Ten Days in Nantucket.
Elizabeth Porter Gould.
The Bay State Monthly 3 (3): 190-201

ONE night in the early part of July, 1883, as the successful real estate broker, Mr. Gordon, returned to his home from his city office, his attention was arrested by a lively conversation between the members of his family on the wonders of Nantucket. The sound of this old name brought so vividly back to him his own boyish interest in the place, that almost before he was aware of it he announced his return home to his family by saying: “Well, supposing we go to Nantucket this summer? It is thirty-four miles from mainland, and so free from malaria there is no better place for fishing and sailing, and there would be a mental interest in looking around the island which would be instructive and delightful, and, perhaps, profitable for me from a business point of view.”


Mrs. Gordon, who had of late years developed a keen interest for the historic and antique, immediately seconded her husband in his suggestion; and before the evening closed a letter was sent to Nantucket asking for necessary information as to a boarding-place there, for at least ten days, for a party of five, — Mr. and Mrs. Gordon, their daughter Bessie, twenty years of age, their son Tom, fifteen years, and a favorite cousin of theirs, Miss Ray, who was then visiting them, and whose purse, as Mr. Gordon had so often practically remembered, was not equal to her desire to see and to know.

In a few days satisfactory arrangements were made, which ended in their all leaving the Old Colony depot, Boston, in the half-past twelve train, for Wood’s Holl, where they arrived in two hours and a half. From that place they took the steamer for a nearly three hours’ sail to Nantucket, only to stop for a few moments at Martha’s Vineyard.

While they were thus ploughing their way on the mighty deep, Nantucket’s famous crier, “ Billy” Clark, had climbed to his position in the tower of the Unitarian church of the town, — as had been his daily custom for years, — spy-glass in hand, to see the steamer when she should come in sight. Between five and six o’clock, the repeated blowing of the horn from the tower announced to the people his success, and became the signal for them to make ready to receive those who should come to their shores. Just before seven o’clock the steamer arrived. While she was being fastened to the wharf, Tom was attracted by this same “Billy,” who, having received the daily papers, was running up the wharf toward the town ringing his bell and crying out the number of passengers on board, and other important news, which Tom failed to hear in the noise of the crowd. A few minutes’ walk brought the party to their boarding-place. When Mrs. Gordon spied the soft, crayon likeness of Benjamin Franklin on the wall, as she stepped into the house, her historical pulse quickened to such an extent that she then and there determined to hunt up more about the Folgers; for was not Benjamin Franklin’s mother a Folger and born on this island? Then, as she saw about her some old portraits and copies of the masters, and, above all, a copy of Murillo’s Immaculate Conception in the dining-room, she was sure that the atmosphere of her new quarters would be conducive to her happiness and growth. The others saw the pictures, but they appreciated more fully, just then, the delicious blue-fish which was on hand to appease their hunger.

After a night of restful sleep, such as Nantucket is noted for giving, they all arose early to greet a beautiful morning, which they used, partly, for a stroll around the town. Of course, they all registered at the Registry Agency on Orange street, where Mr. Godfrey, who had entertained them by his interesting guide-book on Nantucket, gave them a kind welcome. Then they walked along the Main street, noticing the bank, built in 1818, and passed some quaint old houses with their gables, roofs, and sides, all finished alike, which Burdette has described as “being shingled, shangled, shongled, and shungled.” Tom was struck with the little railings which crowned so many of the houses; and which, since the old fishing days’ prosperity did not call the people on the house-tops to watch anxiously for the expected ships, were now more ornamental than useful. They passed, at the corner of Ray’s Court, a sycamore tree, the largest and oldest on the island, and soon halted at the neat Soldiers’ Monument, so suggestive of the patriotic valor of the island people. Later they found on Winter street the Coffin School-house, — a brick building with two white pillars in front and a white cupola, — which was back from the street, behind some shade trees, and surrounded by an iron fence. As they looked at it Miss Ray read aloud the words in scribed on the front: —


They were also interested to see, near by, a large white building, known as the High School-house. As they neared home Tom’s eyes noticed the sign of a Nantucket birds’ exhibition, and a visit to that place was made.

During the walk Mrs. Gordon had been particularly interested in the large cobble-stones which the uneven streets supported in addition to the green grass, and also the peculiar Nantucket cart, with its step behind. On their return to their boarding-place, they joined a party that had been formed to go to the Cliff, a sandy bluff about a mile north from the town, where they were told was to be found the best still-water bathing on the island. Soon they were all on the yacht “Dauntless,” which hourly plied between the two places; in twenty minutes they were landed at the Cliff; and fifteen minutes later they were all revelling in the warm, refreshing water. Bessie declared that in all her large bathing experience on the north shore she had never enjoyed anything like this. Miss Ray felt that here in this warm, still water was her opportunity to learn to swim; so she accepted the kind teaching of a friend ; but, alas, her efforts savored more of hard work to plough up the Atlantic ocean than of an easy, delightful pleasure bottling up knowledge for some possible future use. While Miss Ray was thus struggling with the ocean, and Bessie and Torn were sporting like two fish, — for both were at home in the water, — Mr. Gordon was looking around the Cliff with his business eye wide open. As he walked along the road back from the shore, and saw the fine views which it afforded him, he admired the judgment of Eastman Johnson, the artist, in building his summer house and studio there. A little farther on, upon the Bluffs, the highest point on the island, he noted the house of Charles O’Conor with the little brick building close by for his library; he then decided that an island which could give such physical benefit as this was said to have given to Mr. O’Conor, would not be a bad one in which to invest. So the value of the Cliff or Bluffs he placed in his note-hook for future use.


At the same time that Mr. Gordon was exploring the land Mrs. Gordon was in the office of two gallant young civil engineers, exploring the harbor! In fact she was studying a map of the surroundings of the harbor, which these young men had made to aid them in their work of building a jetty from Brant Point to the bell-buoy. As she examined it she found it hard to believe that Nantucket had ever stood next to Boston and Salem, as the third commercial town in the Commonwealth. She sympathized deeply with the people of the years gone by who had been obliged to struggle with such a looking harbor as the map revealed, and said that she should go home to learn more of the “ Camels,” which she honored more than ever. When they told her that probably three years more than the two that had been given to the work were needed to finish the jetty, and that there was a slight possibility that another one would he needed for the best improvement of the harbor, she thought her interest in the matter could he better kept alive if she should hunt up her old trigonometry and learn that all over again! With this idea she left the young men, whose kindness to her she fully appreciated, and went to find her party. She soon found, on the yacht ready to go back to town, all but Miss Ray; she had chosen to take one of the many carriages which she had noticed were constantly taking passengers back and forth from the town to the Cliff, at the rate of ten cents apiece.

Later in the afternoon their attention was arrested by another one of the town-criers, — Tom had learned that there were three in the town, — who was crying out that a meat-auction would be held that night at half past six o’clock. When they were told that these meat-auctions had been the custom of the town for years, they were anxious to attend one; but another engagement at that hour prevented their so doing, much to Tom’s regret.

The next day was Sunday. As Bessie and Tom were anxious to see all of the nine churches of which they had read, they were, at first, in doubt where to go; whereas their mother had no questions whatever, since she had settled in her own mind, after having reduced all sects to the Episcopal and the Roman Catholic, that the Episcopal Church was the true historic one, and, therefore, the only one for her personal interest, that she should go to the St. Paul’s on Fair street. Mr. Gordon usually went to church with his wife, although he often felt that the simplicity of the early apostolic days was found more in the Congregational form of worship. This day he yielded to Tom’s desire to go to the square-steepled Congregational Church on Centre street, to hear Miss Baker, who had been preaching to the congregation for three years. He entered the church with some prejudice; but soon he became so much interested in the good sermon that he really forgot that the preacher was a woman! Miss Ray and Bessie went to the Unitarian Church on Orange street, to which the beautiful-toned Spanish bell invited them. After an interesting service, on their way out they met Tom, who wished to look into the pillared church of the Methodists, near the bank, and also into the “Ave Maria” on Federal street, where the Roman Catholics worshipped. Miss Ray, being anxious to attend a Friends’ meeting in their little meeting-house on Fair street, decided to do so the following Sunday, if she were in town; while Bessie said that she should hunt up then the two Baptist churches, the one on Summer street and the other, particularly for the colored people, on Pleasant street. Their surprise that a town of a little less than four thousand inhabitants should contain so many churches was modified somewhat when they remembered that once, in 1840, the number of inhabitants was nearly ten thousand.

In the afternoon the party visited some of the burying-grounds of the town, six of which were now in use. The sight of so many unnamed graves in the Friends’ cemetery, at the head of Main street, saddened Miss Ray; and she was glad to see the neat little slabs which of late years had marked the graves of their departed ones. They strolled around the Prospect Hill, or Unitarian Cemetery, near by, and wished to go into the Catholic one on the same street; but, as Mrs. Gordon was anxious to see some of the old headstones and epitaphs in the North burying-ground on North Liberty street, and their time was limited, they went there instead. When Tom saw her delight as she read on the old stones the date of 1770, 1772, and some even earlier, he said that she must go out to the ancient burial-ground on the hill near the water-works and see the grave of John Gardner, Esq., who was buried there in 1706. As he said this one of the public carriages happened to be within sight. and she proposed that they take it and go immediately to that sacred spot. When they arrived there her historic imagination knew no bounds; her soliloquy partook of the sentiment — in kind only, not in degree — which inspired Mark Twain when he wept over the grave of Adam. In the mean while, Mr. Gordon had gone to the Wannacomet Water works, which supplied the town with pure water from the old Washing pond. He there noted in his note-book that this important movement in the town’s welfare was another reason why investment in the island would be desirable.

As they started to go back to town from the burial-ground Tom wished that they could drive to the south-west suburbs, to see the South and also the colored burying-grounds, for he should feel better satisfied if he could see everything of a kind that there was! But Mrs. Gordon had seen enough for one day, and so they drove to their boarding-house instead.

The ringing of the sweet-toned church bell the next morning at seven o’clock reminded Miss Ray of her desire to visit the tower which contained it. She had noticed how it rang out three times during the day, at seven, twelve, and nine o’clock, and, for the quiet Nantucket town, she hoped that the old custom would never be dropped. And then this bell had a peculiar attraction for her, for it was like the one which was on her own church in Boston, the New Old South. She had been greatly interested in reading that this “Old Spanish Bell,” as it was called, was brought from Lisbon in 1812; that it was stored in a cellar for three years, when it was bought by subscription for about five hundred dollars, and put in this tower. She had read, further, in Godfrey’s guide-book, that “some little time after the bell had been in use, the sound of its mellow tones had reached the hub; and so bewitching were the musical vibrations of this queenly bell (e) of Nantucket to many of the good people of the renowned ‘City of Notions,’ that the agents of the Old South Church negotiated with the agents of the Unitarian Church, saying that they had a very fine clock in their tower; that they had been so unfortunate as to have their bell broken, and wished to know at what price this bell could be procured. The agents of the Unitarian Church replied that they had a very fine hell in their tower, and would like to know at what price the Old South Society would sell their clock. The bell weighs one thousand five hundred and seventy-five pounds; the Boston gentlemen offered one dollar a pound for it, and upon finding they could not get it at any price, they asked where it came from; and having ascertained its history, sent to Lisbon to the same foundry and procured that which they now have.” And she had been told further that this same bell had been removed to the new church on the Back Bay. With all this pleasant association with the bell of her own church, of course she must pay it a visit. So at about nine o’clock, after Mr. Gordon and Tom had gone off with two gentlemen for a day’s blue-fishing, she, with Mrs. Gordon and Bessie, started out for their morning’s sight-seeing. In a half hour’s time they had climbed the stairs to the tower, and were admiring the fine new clock, — a gift from one of Nantucket’s sons, now living in New York, — which had been first set in motion two years before, to replace an old one which had told the time for over half a century. A little farther up they saw the famous bell, and Miss Ray did wish that she could read Spanish so as to translate the inscription which was upon it. A few steps more brought them into the dome itself. Here, then, was the place where “Billy” came to sight the steamers; and here was where a watchman stayed every night to watch for fires. Whenever he saw one, Bessie said his duty was to hang a lantern upon a hook in the direction of the fire and give the alarm. She said that this had been the custom for years. As they were all enjoying this finest view which the island affords, Bessie spied the Old Mill in the distance, and as she had that painted on a shell as a souvenir of her Nantucket trip she must surely visit it. So they were soon wending their way up Orange street, through Lyons to Pleasant, and then up South Mill to the Old Mill itself. On paying five cents apiece, they were privileged to go to the top and look through the spy-glass, and also see the miller grind some corn. This old windmill, built in 1746, with its old oaken beams still strong and sound, situated on a hill by itself, was to Bessie the most picturesque thing that she had seen. She associated this with the oldest house on the island, built in 1686, facing the south, which she had seen the day before.

In the afternoon they continued their sight-seeing by visiting the Athenæum on Federal street. They found it to be a large white building with pillars in front, on the lower floor of which Miss Ray was particularly pleased to see such a good library of six thousand volumes, and a reading-room with the leading English and American periodicals, the use of which she learned was to be gained by the payment of a small sum. Bessie was attracted to the oil-painting on the wall of Abraham Quary, who was the last of the Indian race on the island. Then they examined, in an adjoining room, the curiosities gathered together for public inspection. Here they found the model of the “Camels,” and also the jaw of a sperm whale, seventeen feet long, with forty-six teeth and a weight of eight hundred pounds. Bessie said that the whale from which it was taken was eighty-seven feet long and weighed two hundred tons. When Mrs. Gordon learned that this very whale was taken in the Pacific Ocean and brought to the Island by a Nantucket Captain, she became as much interested in it as in the “Camels,” for surely it had an historical interest. After an hour spent in this entertaining manner, they returned to their boarding-place in time to greet the gentlemen who had come back with glowing accounts of their day’s work, or rather pleasure, for they had met with splendid success. Tom’s fingers were blistered, but what was that compared to the fun of blue-fishing!

What particularly interested the ladies was a “Portuguese man of war” which one of the gentlemen had caught in a pail and brought home alive. This beautiful specimen of a fish, seen only at Nantucket, their hostess said, and seldom caught alive, was admired by all, who, indeed, were mostly ignorant of the habits or even the existence of such a creature. Bessie wondered how such a lovely iridescent thing could be poison to the touch. Tom promised to study up about it when he should begin his winter studies, whereupon his mother said that if he would tell her what he should learn about it she would write it out for the benefit of them all.

The next morning they all started from the wharf at nine o’clock in the miniature steamer, “Island Belle,” for Wauwinet, a place seven miles from the town. Miss Ray had become interested in the pretty Indian names which she had heard, and was struck with this, which she learned was the name of an old Indian chief who once controlled a large eastern part of the island. In an hour they landed on the beach at Wauwinet. They found it decorated with its rows of scallop-shells, some of which they gathered as they walked along. Some of the party made use of this still water bathing, while others ran across the island, some three hundred yards, to enjoy the surf-bathing there. Tom was delighted with this novelty of two beaches, separated by such a narrow strip of land, that he was continually going back and forth to try the water in both places. He only wished that he could go up a little farther where he had been told the land was only one hundred yards wide, — the narrowest part of the island. After a shore dinner at the Wauwinet House, and another stroll on the beaches, they started for the town on the yacht “Lilian,” which twice a day went back and forth. The wind was unfavorable, so they were obliged to go fourteen miles instead of seven, thus using two hours instead of one for the sail. On their way they passed the places known as Polpis, Quidnet, and Coatue. Mr. Gordon was so much impressed with the advantages of Coatue that he noted the fact in his note-book; while his wife became so much interested in the nautical expressions used that she declared that she should get Bowditch’s “Navigation,” and see if she could find those terms in it; she must know more of navigation than she did. As they landed at the wharf they heard “Billy” Clarke crying out that the New Bedford band would give a grand concert at Surf Side the next day. Now, as this kind of music had been the chief thing which they had missed among the pleasures of Nantucket, of course they must go and hear it. So the next afternoon, at two o’clock, they were on the cars of the narrow-gauge railroad, bound for the Surf-Side Hotel, which they reached in fifteen minutes, passing on the way a station of the life-saving service department. They spent an hour or two seated on the bluff over looking the grand surf-beach, and enjoying the strains of music as they came from the hotel behind them. It must be confessed that Mr. Gordon was so interested in noting the characteristics of this part of the island with an eye to business, that he did not lose himself either in the music of the band or the ocean. On his way back to town, when he expressed his desire to build a cottage for himself on that very spot, Surf Side, Mrs. Gordon would not assent to any such proposition; for she had settled in her own mind that there was no place like Brant Point, where she and Bessie had been that forenoon; for did not the keeper of the light house there tell her, when she was at the top of it, that on that spot was built the first light-house in the United States, in 1746? That was enough for her, surely. The matter was still under discussion when Miss Ray told them to wait until they had visited ‘Sconset before they should decide the question. As for her she could scarcely wait for the next morning to come when they should go there. And when it did come it found her, at half-past eight o’clock, decorating with pond-lilies, in honor of the occasion, the comfortable excursion-wagon, capable of holding their party of eight besides the driver. By nine o’clock they were driving up Orange street by the Sherburne and Bay View Houses, on their way to Siasconset, or, ‘Sconset, as it is familiarly called.

As they passed a large white building known as the Poor Farm, Tom was surprised that a town noted for its thrift and temperance should be obliged to have such an institution. Bessie was glad to learn that they were going over the old road instead of the new one, while Miss Ray would rather have gone over the new one, so as to have seen the mile stones which Dr. Ewer, of New York, had put up by the wayside. They met the well-known Captain Baxter, in his quaint conveyance, making his daily trip to the town from ‘Sconset. As they rode for miles over the grassy moors with no trees or houses in sight, none of them could believe that the island had once been mostly covered with beautiful oak trees. Soon the village, with its quaint little houses built close to gether on the narrow streets, which wound around in any direction to find the town-pump, its queer, one-story school-house, its post-office, guarded by the gayly-colored “Goddess of Liberty,” was before, or rather all around them. They had all enjoyed their ride of seven and a half miles; and now, on alighting from the carriage, the party separated in different directions. Miss Ray insisted upon bathing in the surf beach here in spite of its coarse sand and rope limitations, since it was the farthest out in the Atlantic Ocean. Her experience with the strong undertow in its effects upon herself and upon those who watched her is one, which, as no words can portray it, Torn has decided to draw out for some future Puck; for he thinks that it is too good to be lost to the public.

Mrs. Gordon and Bessie walked among the houses, noticing the peculiar names which adorned some of them, and, indeed, going inside one of the oldest where a step-ladder was used for the boys of the household to get up into their little room. They crossed the bridge which led them to the Sunset Heights where some new houses, in keeping with the style of the old ones, were being built. They were pleased to see this unity of design, rather than the modern cottage which had intruded itself upon that coast. In their walk they learned that about eleven or twelve families spent the winter at ‘Sconset. The air was intensely invigorating, so much so that Mrs. Gordon, who was no walker at home, was surprised at herself with what she was doing without fatigue. Later they found Mr. Gordon looking at the new church which had just been completed, and which he had ascertained was built for no sectarian purpose, but for the preaching of the truth. They all met at noon for their lunch, after which they went a mile and a half farther to visit the Sankaty Head light-house, the best one of the five on the island. The keeper kindly escorted them up the fifty-six steps to the top, where they learned that the point of the light was one hundred and sixty-five feet above the level of the sea. He gave them some more facts relative to the light, interspersed with personal experiences. Tom said that he should remember particularly the fact that he told him that this light-house would be the first one that he should see whenever he should come home from a European trip.

Two hours later they were relating their pleasant experiences in the dining-room of their boarding-house, while enjoying the delicious blue-fish which gratified their hunger. As for Miss Ray her anticipations had been realized; and that night she wrote to a certain young man in Boston that she knew of no place in America where they could be more by themselves and away from the world, when their happy time should come in the following summer, than at ‘Sconset.

The next afternoon found them all listening to Mrs. McCleave, as she faithfully exhibited the many interesting curiosities of her museum, in her home on Main street. Mrs. Gordon was very much interested in the Cedar Vase, so rich with its “pleasant associations,” while Bessie was delighted with the beautiful carved ivory, with its romantic story as told by its owner. Miss Ray considered Mrs. McCleave, with her benevolent face, her good ancestry, and her eager desire to learn and impart, a good specimen of the well-preserved Nantucket woman.

Through the courtesy of their hostess they were privileged, on their way back, to visit the house of Miss Coleman, on Centre street, there to see the wonderful wax figure of a baby six months old, said to be the likeness of the Dauphin of France, the unfortunate son of Louis XVI. When Mrs. Gordon learned that this was brought to Nantucket in 1786, by one of her own sea-captains, she became very much excited over it. As she realized then that her knowledge of French history was too meagre to fully understand its historical import, although she appreciated its artistic value, she determined that another winter should be partially devoted to that study. So she added “French history” to “Camels,” “Light-houses,” “Navigation,” and “Indians,” which were already in her note-book. She had added “Indians” the day before when her interest in them had been quickened by some accounts of the civilization of the early Indians in Nantucket, which seemed to her almost unprecedented in American history. After supper Mr. and Mrs. Gordon went out in a row-boat to enjoy the moonlight evening, Tom went to the skating-rink, Miss Ray spent the evening with some friends at the Ocean House near by, while Bessie went out for a moonlight sail with some friends from a western city, whom, she said, she had “discovered, not made.” Her appreciation of a fine rendering of her favorite Raff Cavatina by a talented young gentleman of the party, soon after her arrival, had been the means of bringing together these two souls on the musical heights, which afterwards had led to an introduction to the other members of the party, all of whom she had enjoyed during the week that had passed. And now, with these newly-found friends, on this perfect July evening, with its full moon and fresh south-westerly breeze, in the new yacht “Lucile,” she found perfect enjoyment. Pleasant stories were related, and one fish-story was allowed, to give spice to the occasion. After a little more than two hours’ sail they found themselves returning to the Nantucket town, which, in the moonlight, presented a pretty appearance.

The next day, Saturday, Mr. Gordon and Tom started early to sail around the island, with an intention of landing on the adjoining island, Tuckernuck. Tom had calculated that it would be quite a sail, for he knew that Nantucket Island was fourteen miles long, and averaged four miles in width; and his father had decided that such a trip would give him a better idea of the island’s best points for building purposes. On their return at night they found that the ladies had spent a pleasant day, bathing, riding, and visiting some Boston friends who were stopping at the Springfield House, a short distance from them. Bessie had found more pleasure in the company of the young musician and his friends, having attended one of the morning musicales which they were accustomed to have by themselves in the hall of the Athenæum. Tom and his father had much to tell of their day’s pleasure.

Mr. Gordon, for once in his life, felt the longing which he knew had so often possessed his wife, to go back and live in the years gone by; for if he could now transfer himself to the year 1659, he might buy this whole island of Thomas Mayhew for thirty pounds and two beaver hats. What a lost opportunity for a good business investment! As it was, however, some valuable notes were added to his note-book, suggested by the trip, which time alone will give to the world. He was more and more convinced that the future well-being of Nantucket was more in the hands of real-estate brokers and summer pleasure-seekers, than in those of the manufacturers, agriculturists, or even the fishing men as of old. He could see no other future for her, and he should work accordingly. His chief regret was that the island was so barren of trees.

They spent the next day, Sunday, in attending church, as they had planned, and in pleasant conversation and rest preparatory to their departure for Boston on the following morning. They expressed gratitude that they had not been prevented by sickness or by one rainy day from carrying out all the plans which had been laid for the ten days. Mrs. Gordon very much regretted that they had not seen the famous Folger clock which was to be seen at the house of a descendant of Walter Folger, the maker of it. She should certainly see it the first thing, if she ever were in Nantucket again; for she considered the man, who, unaided, could make such a clock, the greatest mechanical genius that ever lived. She felt this still more when she was told that the clock could not be mended until there could be found a mechanic who was also an astronomer.

At seven o’clock the next morning they were all on board the steamer, as she left the old town of Nantucket in the distance. Mrs. Gordon looked longingly back at Brant Point, which she still felt was the best spot on the island; while Bessie eagerly watched for the little flag which a certain young gentleman was yet waving from the wharf.

At half-past one they were in Boston, and an hour later at their suburban home, all delighted with their short stay in Nantucket. They felt that they had seen about all that. there was to be seen there, and they were glad to have visited the island before it should be clothed with more modern garments.

Ten Days in Nantucket.
Elizabeth Porter Gould.
The Bay State Monthly 3 (3): 190-201

copyright 1885, by Elizabeth Porter Gould
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