The Captain Benjamin Smith House at 34 South Summer Street in Edgartown was constructed around 1790. The building sits on land that was once owned by the Coffin family who owned a broad sweep of land from Edgartown Harbor back to Pease’s Point Way. Many of the oldest houses in town were constructed by members of this family who had first settled in Newbury. Smith, a military captain who commanded a company of militia on Martha’s Vineyard during the Revolutionary War, was married to a member of the Coffin family and the family owned the home for over one hundred years. After successive ownership, in 1939, the Vineyard Gazette took over the building. The Gazette was the first newspaper to be published in Dukes County, and remains in the building to this day.
Maybe the most grand Greek Revival home in Edgartown, the Fisher-Bliss House has stood proud overlooking the harbor as ships come and go for nearly 200 years. Thomas M. Coffin, who built many whaling captains homes in town, constructed this iconic residence in 1832 for Captain George Lawrence, who had returned to town with over $90,000 worth of whale oil from a three year trip to New Zealand. Before the house was built for him, the home was sold to Captain Jared Fisher. The home was apparently to be a two-story gable roof home, but Fisher decided to square off the roof and have a widow’s walk added. Captain Fisher’s granddaughter owned the house and lived there with her husband Mr. Leonard Bliss, a merchant.
Edgartown in the early 19th century was booming as one of the major whaling towns in America. As goods were imported and exported in and out of the burgeoning town, a Customs House was required to essentially tax the goods. Until around 1825, the Customs House in Edgartown was located in private homes until the demand grew for a stand-alone structure on Main Street. This Federal style building was constructed to house a Customs office upstairs with two commercial spaces on the ground floor.
With Edgartown being synonymous with the whaling and the ocean, its obvious the town has long had a lighthouse to guide weary travellers. In 1828, Congress approved $5,500 for “building a pier and light-house on the Point of Flats, at the entrance to Edgartown Harbor.” That first lighthouse was a two-story dwelling with a side-gabled roof atop which was centered the lantern room. The structure was erected on wooden pilings out in the water, requiring its first keeper to row a short distance to get to the tower. In 1830, a 1,500-foot-long wooden walkway was built at a cost of $2,500 to connect the lighthouse to the shore. In 1840, the rotten wooden pilings supporting the lighthouse were replaced by a stone pier. The keeper’s house was drafty and leaky, and vulnerable to the sea and weather due to its exposed location. This resulted in a greater than average turnover of keepers, and some keepers refused to live in the official quarters preferring to seek lodging on the nearby shore. The lighthouse was restored numerous times through the early 20th century until The Great Hurricane of 1938 inflicted significant damage to the lighthouse. Upon taking control of the nation’s lighthouses in 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard quickly tore down the building.
The original plan was to replace the lighthouse with a steel skeleton tower, but instead a disused 1881 lighthouse that served as a rear range light on Crane’s Beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts was dismantled and barged, minus its brick lining, to Edgartown. The relocated forty-five-foot cast-iron tower was soon in service at Edgartown and remains an active aid to navigation today, showing an automated flashing red light every six seconds. The lighthouse remains a must-see spot when visiting Edgartown.
By the 1830s, Edgartown had become the most affluent town in Martha’s Vineyard thanks to the rise of the local whaling industry. Whaling in particular fueled much of coastal New England’s nascent economy in the early 19th century, as small, private schooners frequently ventured out into the Atlantic on a regular basis. Yet, the trade as both an economic and cultural force had largely died out around the time of the American Civil War. Fishing communities like Edgartown began to suffer, as countless sea captains found themselves out of a job. Despite the hardships, some on Martha’s Vineyard began to identify new ways to generate business. Tourism happened to be one of them.
North of town, a group of investors bought a waterfront site to develop the town’s first true resort, the Harbor View Hotel. It originally opened 1891 and was extremely successful for two years until the Panic of 1893, which severely harmed local tourism on Martha’s Vineyard. The hotel went bankrupt that year and sat empty for three years after. It was purchased by the original manager of the hotel and opened back up in 1896, with rooms costing roughly $3 a night. The owner in 1910, doubled the hotel in size to give it the look it has today. The resort was rented out by Steven Spielberg in 1975 for the cast and crew of the iconic film Jaws which was filmed on the island.
John Osborn Morse was born in 1803 in Edgartown. He was the second of eight children born to Uriah Morse and Prudence Fisher Morse. His father ran the small ferry from the foot of Morse Street to Chappaquiddick Island. As John Morse grew older, he began working as a whaler on various ships, sometimes gone for years at a time. After his first trip, he was hired as Captain of the Hector, a whaling ship which sailed out of New Bedford. Captain Morse took a break from whaling to establish a wharf on land he purchased and construct a massive Greek Revival home to overlook it. When news hit Edgartown of the gold found in California, it stirred the islanders’ imagination. In 1849, several ships sailed from Martha’s Vineyard to California, one commissioned by Captain Morse. The Vineyard Mining Company, led by Morse, brought roughly 50 passionate and hopeful Americans across the country by boat to California with some onboard writing journals of the trip. The boat arrived in San Francisco and discharged its crew in April of 1850 after a harrowing passage around Cape Horn and visits to several South American ports. After being in California for less than a year, Captain Morse decided to take go for a short whaling cruise. He died on this trip, reportedly getting “dropsy” off the coast of Colombia before succumbing in Peru in 1851.
This historic Georgian mansion was built in 1703 for John Coffin (1647-1711) who moved to Edgartown by the way of Nantucket and Haverhill, Massachusetts looking for new work. John Coffin opened a blacksmithy
on the waterfront in Edgartown and immediately prospered, building this home after his success. Legend says the home was actually right on the street before the street was widened and after, the front steps and home’s location obscured the view of other buildings on the street. The home was moved back on the lot in its bucolic setting now amongst the hustle and bustle of downtown Edgartown. The home was threatened with demolition almost all of the 20th century due to the commercial nature of its location. Thankfully, it was acquired by the Vineyard Trust in 1946, who preserve it to this day with small businesses located inside.
This stunning house on Starbuck Neck in Edgartown was originally built on Main Street by Frederick Baylies Jr., as his own residence. Baylies was the architect of the town’s original Methodist church, the Old Whaling Church, and a couple other extant churches in town in the early 19th century. The home was sold to William Cooke Pease, a shipbuilder and merchant. In 1839, he joined the United States Revenue Cutter Service, an armed customs enforcement service, and he quickly rose in rank, spanning the transition from sail to steam. Capt. Pease designed and built new Cutter ships for the Great Lakes and refitted many aging vessels on the West Coast. Today, he is regarded as a founder of the modern Coast Guard, which in 1915, was created by the consolidation by an act of Congress of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service the United States Life-Saving Service to form the United States Coast Guard as we know it today.
Methodists on Martha’s Vineyard arguably left the largest lasting mark between religious groups on the island between Wesleyan Grove in Oak Bluffs and this stunning church in Edgartown. The Methodists in Edgartown grew with the success of the whaling industry there and their former church was outgrown, requiring a larger and more prominent worshipping space in town. Designed by Frederick Baylies, Jr., the Old Whaling Church was built by skilled shipwrights for Edgartown’s Methodist whaling captains and is regarded as one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in New England. The Old Whaling Church was not only funded by mariners and those dedicated to seafaring trades, it was quite literally built by them, too. Baylies hired a crew of local carpenters who were equally as skilled in building churches as they were in constructing ships. The church is topped by a Gothic Revival clock tower which has crenellations, rounded arches, engaged pilasters, dentil cornice moldings and four spires capped with gilded acanthus leaf finials. The church was acquired by the Vineyard Trust in 1980, and they converted the old sanctuary into a performing arts space. The congregation meets in the former sanctuary in the summer months and in the vestry in the winter with its smaller numbers.
This charming little Greek Revival house has a lot of history, tied to literature and the whaling industry that shaped Edgartown in the 19th century. The home was built in around 1830 for Captain Valentine Pease (1797-1870), a master mariner and captain of the Acushnet, a prominent whaling vessel which often departed from New Bedford. In 1841, Captain Valentine Pease, his crew, and a 21-year-old Herman Melville shipped out of New Bedford 1841 for eighteen months as Melville’s only whaling voyage. Melville took part in the hunting and killing of whales and in harvesting and processing whale oil aboard ship. He endured gales and calm, experienced excitement and boredom, followed ship’s discipline, all the while absorbing the lore of the veteran seamen who made up the Acushnet’s diverse and colorful crew. It is speculated that Valentine Pease was an inspiration for the character of Captain Ahab in Melville’s book “Moby Dick”.