lower income and elderly permanent residents who can’t cannot afford accommodations> The county has built and is continuing to build subsidized rental apartments and homes (which are still priced at about $4,000 per month) to accommodate these people.
We have been to the island many times and seen some of the highlights. Since then, however, our cousin, who has owned a house on the island for the last 25 years, moved here full time. A former college professor, he learned as much as humanly possible about the island and become a “history interpreter” at the Nantucket Historical Association. He was able to explain not only the high-gloss Nantucket of the rich and famous, but also the island of the locals and the temporary workers.
Not a bad guide for showing us the real island and explaining its history, its customs and its residents—both permanent and part-time.
We began with a history lesson at the Whaling Museum, the primary branch of Nantucket Historical Association that goes way beyond whaling to examine the geological, human, religious, economic and cultural history. And what the museum (with our cousin as our guide) did not show us, our cousin did in a narrated land and sea tour of the island.
A History Lesson from the Nantucket Whaling Museum
This large, fascinating museum introduces you to the island. It was originally created as a glacial moraine 20,000 years ago, and was separated from the mainland by rising sea levels. Prior to 1659, when the first Englishman arrived, it was home to 5,000 Wampanoag Indians who helped the relative handful of settlers (a total of only about 100 families by 1700). Although the island’s resources did not support either of the two settlers initial occupations (faming and sheep ranching), the Indians did teach settlers how to salvage “drift whales” (dead whales that drift onto the beach). This led to the realization that the large British ships could be used to actively hunt life whales, rather than wait for providence to was them onto their shores.
By 1670, they began hunting Right Whales. Then they discovered that Sperm whales yielded a particular prize—an oil that remained liquid when it got cold and that burned cleanly and with no smoke or odor. It was, therefore, a perfect lubricant to keep the wheels of the Industrial Revolution turning and to produce candles to light houses. Initial whaling hunts, however, were limited to one or two whales, since the whales had to be brought back to port and the fat rendered from them within a couple weeks, before they rotted. This led to the creation of “triworks”, essentially on-ship rendering factories in which blubber could be rendered into oil in brick ovens and stored in holds for years at a stretch. This transformed whaling into a global enterprise in which ships could embark on multi-year journeys to all corners of the globe, and return only when their holds were filled.
And it just so happened that the 1711 arrival of a Quaker preacher ended up converting many of the island’s residents into a community that believed in gender equality. Men, therefore, could leave home for three to five years at a time and the women could take over all the island’s fiscal and commercial, as well as domestic responsibilities. By the 1820s and 30s, Nantucket had had a virtual monopoly on the production of Spermaceti oil and more importantly, candles. This created not only a huge business, but also a highly profitable one with astronomical margins, especially for candles, which were much more profitable than selling oil.
This prompted the building of beautiful mansions and a highly cosmopolitan, free-thinking population (due to their worldwide travels) that collected mementos from around the world, that sponsored the first major public address by Fredrick Douglass and that inspired produced world-class scientific achievements, literature and civil rights movements and that produced highly successful businesses that transcended the whaling industry and that survive even today. Among the town’s first families, for example, a Macy moved to New York and founded a department store and a Folger moved to San Francisco and created a coffee company.
Some of the island’s women were as accomplished as its men. Maria Mitchell, for example, became the first and only women admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for almost 100 years, and a professor at Vassar College (see below). Lucretia Mott, meanwhile, became one of the country’s most prominent abolitionist and women’s rights and suffrage advocates. A descendent of the original Folger family became the second female medical doctor in the country.
The island’s prosperity, however, had its downsides. First, the harbor area, where the ships came and went and most of the factories were located, were filthy and emanated a horrible stench. Second, the harbor brought hundreds of sailors at the time. After 2-5 hard, lonely years at sea with only scrimshaw carving to keep them occupied, and pockets full of money from their share of the voyages profits, and many far from their homes, they were looking for something to do. Many of the harborside streets were wall-to-wall bars and brothels—a recipe for drunkenness, sin, fights and muggings. Activities somewhat at odds with Quaker sensibilities and atmosphere for bringing up children, many of the boys (at or about age 14) of whom ended up on whaling ship crews. But certain compromises were required in return for the wealth generated by the whale oil the ships carried in their holds.
Nor did the Wampanoag fare particularly well. Indians were subjugated as deckhands on ships, succumbed to English alcohol and eventually (by 1800) died off from foreign diseases (especially Yellow Fever). This cheap labor supply was rapidly replaced by African-Americans (including some in the egalitarian Quaker meritocracy that eventually became whaling ship captains), Portuguese immigrants (from whaling ship stops in Cape Verde and the Azores) and Pacific islanders (from stops in the Pacific). But while the entry-level sailors led a tough life (hard, dirty, smelly and dangerous work and filthy, cramped quarters and low wages—from 1/150th-to 1/200th of the voyage’s net profits) the captains and senior officers led comfortable and privileged lives and profited handsomely, with captains often earning about 1/10th to 1/12th of voyage’s net profits).
The good times, however, could not last forever. While Nantucket prospered mightily from the early 18th through mid-19th century, the good times couldn’t last forever. The mid-1800’s saw the decimation of the Sperm whale population, the Great Fire of 1846 (which, fueled by whale oil stored on Straight Wharf, took out about a third of the town), the California Gold Rush (which drew both men and whaling ships to San Francisco), the Civil War (in which 400 island men fought and from which 73 never returned), and worst of all, the discovery of oil and the refining of kerosene (which substituted for whale oil in lights). This led to a decimation of Nantucket’s population (from 8,800 to 3,200) and a 30 to 40 year period of economic decline.
This decline, however, laid the seeds for the island’s reinvention. Since few residents could afford to build new buildings, the old buildings fell into disrepair, but remained. The island’s leaders decided to turn this to its advantage by turning the island into a historical destination. It established the Historical Association in 1894, created an historic museum, renovated buildings and promoted tourism. Artists, meanwhile, discovered the island’s beauty and created a thriving art community. Buildings were renovated and by the 1920s, Nantucket was home to more renovated 19th-century buildings (more than 800) than any port town in the country. The combination of the history, the charm, the beaches, the cool summer weather and the island’s extensive open spaces (more than 50 percent of the land is preserved as open space) has drawn more and residents and visitors to the point that it has become one of the most expensive places in the country to live and to visit.
The museum tells these and many other stories through a film, regular presentations and exhibits. It demonstrates this history through hundreds of exhibits including a skeleton of a 48-foot teenage whale (full grown Sperm whales can grow to up to 80 feet long and weigh 60 tons), a whaling boat, a large Fresnel lighthouse lens, hundreds of pieces of scrimshaw and dozens of Lightship baskets that whalers carved and wove, and all types of mementos from their trips and artifacts from their homes.
Exploring Historic Nantucket Town
Once we learned the broad history, it was time to explore Nantucket Town, the historic center of the island and that site of hundreds of pre-civil war buildings.
As the island’s largest and most historic town, it maintains much of its traditional charm with its cobblestone main street, charming, narrow side streets and beautifully restored 18th and early 19th-century homes. And if you are looking for real history, you need to look no further than the handful of 18th, and even a couple of 17th century buildings.
We learned about some of the most historic of the town’s buildings and, more importantly, the history and culture of the town on a Nantucket Historical Association walking tour:
- In 1881, Eliza Barney created a narrow-gage railway running from Nantucket town to Siaconset (“Sconset”). While it was certainly valuable in transporting supplies, the railway, and the Barney-owned hotels along its route, were instrumental in opening the island to tourists. It went out of business in 1917, the year after automobiles were allowed on the island. One remnant of the line remains: a club car that is now integrated into the Club Car restaurant;
- The Rotch, or Counting House Building (now named the Pacific Club) is a 1772 structure whose shell survived the fire. It now stands as the oldest remaining commercial structure in the center of town. It served as the offices and warehouse of William Rotch, who, as discussed below, was a wealthy ship owner and, as discussed below, was one of the most interesting characters of Nantucket’s whaling era.
- The financing of whaling ship voyages became the whaling-era equivalent of playing the stock market. While wealthy industrialists and merchants provided the primary financing for whale ship voyages, less wealthy residents also got into the action, buying small shares of the potential profits of multiple planned voyages (in an early form of portfolio diversification) in the hope that at least one of their ships would hit a jackpot.
- Although most Quakers supported abolition, a few actually owned slaves. Most others, while working for abolition, and in some cases, even hiding runaway slaves, would not publically associate with even free African Americans.
- Prince Boston was a free, highly-skilled slave who worked on whaling ships and who, partly with the help of William Rotch (see below), not only gained his freedom, but also became the first African-American whaling ship captain and also an owner of his own ships. Since blacks were not allowed into public schools, he hired private tutors to educate his daughter and eventually (although too late for his daughter) won a court case to secure black admission into Massachusetts public schools.
- The beautiful, neo-classical Nantucket Athenaeum was one of the town’s primary research and cultural centers, serving as a library, a concert venue and lecture hall, featuring speakers including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Mann and in his first major, public speech, escaped slave, author and abolitionist orator, Frederick Douglass. So important was the institution that it was the first public building to be rebuilt after the Great fire. (It now serves as a library.)
- The Pacific Bank, a pretty building that retains not only live tellers, but also teller cages, long served under the direction of William Mitchell, who was also a noted astronomer who build an observatory atop the 1818 brick building. His daughter Maria, as noted above, became an even more prominent astronomer, meanwhile, became an even more prominent astronomer, becoming one of the first to identify and accurately predict the orbit of a comet, the first women admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a professor at Vassar College who fought for and won equal pay for women. Rumor has it that her observations also led her to accurately anticipate a wind shift and persuaded the fire department to change firefighting tactics in a way that saved the next-door Methodist Church and limited damage from and helped to eventually extinguish the Great Fire.
- A block on Center Street, known as Petticoat Lane, was a commercial street whose stores were all owned and managed by women who cooperated to align their businesses in ways that would not compete with each other.
- The Quaker Meeting Hall was built in the late 1838 to accommodate the island’s rapidly declining Quaker sect (which lost favor as a result of its pacifism during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812). It was the site of regular meetings that were instrumental in shaping and defining priorities of a town that was ruled by Quakers from about 1700 to 1830. Each meeting began with a meditation session in which men sat on one side of the hall and women on the other. After these meditations, the men convened to address once set of agenda (such as land disputes and whaling ship profit allocations) and women convened to address another (such as the funding and priorities of schools, how much and to which philanthropies the town would contribute to charities (an important function of Quaker communities) and punishments for violations of religious requirements.
By the mid-19th century, the town’s Quaker whale oil barons (primarily those who owned whaling ships and candle factories) apparently overcame their religion’s prohibition to extravagant displays of wealth and build grand mansions on upper Main Street. These included the Coffin neighborhood, in which the family build several neo-Classical mansions for various family members, the Coffin neighborhood, which consisted of three identical brick mansions in a row, and the twin neo-classical Hadwen buildings, which is now owned by the Historical Association and is in the process of being renovated. So far it has renovated the entryway and three rooms of the House: the reception room, the dining room and the office. The later two rooms, which are separated by pocket doors, are virtually identical to each other. They were combined into one to accommodate a 40-person dining table that was set with the family’s own china and silverware. Our guide explained how the food was prepared in the basement kitchen, raised by dumbwaiter to the pantry (which is behind and separated from the dining room by another set of pocket doors) and laid out on tables that, upon the ringing of the hostess’ bell, were opened to the delight of the guests.
One of the islands leading merchants merits particular mention. William Rotch was a prominent ship owner and merchant who profited mightily from the whale oil trade. He, for example, was initially allied with John Hancock in the selling of whale oil and candles to England. But when Hancock began to buy and directly sell whale oil, Rotch undercut his pricing and forced Hancock to take a steep loss. Hancock retaliated by prompting his Boston compatriots to target Rotch’s ships in their Boston Tea Party raid.
Rotch, however, was not satisfied with earning shipping profits on whale oil, tea and other commodities. He recognized the profit potential in adding value to the oil by making and selling Spermaceti candles. Unfortunately, neither he nor other Nantucket merchants knew how to most effectively produce these candles. He, therefore, hired an industrial spy to learn the secrets of the candle making industry from a Connecticut company. He used this intelligence to create Nantucket’s first Spermaceti candle company, which greatly increased the profits he and all of Nantucket derived from whale oil.
He was, however, more than a shrewd businessman. He also had a heart and a desire to help oppressed African Americans. He, for example, once hired a whaling captain to lead a voyage. The captain used a skilled slave, Prince Boston (see above), onto its crew. While the ship was quite successful, the captain refused to pay Boston what he was due. Rotch demanded that the captain pay Boston. When the captain refused, Rotch threatened to hire John Adams to sue the Captain. Not only did the captain end up paying the slave, he also ended up freeing him. Boston went on to become not only the first black whaling ship captain, but also a ship owner!
A Supplementary Nantucket Historical Tour
Since the walking tour took us to only two of the Historical Association’s five historic sites (in addition to the Whaling Museum), our cousin took us to four others, where other History Interpreters led us on brief tours of a couple. These buildings were:
- Greater Light an early 19th-century barn that was bought by two wealthy, eccentric and religious Philadelphia Quakers (the Monahans) that moved to the island, bought the barn and converted it into their own eccentric summer home and art salon in the early 1930s. They designed the house and the garden, and filled it with furnishings that were as quirky and as eccentric as themselves—most selected on the basis of signs from god. Each room is graced by some of the sisters’ own, not particularly noteworthy paintings.
- Old Mill, built in 1746, it is the second oldest surviving building on the island and the oldest continually operating windmill in the country. Although it is temporarily disabled by a problem with its balance pole, it is normally still used to demonstrate the grinding of corn.
- Old Gaol, which was built in 1805 as a replacement for an aging 17th-century jail. This solid, two-story, metal-reinforced wood structure was built like many other jails of that time. But, as explained by the Historical Association guide, this,was not any jail. This was a Nantucket jail. The differences between this and most other jails are much more interesting than are the similarities. First, the jail contained only four cells. The two ground-floor cells were generally for very lax form of solitary . While the town did have more than its share of seedy whaling ship crewmembers, most of the crimes (both by residents and crewmembers) were relatively minor. Most convictions were for drunkenness, petty theft and robbery and fighting, often by drunks. (Although some did commit serious crimes, including murder, most perpetrators fled on ships before being apprehended. Those who were caught, were typically send to the mainland for trial and punishment.) The vast majority of prisoners served sentences ranging from overnight to a few days, or perhaps weeks. Guards were generally lenient. They typically left cell doors open and prisoners were typically free to wander the yard (although they were often required to stay in the fence.) Some were allowed to go out for the day, as long as they returned at night. In fact, over the 127-year life of the prison, the most “hardened” criminal was William Chandler, a banker who was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to five years (and pardoned after only a couple years). Chandler didn’t exactly do “hard time”. He was allowed to furnish his cell with his own furniture, accessories and limen, had access to whatever books he wanted and he too could go out into the yard as we wished. His wife was free to visit, bring home cooked meals and even stay with him. After all, although he was in jail, this was Nantucket.
- Oldest House, a small, 1686, English settlement-style cottage that was built as a wedding present for Jethro Coffin and Mary Gardner.
Exploring the Island via Harbor Cruise
We had lunch reservations at Toppers restaurant, at the Wauwinet resort on the far side of the island. Rather than drive, we took the scenic water route, courtesy of the resort’s hour-long water taxi which runs, for lunch and dinner, between Nantucket Town’s White Elephant Resort at the mouth of the harbor, all the way to the head at the Wauwinet. Our cousin provided a running commentary on the island’s various sections, sites and some of the mansions that we passed along the way.
The Harbor is surrounded by the main island to the south and the Coatue nature reserve on the north. This strip of land, which is actually a vegetation-covered spit of sand, is managed by the Land Trust and accessible by 4WD vehicle (by permit) or by guided tour. The southern shore of the harbor is effectively lined by large homes and huge mansions along its entire length. Many of the most impressive of these cannot be seen from the road and are visible only by water. Although they are impressive from one end of the harbor to the other, the further up-harbor (east) you go, the more impressive they generally become. This is particularly true when you reach the narrow channel at Pocomo and the end of the harbor at Wauwinet—two of the most exclusive sections of the island. This is where you see the Gamble mansion (of Proctor & Gamble fame). Although it is one of the largest on the island, it is somewhat out of place. So much so, that it has not sold even after the price had been reduced to a mere $20 million.
The further reaches of Wauwinet is home to a number of huge, multi-acre estates with older, more traditional summer homes and compounds that belong to such notable families as the Mellons, the Roosevelts and the DuPonts. Beyond them, as the furthest end of the harbor, where Wauwinet meets Coatue, is a strip of land so narrow that a house built atop it is very close to, and can see both, the harbor and the Atlantic. Although this area has some of the island’s grandest old homes, it is sufficiently remote that it is not even served by electric lines. These homes, therefore, must rely on their own generators.
Just inside the head of the bay are a set of oyster beds that serve local restaurants.
Then after our lunch at the Wauwinet (see the Nantucket Restaurant section) we boarded the same boat (the Wauwinet Lady) for the return trip to Nantucket Town.
Other Sections of Nantucket
While we walked Nantucket Town and saw the harbor shoreline by boat, we briefly explored a number of other sections of the island by car and through selective stops to particularly interesting sites. Among these were:
This is one of the island’s few “Middle-Class” communities, nice, but not quite as expensive as many of the others. Renowned for its beaches and its sunsets, it was once a sleepy town with a handful of detached homes, especially along the harbor and the beach (so-called Old Madaket) and the island’s only townhouses (of which no more can be built). Since the last time we have been there, the area has exploded with mini-mansions which, like most of the island’s new estates, are being built with their own swimming pools and cabanas. In an effort to keep Madaket affordable (or what passes for affordable on the island), the council has recently passed ordinances that impose height restrictions and that require a complex and restrictive permitting process for such amenities. All in an effort to retain the area’s own character.
Old Madaket is also one of the places we saw a phenomenon that is affecting the island’s entire shoreline and that will ultimately overtake the entire island: erosion. Every year, during every storm, more and more of the island’s sandy shoreline is washed into the sea. Beachfront land disappears and homes built near the shore end up closer and closer to the sea. This forces homeowners to make a difficult choice. If they have enough room between their home and the road, they can pay to have their home moved further inland to protect them from being washed into the sea (an expensive process for which insurance does not pay). Or, they can leave the homes where they are, wait for them to disappear, collect whatever insurance they had been able to afford and loss not only their home, but their property. (Homeowners who select the latter course can never again get insurance on what is left of that property.). Or, one more option. They can buy another piece of land (on which another building is already likely to exist, tear down the existing home and move their own home onto that site.)
A lovely, very expensive section on the northeastern tip of the island. It has a tiny commercial enter (essentially a general store and a post office) and a mix of shingled homes that range from tiny cottages to large mansions and compounds, most of which have colorful gardens and are surrounded by tall, manicured hedges that protect residents from gawking tourists (like us). This being said, a public walking path runs at the edge of a bluff. On one side of the bluff are wildflower-strewn fields and pretty sandy patches that lead to the ocean. On the other are the backs of the otherwise hidden houses, with their lawns, gardens and sweeping views out to the sea.
Nantucket Cliffs and Cliff Beach
These are among the most desirable and expensive locations on the island. The Cliffs, overlooking the beach and the ocean, is home to some of the largest, most expensive homes on the island. The beach is home to Galley Beach, one of the island’s premier beach clubs and restaurants.
Like the Cliffs, this is an elevated North Shore ocean-facing bluff that is home to several large homes.
A small beach area on the South Shore. While the beach is certainly an attraction, Cisco’s highlights are two businesses that have taken the island by storm. These are the Cisco brewery/winery and distillery which makes a number of the island’s craft alcoholic beverages (including a wide range of distilled spirits, beers, wines made from Yakima Valley Washington fruit), hard ciders and sangrias. As important as the beverages is the entertainment venue they created around them. The “campus” has a separate building at which you can taste and buy the different types of beverage, a raw bar, food trucks (tacos, lobster rolls, etc.), tables, bands, a store from which you can buy Cisco-labeled clothes and accessories and a playground to occupy children while their parents are otherwise engaged. The second business is Bartlett Farm, a large island-based farm that grows a range of vegetables, including its rightly famous Bartlett beefsteak tomatoes. Almost as important as the produce is the retail store which sells not only its produce, but also plants, fresh seafood, high-end cold cuts, artisanal foods and coffees, ready-to-eat foods, a few staples and, like Cisco, a children’s playground.
Once landing in Nantucket, our first stop was lunch in spite of splitting a giant lobster roll on the ferry.
- The Charlie Noble, a new restaurant at which we had fried belly clams and stuffed quahogs with chorizo and brioche (salty and not very interesting) and fried cod sandwich (which our cousin enjoyed).
- Galley Beach, one of the island’s premier (not to speak of most expensive) restaurants at which we had three wonderful dishes. Pernod-scented escargot with tomato garlic butter and pimento pastry, a two-pound truffle-butter poached lobster with English peas, horshimeji mushrooms and potato medallions, and grilled veal chop with wild rice salad and wild mushroom brandy sauce. A perfect meal with a perfect wine, a 2014 Bachlet-Monnot Maranges 1er cru Fussiere red Burgundy. All this with very good service, in a lovely setting, with a beautiful sunset. What more could we want, other than perhaps, lower prices?
- Topper’s at the Wauwinet Resort has a lovely patio and garden that overlooks the harbor. It is a charming place for a relaxing meal. We had three dishes: All huge, and all very good: lobster roll on brioche with brown butter mayo bibb lettuce and a side of double-fried Old Bay French fries; organic, buttermilk fried chicken breast sandwich with avocado, cilantro and kimchee and more Old Bay fries; and free range veal Wienerschnitzel with cucumber salad and potato salad and loganberry jam. With these, we shared a bottle of 2014 Felsner Lessterrassen Gruner Veltliner. A wonderful meal and a beautiful, tranquil setting. And, as mentioned above, the hour long boat ride got one in the mood for a beautiful, relaxing luncyh.
And this is not to forget Nantucket’s native foods. There is, of course, the Bartlett Farm produce, especially the wonderful beefsteak tomatoes that we enjoyed at home with mozzarella, basil and balsamic vinegar. Then there are the gifts from the sea. The entrée for our home cooked meal consisted of wonderfully sweet and rich Nantucket Bay scallops. We also tasted a few of the nice local oysters.