I happened upon a great trove of old photos on Flickr posted by the Boston Public Library. Dozens of albums containing shots of historical Boston from its sports to its building to its maritime accidents. Being a shipwreck fan of course I was all over that album.
The pictures are not downloadable and covered by copyright, so the next image is scraped without the permission of the library:
I met someone yesterday who has a summer home on Briant’s Neck on Santuit Pond in Mashpee. Of course I got all professorial on them and started babbling about the Trout Mound and the old Wampanoag meeting house that used to stand on the neck until it was moved to its present location by oxen in 1717 ……
Anyway, I dug around on this blog to find my posts from 2013 when I presented a paper to the Cotuit Historical Society on the history of Mashpee and the “Woodlot Revolt of 1833 and realized I didn’t have the full paper on the site.
In the 1990s, as the maritime novels of Patrick O’Brian emerged from obscurity to the top of the bestseller lists, I took the advice of my good friend and neighbor Phil and invested in the first few volumes of the 20-volume epic. For some reason I never had the attention span to march through them all, as O’Brian was still living and writing new volumes at the rate of one per year up to his death in 2000. Maybe I was distracted by work or fatherhood, but my reading tastes were then focused on the history of the Byzantine empire and not the exploits of a Royal Navy Post Captain and his learned, naturalist-spy-surgeon during the first two decades of the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars.
Maritime fiction and nonfiction has long been a personal favorite, beginning with the Hornblower series by C.S. Forrester, Melville’s Moby Dick and Typee and Omoo, the accounts of the first solo circumnavigators like Joshua Slocum, Bernard Moitessier, Sir Francis Chichester; the Atlantic oarsmen, Blythe and Ridgway and Robert Manry’s account of crossing the Atlantic in the 13-foot Tinkerbelle. At the top of the maritime stack has always sat Joseph Conrad, maybe my favorite writer in the English language, particularly for Lord Jim and The Nigger of the Narcisssus. From my earliest introduction to the shelf of sailing yarns at the Cotuit Library in the 1960s by the patient Ida Anderson to my college major in American maritime history, I have always been a sucker for a good sea story.
So last winter, as I whittled away at a 1:16 scale model of a New Bedford whaling boat, I found myself in a maritime history kind of mood, feeling truly an armchair sailor, and without giving it much thought decided to pick up the first volume in O’Brian’s 20-volume, 6,900-page saga — Master and Commander —and read it during my morning and evening commutes across Boston harbor on a Kindle.
By the time I paid my book tax to Amazon for the third time I realized I was screwing myself with ebooks, as I would losing the opportunity to collect the full set to share with my sons and fill out yet another bookshelf in the home library. So I went on eBay, poked around, and found a complete set of paperbacks and hardcovers for $60. With Amazon gouging me over $10 per electronic edition, I was ahead as soon as I hit the buy button. A heavy box arrived a week later from some used book dealer and I’ve been buried in it ever since.
For the past nine months I’ve been savoring the series and using it as a springboard to dive deeper into the history of the Royal Navy, the War of 1812, the Enlightenment’s blossoming of the Royal Society as naturalists and scientists devoured their discoveries and explored the globe. Yes, like most I had associated a lot of the series with the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, but the experience was much more than any two hour film could hope to deliver (and I liked the movie a lot).
Like the critics who embraced the novels, I consider it a masterpiece of not just maritime literature or historical fiction, but one of the most ambitious and finely realized epic masterpieces of the English language. The depth of the language, the nautical nomenclature, the interweaving of actual historical events with the fictional characters and their personal backstories is nothing short of a masterpiece. While I whipped through the first volumes, I found myself slowing down, savoring the experience as winter turned to spring, reading a few pages on the train every morning and evening, index card marked with obscure vocabulary and nautical terms to look up later and add to my running O’Brian lexicon list. Then, these past few weeks, as the stack of books dwindled, I started to feel sad that it was all coming to an end; and last night it did. The twentieth volume — Blue at the Mizzen — ending sweetly with a piquant closure that leads me to believe the two familiar men – Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin would evermore sail on.
Yes, there is a 21st book — it consists of the first 60 pages of the next book which O’Brian started at the age of 85 before his death in January 2017. I have it ready to go, fascinated by the prospect of reading a master novelist’s handwritten first draft and corrected typescript, just as I was when I once handled a page of Conrad’s palimpsest for the Narcissus and saw how the master struck out redundant words and experimented until he found the magical bon mot.
In 1999 I bought some screenwriting software and messed around with the format and structure of writing a scvript. I actually wrote a full screenplay based on the story of Hugh Glass, the frontiersman who was mauled by a bear and left to die in the wilderness in the 1800s. Yes, I felt a twinge of woulda-coulda-shoulda when The Revenant told that tale 15 years later and won an Oscar, but being a procrastinator, I thought I’d share another amazing story from history which I’ll predict someone will actually make into a flick one day.
On my current literary bender of devouring Samuel Eliot Morison’s works, I have been reading his magnum opus, The European Discoverers of America. In his accounts of the French voyages of discovery of Canada he dropped in the tale — perhaps apocryphally — of Marguerite de la Rocque and her romantic ordeal on the Ile de Demons in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1542.
First a little back story. The French, envious of Spanish wealth from Columbus’ discovery of the New World, and aware the English were exploring the coasts of Newfoundland, financed the voyages of Jacques Cartier who over the course of three voyages, discovered the Gulf of St. Lawrence and explored it deep to the west as far as the modern city of Quebec in the search of the elusive northwest passage to the Indies. Cartier returned to Versailles with captured Iroquois natives and tales of gold to be found in the mythical “Kingdom of Saguenay.” While his samples of ore were merely Fools Gold, or iron pyrite, and his Iroquois novelties all too willing to bullshit the court on his behalf, Cartier’s tall tales of Canada’s bounty inspired a mad rush among the French aristocracy to fit out their own ships and sail west to stake their claims in the New World.
One of those fortune-seekers was Jean-Francois Roberval, a French nobleman and favorite of the King of France, who set sail for Canada in 1542 with a crew that included a young woman, Marguerite de la Roque, and her lady’s maid, Damienne. It’s unclear what exactly the relationship was between Roberval and Marguerite. Some historians speculate they were uncle and niece. Others speculate they were brother and sister. But it appears they had a shared interest in a great deal of land in Perigord and Languedoc and she was “co-seigeurness” of Pairpont with him. Whatever the relationship, it was personal and perhaps even financial and tied to some big land holdings which were the basis of noble wealth in those days.
Why a young woman would get on a ship with her maid and sail to a savage shore is remarkable to speculate about, but according to Morison, Cartier did a masterful job in whipping up Canada-fever among the aristocracy and for a woman to embark on such a voyage is probably tantamount to being the first female astronaut to walk on the moon.
During the trans-Atlantic voyage Marguerite fell in love with a young man — not a member of the common crew, but some dashing adventurer who doubtlessly was high-borne and also keen on finding adventure and freedom from the tired restrictions of 15th century France. The two lovers were caught in flagrente delicto by the Calvinist Captain Roberval, who was enraged by her promiscuity, doubtlessly ashamed to have it openly known on the very close confines of a small ship in the middle of the Atlantic that his chaste “ward” had sinned under his very nose in some dark sail locker.
Roberval vowed to put Marguerite ashore at the first opportunity along with her maid Damienne, who in the words of Morison, played the classic role all good lady’s maids are expected to play as she tried to conceal her mistresses’ amorous indiscretions. Eventually land was sighted, a desolate island at the northern tip of Newfoundland at the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This island, the “Ile de Demons” is a bit mythical and appears and disappears on antique charts, but according to modern locations may be Quirpon Island near the site of L’Anse aux Meadows, where archaeologists found evidence of the first Viking settlements dating back to 1,000 CE.
Now for the good stuff, paraphrasing Morison’s account, here goes:
Roberval the Calvinist prude, total tyrant of the ship (as all good captain’s are expected to be tyrants), anchors off the rocky shore of the Ile de Demons and puts Marguerite and Damienne ashore with a musket, some provisions, and his utter and complete scorn. Picture the scene of somber shame and terror as the two women are put into the boat and rowed ashore in the ship’s pinnace to a forbidding shore dense with pines and dark shadows. Roberval doubtlessly pronounces some stern sentence on them from the poop deck as the women are banished to their fate, invoking his Huguenot God and making pious imprecations against fornicators and peccant girls of loose morals.
Some historians speculate Roberval was motivated by more than prudishness and a wounded ego when he sent Marguerite ashore, loyal lady’s maid by her side. Indeed he may have benefited from marooning the young noblewoman because he could have returned to France as the sole Lord of the lands he once shared title with the doomed girl. Whatever the motivation, Roberval was wiping his hands of her and with a curt command to weigh anchor and sail away, the two women were left alone on the wet shore looking out for the last time at their only connection to civilization and life.
Aha, but the young swain, hitherto concealed, his identity protected by his lover Marguerite, leaps on deck, muskets, ammunition, and food in a sack, and with a flourishing bow, gracefully swan dives off the taffrail into the cold, testicle-shrinking waters of the sea and swims ashore to share his fate in the arms of his abandoned lover.
Roberval flicks his teeth with some gallic display of disgusted indifference and with a fey motion with the back of his hand, commands the ship’s bosun to weigh anchor and leave the scandalous trio to their fate.
And then the ship is gone.
Let’s let Morison tell the rest of the story:
“Marguerite fared well enough for a time. Until winter set in, the lovers lived an idyllic life. The gentleman built a cabin for his mistress and her maid, chopped wood, caught fish, and shot wild fowl; but before winter ended, he died. Marguerite, unable to dig a grave in the frozen ground, guarded his body in the cabin until spring, to protect it from wild animals.
“In the ninth month of exile a child was born to her and promptly died. Another winter passed, and Damienne died, leaving Marguerite alone. The intrepid demoiselle gathered enough food to keep alive and defended herself not only against bears (she killed three, one “white as an egg”). but against spirits of another world. Demoniac voices shrieked about her cabin, howled the louder when she fired a gun, but were still when she read passages from a New Testament which she brought ashore.”
In the early spring of 1544 the smoke from Marguerite’s fire was spotted by some passing French fisherman. They landed, found her emaciated and “in rags” according to Morison, and brought her back home to France where she became a celebrity sensation and the personal pet of the Queen of Navarre who made Marguerite a cause celebre and post child for piety. Roberval? Not a %&$* was given and met his maker during some Huguenot purge.
Samuel Eliot Morison has long been one of my favorite historians, coming into my life in the summer of 1978 when I worked as an intern at Houghton-Mifflin in Boston and walked to work every day up and down the Commonwealth Avenue mall through the Public Gardens and across Boston Common to the publishing house’s offices on Beacon Hill. The mall had a new statue of Morison between Exeter and Fairfield Streets — a bronze of him sitting on a seaside boulder in oilskins, binoculars around his neck, gazing out to an imaginary sea. Over the years I’ve read most of his work (with more to go), driven out of my studies in American maritime history in college, but also because of his remarkably fluent voice and style. Morison taught history at Harvard his entire life, was a rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy and wrote the official history of the navy in World War II, but he is best known for his writings on Christopher Columbus, which under the title of “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” won him the first for two Pulitzer prizes for history .
That book, which I strongly recommend reading, was an account of Morison’s meticulous primary research into Columbus’ life, his four voyages of discovery to the New World in the last decade of the 1400s, and a dispelling of the “flat earth” myth which had flourished in the minds of school children such as myself thanks to the fictional liberties taken by Washington Irving. Morison is an excellent historian, relying on first hand observation and primary research in the archives of Spain, Portugal and Italy, but also unique in that he was every inch a sailor himself, and took the time to re-sail Columbus’ meanderings from Spain through the Caribbean to understand the challenges of navigating into the unknown with only the crudest rudiments of navigation and understanding.
Columbus, in Morison’s estimation, was a pious, complicated man driven by dreams of wealth and fame, but also a deep piety and love of God. The Genoese sailor never let go of his dreams of sailing west to the Indies, convinced of his theories due to misconceptions and errors which did not includeany superstitions about sailing off the edge of the map.
This holiday began as an official holiday in 1906, but has been out of favor and rarely observed except in places where there is a strong Italian-American community like New York, New Haven and Boston. It, like Thanksgiving, has been revised by contemporary critics to an opportunity to discredit the noble of myths of discovery with the brutal realities of indigenous genocide. Doubtlessly, (and Morison was aware of that brutal truth when he wrote Admiral of the Ocean Seas) Columbus’s discovering of Hispaniola and the establishment of the Spanish capital of the New World there, led to one of the most massive examples of genocide in world history, setting the foundations of misery for that island that persists today in the struggles in Haiti.
Although Columbus himself doesn’t emerge as a cold, rapacious villain in Morison’s account — nothing close to the subsequent horrors of Cortez and Pizaro (who accompanied Columbus on subsequent voyages following the first of 1492) — he does stand as one of the great sailors in history because of his voyage home in the doughty Nina to deliver the news to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of his discoveries.
Columbus was an excellent sailor, with years of experience under the tutelage of the voyaging Prince Henry of Portugal in that sea-faring nation’s explorations of the west coast of Africa. His first voyage, consisting of the fabled fleet of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, was undertaken in proven ships which he modified to take advantage of the prevailing trade winds he expected to encounter in his crossing of the Atlantic. He lost not a single man during the voyage — but did lose the Santa Maria on Christmas Eve, 1492 on a reef off the northern arm of present day Haiti near a tragic settlement he would call “Navidad.” Leaving a contingent of sailors and caballeros at Navidad after constructing a block house from the salvaged wreckage of the Santa Maria, Columbus sailed home for Spain in the Nina.
As he approached Europe that February he encountered a brutal storm, a perfect storm, which Morison is able to recreate in amazing detail from Columbus’ own ships logs and the insights of modern meteorologists. Columbus survived a storm on a furious scale which would have destroyed a modern fleet, limping ashore in Portugal under a wisp of a remaining sail against all odds. Not only his skill — and religious promises by him and the pious crew to go on pilgrimages of thanks should God spare them — but the almost magical luck of the Nina stand out as the heroes of Morison’s account. I had never been aware of that aspect of the Columbus story until reading Morison, and now would now place his voyage home in the tiny Nina in the pantheon of epic feats of seamanship that include Bligh’s voyage in an open boat across 4,000 miles of the south Pacific ocean and Slocum’s first solo circumnavigation in the Spray.
So tomorrow, this Columbus Day of 2016, a day of mourning for many, a holiday barely honored anymore at the last long weekend of the Fall, “National Indigenous Peoples Day” on some campuses, I chose to remember the scene on the poop deck of the Nina somewhere north of the Azores in February 1493, fighting for its life, with the Admiral of the Ocean Seas standing resolute before his terrified crew begging their God Almighty to deliver them onto dry land after a voyage of discovery Morison declares every bit as significant as man’s landing on the moon.
I have succumbed to the world of books-on-tape and been using the 90 mile/2x daily commute from Cape Cod to Burlington to do more than listen to NPR and curse my hollow, rat-on-a-wheel existence. I’ve been a fan since my commute to and from Manhattan for Eastman Advisors, but perhaps Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire wasn’t the wisest first choice for an automotive literary experience. In 2001, when I briefly did the same commute to McKinsey & Co’s short-lived TomorrowLab, I listened to lectures from The Learning Company, thinking I was being super efficient and relentlessly self-improving like Dr. Evil’s father the baker who claimed to have invented the question mark.
Audible is definitely making the commute a lot more enjoyable. I’ve tried dictating into a voice recorder and plugging the results into Nuance software’s speech recognition software, but I can’t compose via dictation and feel like an utter asshole in bumper-to-bumper holding a little red Sony recorder under my chin and pretending I am composing literary genius (note to self, search to see if any significant piece of literature has ever been dictated).
So far this fall I’ve listened to The Map Thief; Peter Thiel’s From Zero to One; and Chris Anderson’s Free, along with a steady diet of podcasts, usually Drupal and open source related. I was always impressed by the anecdote that George Gilder, the Forbes columnist and newsletter writer wrecked a couple cars out in the Berkshires because he was fond of driving around listening to technical lectures and proceedings from the IEEE and other deep-geek gatherings. The story, unconfirmed, was he put a car or two in the ditch because he’d get so wrapped up in talks about erbium-doped fiber amplifiers.
Now I’m into Walter Issacson’s breezy history of the computer, Internet, and digital revolution and I’m liking it, even if everything is old news because I’ve worked in the industry since the early 1980s and have read pretty much all the histories and biographies of the computer age. Walter’s biography of Steve Jobs was a huge bestseller and I enjoyed it very much as it taught me two things about Jobs which I did not know before: Jobs didn’t flush toilets and he banned Powerpoint. In Innovators, Issacson does a fine job of keeping the history from falling into the rat hole of theoretical science, injects some good human drama and tales of eccentricity, and connects it all together in a way that a Millenial obsessed with hooking up on Tindr and managing their social networks might actually pause and pay some respect to the geniuses (mostly men, mostly working during the Great Depression) who invented the vacuum tube powered 50-ton monster computers that got things rolling.
He begins with the tale of Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, a passionate mathematician who is regarded as the first computer programmer because of her work with Charles Babbage during his development of the mechanical calculator, the Analytical Engine during the first half of the 19th Century. Then a leap to the second half of the century, and the mechanization of the US Census by IBM’s early founder Herman Hollerith (this cutting down the analysis of the census from an eight year manual process to just one); and then to 1937 — the year it all came together in the US, England and Germany for a bunch of unconnected inventors and scientists who looked at the technology available to them and managed, through a combination of vacuum tubes, hardwired circuits, electric-mechanical relays, “memories” made out of rotating tin cans and lots of scrounging, to independently invent variations on what are now regarded as the first working computers.
There’s something about listening to the excitement caused by the Mother of All Demos (Douglas Engelbart’s demonstration of the first mouse, graphical user interface, and network in 1968), the founding of Intel by Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore and Andy Grove, the impact the MITS Altair had on the Bay Area’s hacker/maker subculture, the development of the Internet’s protocols out of ARPANET…..all familiar stories, but very chilling when told through an Android phone mounted on the dashboard of a car, a pocket computer with more storage and power that ever could have been conceived of and yet…..
That future was always in the minds of people like Vannevar Bush — the man who forged the collaboration between the military, academic and industrial research during World War II and was the “Scientist-in-Chief,” advising presidents from FDR through Eisenhower: he described the personal computer he called a “Memex” in a famous essay published by The Atlantic, “As We May Think.” Alan Kay at Xerox PARC and his vision of the DynaBook in the early 70s. Ada Lovelace speculating in the 1820s that someday there would be machines that could help create art.
The theme that fascinates me — a theme emerging from listening to Chris Anderson, Peter Thiel, and Issacson — is that the greatest invention in all of the Information Age is debatable, but the one that is most intangible is the way “innovation” is defined and happens. I personally detest the way “innovation” is tossed around by buzzwordists along with “impactful” and “pivot” like verbal styrofoam peanuts; but a tangible definition and set of conditions conducive to it occurring is coming together in my mind. Hence, Churbuck’s Theory of Innovation:
Those who talk about innovation generally don’t understand it.
Innovation is not a synonym for creativity or discovery — creativity and inspiration are required, but the words are not synonyms. Galileo didn’t innovate his heliocentric view of the universe — he proved through a telescope that the planets orbit the sun (and pissed off the Church in the process).
Innovation strictly defined in my mind is the commercialization of invention. Bear with me, for this is the fine distinction between discovering some new truth: “Silicon doped with impurities will become a semiconductor” that’s a discovery, an invention. Putting a logical circuit on a base of doped silicon by printing a pattern of conductive lines is an invention and can be patented. Realizing you can cram all the logical functions required by a computer’s central processing unit onto a single chip and then selling the hell out of them (as Intel did) I argue is an innovation. Science leads to discoveries. Innovation applies those discoveries to products or processes.
Innovation is an “aha” moment to be sure, but it usually doesn’t happen alone, by a lone genius in a garage, but in a group of collaborators in the right combination of environment and management structures. Flat organizations based on a meritocracy are far more conducive to innovation than old command-and-control structure. Open sharing of invention and discoveries is the fuel for innovation — innovation is derived and borrowed from many sources and crushed by patents and secrecy.
I highly recommend the Thiel book — his view of what it takes to build a company, as well as Issacson’s — it’s more about the management and culture breakthroughs than anything else. Flat organizations, rewarding individual contributors with a piece of the action, and leadership that makes decisions and shepherds projects towards clear goals while deflecting distractions are as important as any factor, technical or creative. Issacson provides an excellent example: Texas Instruments took the invention of the transistor by Bell Labs and made the first transistor radios — reducing a bulky device that sat on a table and required tubes to a form factor the size of a stack of index cards. As luck would have it, the first transistor radio coincided with the emergence of rock-and-roll, and for the first time teenagers could listen, in privacy, to the music their parents hated on the living room Philco. The invention — the Regency TR-1 — was the innovation of a new “use case,” the transistor itself was introduced to the public consciousness, and the result was as profound (if not more so) than the iPod 50 years later.
It’s a long way of my saying, it’s good to stop and take stock of the invention that surrounds us and realize that in a very short span of time — 50 years essentially — we’re gone from “Shake Rattle and Roll” in our pockets, to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on our dashboards.
I’m trying to walk off some weight and hit the road on Sunday to take a stroll through Mosswood Cemetery and around Eagle Pond. Winter is the best time for marching around in the woods. No leaves have sprouted to obscure the views and few if any people are out on a grey afternoon. First stop was the hill atop Old Shore Road at the bend on Putnam Avenue. In behind the old Ropes property is this sad barn. The cupola crashed in during Sandy in the fall of 2012. A tarp was hauled over the hole, and you can see some strapping on what remains, so who knows, it may get rebuilt or it may vanish like so many other old sheds and barns around the village.
Onwards to Mosswood Cemetery, to look at the Churbuckian headstone, all covered with lichens, the plot littered with winter’s blown sticks. Always strange to think that my name will get stuck there in the ground some day. Only my grandfather Henry is actually buried there. Grandmother Nellie and my father were cremated, so all that remains of them are the stones. I reminded myself for the umpteenth time to visit the cemetery office and see what the deal is with the family plot. It’s interesting to see the changes to the cemetary and the graves that get extraordinary attention, with little solar powered lights, bunches of plastic flowers, ornate laser inscribed tombstones with pictures and poetry. Nothing like the old Yankee practice of sticking up a name, a birthday and death date and then moving on.
I went up the hill to the old section, where the 19th century family plots are. The Chatfields and Fishers and Fields and Hodges — the old unmet names of great-aunts and uncles gathered together. The oldest stones are pretty beat up, with some interesting information that belies the nautical past. “Died in Rio de Janiero” or “Drowned, Cotuit Bay 1842.” One of the oldest stones is of one of my oldest ancestors, Azubah Handy, wife of Bethuel Handy, mother of Bethuel Handy Jr., the Cotuit whaler who spent a winter stranded in the Siberian ice of the Sea of Okhotsk until my great-great grandfather Tom Chatfield could sail back from San Francisco and rescue his father-in-law.
Azubah was one of the first to be buried in the cemetery (1819) (I don’t know where the colonial graves of Cotuit are). Her inscription is one of the most wordy in Mosswood, a poem that was oft quoted to me as a kid:
“My bosom friend come here and see
Where lays the last remains of me
When I the debt of nature paid
A burying yard for me was made.
Here lays the body of your bride
The loving knot is now untied
A loving husband you have been,
To me the dearest of all men.
Husband and children here I lay
Stamp on your minds my dying day
Come often here and take a view
Where lays the one that loved you.”
Onwards to the gate in the fence between the boneyard and Bell Farm, the old turkey farm that was nearly turned into a subdivision in the 1980s before being saved by the Barnstable Land Trust and preserved as a gorgeous meadow with my favorite tree in all of Cotuit.
Then out of the meadow and into the woods where the box turtles live and risk the walk across busy Putnam, remembering the old Bell Farm barn with the roof that was painted with “GREEN ACRES” in homage to a television series from the 1960s that had something to do with a Hungarian countess (Zsa Zsa Gabor) living on a hillbilly farm. The roof of the barn in the TV show was used in the title, and some vandal wit decided to paint the abandoned barn so everyone driving into Cotuit would catch a glimpse. Every so often the owner of the barn would pay someone to paint the shingles black, which was tantamount to erasing a blackboard for the next vandals to climb up there and do some nocturnal graffiti.
Eventually the place was knocked down and now the village has a great meadow.
Anyway, down the trail into the woods and over the planked bridge over Little River, one of Cotuit two “rivers” as the Cape is fond of calling it’s glacial streams Rivers in lieu of having anything truly big and wide and flowing. (the other river being the Santuit River). Little River runs from Lovell’s Pond in Newtown, the northernmost part of Cotuit adjacent to Santuit. A pretty little pond that is stocked with trout by the state and has one of the town’s fresh water beaches. I’ve never seen any evidence of Little River other than its delta on Handy’s Point into the bay, the glimpse next to Bell Farm, and a pool in back of my cousin’s workshop a little further to the north. I’m sure it was a herring run at one point, probably holding smelt too, but the cranberry industry killed off most of the runs when the bogs dammed up the flow and diverted the water to flood the cranberry vines.
I walked around Eagle Pond at a fast pace, working up enough of a sweat to need to unzip my jacket. I popped back out on Little River Road and followed it to one of Cotuit’s nicest little neighborhoods, home to the Cotuit Oyster Company, and Handy’s Point, the promontory where my oldest Cape Cod ancestors once lived, having come to Cotuit in the late 1600s from Mattapoisett to build ships. I’ll scan some of the old black and white photos eventually, but Little River, also known as the Inner Harbor, was a bit of a separate village within a village in the 18th and 19th centuries, connected to Cotuitport by the Old Post Road, but separated by Little River. According to Chatfield’s reminiscences, he left for a Pacific whaling voyage with his wife and young family living in the Handy home on Handy’s Point, but his wife Florrie, isolated from the village by the river, sold the place and moved the clan into the village center. On his return three years later he rushed home to the old place, only to find the family gone. He hitched a ride into town on a wagon and was pointed to his new home in the center. Shame, it is a pretty piece of waterfront and in the 19th century was the home of Mark Anthony DeWolfe Howe, a prominent Boston editor and winner of the Pulitzer prize. That house has been reskinned a few times over the year and now looks like the typical non-Cape wedding cake temple to the gods of plate glass and rococo railings, faux widow’s walks, and brass lanterns with plastic adirondack chairs that no one sits in arranged in a row on the Chem-lawned grass.
One big hurricane and the place will be underwater. There was a reason the oldtimers considered waterfront living to be a questionable thing, and I suspect the Chatfield-Handy exodus from Handy’s Point to the village center was viewed as a climb up the social ladder, just as getting out of town in the 1950s to live in suburban Boston was viewed as a good thing by my grandparents.
I walked down the beach, past the pissed off “PRIVATE BEACH! NO CHAIRS!” signs — one of the “signs of the times” of modern Cotuit and the Hedge Fundification of the waterfront that has brought us evil looking security cameras and warnings to keep moving — and around the peat bank to the terminus of Little River. Some old pilings give proof of an old bridge there, but, alas, I had to ford it Taras Bulba-style, and wound up with a wet leg.