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.
This stunning Gothic Revival house in Edgartown was built around 1848 for Captain Joseph Holley and his wife Lucy. Captain Holley was a whaler who embarked on at least four long excursions of multiple years at a time, with a break between 1847-1852, at that time, he likely had this home built. Gothic Revival homes are rare in New England, especially in Edgartown where there is a matching house across the street. The home features a large dormer with a steep pitch with lancet window and appropriate shutters.
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.
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”.
Standing out amongst the Federal and Greek Revival homes in Edgartown, this Victorian home was constructed in 1892 by Captain Charles W. Fisher (1835-1905) for his new wife. The Fisher family includes many members who were active in the local whaling industry. Fisher is said to have caught the largest sperm whale on record in 1884 and apparently loved being on the open ocean. The next year he married Parnell Pease and she sailed with him to the Pacific on a whaling voyage, lasting five years! At the time of their marriage, Fisher was in his 50s and his new wife in her 20s. Upon their return, Fisher built his wife this “modern style house on the pretentious side with Victorian ornamentation.” Unfortunately, his wife preferred her former house, which was a block a way and obscured any views of the water. Tradition states that apparently, Mrs. Fisher had seen enough of the water during her voyage, as her diary on the five year trip detailed her many unfortunate bouts with sea-sickness, a stay on an island, and dangerous storms.
Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, became a primary whaling port in the early 19th century. Ships from all over the world would dock in its sheltered bay and captains would build grand mansions for their families on the tree lined streets, with sweeping views of the harbor. This modest whaling captain’s home was built around 1840 for Captain John Sands and his wife Eliza. John Sands worked as crew on various whaling ships based out of New Bedford, from the vessel Hector at age 22 before becoming a captain on the vessel Benjamin Tucker. Sands even brought his wife along on whaling ships, including a nearly four year excursion hunting for whale oil. The Sands home is the Greek Revival style with a gable front, six-over-six windows of varying sizes with flared lintels, and an off-center front door with sidelights and transom with an entablature above.