With this portrait of a fingerless Blackburn in mind, I rowed for home, determined to get some gloves to avoid his fate.
I noted the arrival of “meteorological winter” in my fingers on Saturday morning while sculling across North Bay on my way around Grand Island in my wherry the S.S. Cheesecloth. While they grew numb and number I thought of the indefatigable Howard Blackburn, the Gloucester fisherman who was separated from his schooner in 1889, lost in the north Atlantic in a tiny dory with another fisherman. Blackburn lost all his fingers and most of his toes to frostbite while rowing himself and his shipmate ashore. He lost his mittens while bailing the dory, and using his socks to try to save his fingers only meant the loss of his toes. So he let his numb fingers freeze around the wooden handles of the oars, knowing they were beyond salvage but were his only means of surviving the long winter ordeal. The other fisherman froze to death but Howard survived and went on to live a colorful life, sailing alone across the Atlantic, around Cape Horn to seek gold in the Yukon, before retiring from the sea to run a tavern in Gloucester until his death in the early 1930s.1
Any person who sets out in a rowboat, racing shell, kayak, or canoe in the winter months on Cape Cod takes a risk of not returning home. Water temperatures around the Cape can plunge below freezing in January. Should a person find themselves in that water for any length of time (other than the crazy New Year’s polar bear swimmers who dash in and out of the water in a matter of screaming seconds) they have about two minutes before they lose dexterity, fifteen before they slip into unconsciousness, and death before 45 minutes.
The perils of cold water rowing is why the four-oar rule went into effect in November at my rowing club (the Union Boat Club) on the Charles River in Boston. That edict prohibits the launching of single sculls (one person pulling two oars) and pairs (two people pulling one oar each) . The requirement for a minimum of four oars per boat ensures rowers don’t go out alone. A few years ago the Massachusetts legislature passed a law requiring paddlers to wear a lifejacket or approved “personal floatation device” while on the water between September and May 15. The law was passed at the urging of the Commonwealth’s harbormasters following a few tragedies involving cold water kayakers who went missing off the shores of Cape Cod.
I built my wherry with winter rowing in mind. I had never rowed in the winter months in fifty years of rowing, but one day, while walking along the beach of Bluff Point in Cotuit, one of the local scullers went sliding by in his racing shell, careful to keep close to the shore line as he paddled around the bay on a sunny, calm January afternoon. I was impressed by his stoic example of damn the weather, full speed ahead, but started thinking about what my “plan” would be if I were to go rowing in the depths of winter on desolate waters with no other boaters around to witness and assist me in the event of a capsize or breakdown.
Staying close to the beach is obviously a good idea. My rowboat draw very little water and can be rowed over sandbars and shoals with only a foot of depth (the downside being a drastic reduction in speed as a boat slows down in shallow water due to the “squat effect” where a moving hull is sucked down towards the bottom.) In theory I could flip a shell a few yards from the beach, stand up and walk everything ashore. Drenched and shivering for sure, but at no risk of succumbing to hypothermia and drowning. But what about those points where my route crosses a stretch of open water to wide to swim and too deep to wade? What would the best plan of action be if I were to flip over in the middle of the bay? Do I stay with the boat and try to climb back aboard? Or is the move to abandon ship and strike out swimming for the nearest dry land?
Scullers capsize all the time but I have never seen one wearing a lifejacket. The precarious, thin-skinned boats are twenty-four foot needle-like hulls designed to go as fast as possible in a straight line over protected waters. They are incredibly tippy and can flip just a few feet away the dock if the rower doesn’t keep the oar blades flat and perpendicular to the boat like pontoons. Once the boat is moving it gains some stability like a rolling bicycle. A motorboat’s wake, waves stacked up by the wind, or a collision with a buoy can flip a sculler upside down in an instant. Most of my capsizes came as surprised. One moment I was focused on driving the shell through the water, heart pounding, lungs breathing hard, and the next instant I was upside down in a state of submerged shock .
Righting a capsized shell and getting back aboard is a trick novice scullers are taught near the dock during warm weather; some coaches even using a swimming pool to practice the difficult maneuver, much the way a novice kayaker is taught how to perform an “Eskimo roll.” I used to flip my Empacher racing single at least once a summer, usually when I forgot to turn around and look where I was going and carelessly clipped a channel marker or mooring float.
Once one finds themselves on the wrong side of the water and accepts the shocking surprise, the first order of business is to get some air. Feet strapped into shoes with their toes bolted to the boat must be released and usually have some Velcro quick release for just such emergencies. Free from the boat, the rower then has to roll the boat right side up, sort out the crossed oats, then fetch any floating personal possessions such as a water bottle and telephone sealed in dry bag. Then, with one hand holding the two oar handles together and the other holding onto the far side of the deck, the sculler must lunge up from the water and get themselves across the narrow shell without damaging anything. Here’s a video that shows the maneuver:
My experience in trying to climb back into a capsized shell in warm weather leads me to favor the abandon ship plan for surviving a winter capsize. I’ve broken the combing or splash board of a wooden shell trying to get back aboard, and it was like I sat on a Stradivarius judging from the repair bill. Although the Cheesecloth is much stabler than a racing shell and seems to be immune to flipping, the possibility of going into the water means I need to consider the risks and have a solid plan before finding myself in 30 degree water with about two minutes of time before the cold makes it impossible to do anything with my fingers and the chances of a heart attack increase.
Clothing choices for winter rowing are similar to what a cross-country skier wears: layers of tight, synthetic leggings and long-sleeved shirts with the addition of a sleeveless “turtle” vest shell with a wind-breaker back panel, a hat, and neoprene dive boots. Rowing is strenuous and the body quickly warms up through the workout, making things miserable for the rower as they overheat and begin to sweat. But as soon as they stop that sweat immediately starts to freeze, especially if wind is a factor.
After my first December row last weekend I put the boat away on its rack and headed for home, definitely a frightening sight in tights, a chartreuse Day-Glo safety vest, and my orange, red and black Karl’s Sausage Kitchen wool hat. I jumped into a hot shower and immediately started moaning as my blue fingers began to painfully thaw out. Once I was out of the shower and dressed I went online and bought a set of “pogies” — strange mittens that slip over the oar handles to keep my hands warm without sacrificing the essential grip of bare skin on the rubber grips. I’ve never tried them before, but ordered a set from JL Racing to get me back on the water before the harbor freezes. Smallboat Monthly published an article about pogies in 2017 (subscription required).
1The Blackburn Challenge honors Howard’s desperate row with a 20-mile rowing race around Cape Ann. It takes place every July so no one loses any digits.
Over the summer of 2021 I built a model of a “Martha’s Vineyard” catboat on the workbench of my boat shop as therapy to recover from the nerve-wracking reconstruction of a full sized 75-year old sailboat with rotten chines.
The model is the first fully rigged wooden boat model I’ve ever made, as well as the first “scratch” scale model constructed without the assistance of a kit and carved off of plans. The model took about a month of occasional work to complete. I’d sand a little here and paint a little there whenever I needed a break from writing and research or calls with clients.
Beginning a year ago in the fall of 2020 I’ve built a few half-models: three Cotuit Skiffs (one of my own boat, two as gifts), an 1850s whaling ship, a 19th century British racing cutter, and restored two Wianno Senior models carved by Malcolm Crosby in the 1970s. I started off with a how-to set of plans from WoodenBoat Magazine, learning the “bread-and-butter” method of cutting 1/2″ thick basswood blanks conforming to the shape of the hull and gluing the stack of “sliced bread” together with yellow carpenter’s glue (the “butter”) . The zen of it all is in the shaping of the rough blanks into a perfect three dimensional model of what began as a two dimensional blueprint. Basswood is a tight grained, clear soft wood that is a joy to carve and shape with wood chisels and hand planes. I have to force myself to not get carried away with the fun of turning wood into curled shavings, and have had to toss a couple of Cotuit Skiff hulls away because I daydreamed away too much wood for an experienced eye to consider a true model of the real thing.
The latest is a hybrid half-hull/fully-rigged model displayed behind a sheet of acrylic inside of a wooden shadow box backed by an insanely expensive sheet of thin black walnut plywood. Basically it’s what you’d get if you build a miniature boat with all the above-deck details, spars and rigging and cut in half.
The project started as a simple half-model of just the boat’s hull — something to whittle on — but in time it evolved into a full tweaker OCD game of seeing how many details I could cram into a very simply rigged boat. As I puzzled over the clues Chapelle drew on his plans, I started to deduce how the details worked in practice — for example he drew a line from the peak of the gaff down to the boom by the tack, a line I have never seen before on a gaff rig. Some smart commenter on the WoodenBoat Facebook page noticed it from the photo I posted and identified it as a vang that kept the gaff from twisting forward of the mast while running downwind on a breezy day. Other details I provided from my own experience sailing cats. Whenever I found myself frustrated I posted questions or watched how-to videos and worked through the steps careful not to make a move I would regret later on. The project gave me an excuse to learn some of the techniques used in traditional ship model construction, but also immensely improved my understanding of full boat building concepts. Basic half-hull models were used by boat builders in lieu of printed plans to guide the construction of new full-sized boats for centuries. By the time I started building the top of the boat I had to ask myself why I hadn’t built a full and not a half model. Why half a hull and not the full shape? As an actual model used in building the real deal, a full hull was unnecessary as one side is a mirror image of the other and a builder only needs the dimensions of one side of the hull to make the other.
Toys, decor, or tools?
A search of half-models for sale reveals a lot of cheap $200-$400 mass produced models and a few antique examples that carry price tags well north of $5000 depending on the historical interest in the final product. Most old models were left unadorned, with the modeler slapping on a coat of paint or just oiling the miniature hull with linseed oil. The purpose of working from a three-dimensional model as a template (versus a flat two dimensional set of plans) was the builder could rely on the model to scale up, or loft, full-sized templates to guide the construction of the boat itself by tracing the curves at fixed points along the hull to make patterns that could be expanded (or “lofted”) into full size frames that perfectly matched the proportions of the miniature model. Some model makers cut slots through the half-hull at specific “stations”, slid a sheet of paper into the slot, and then traced the perimeter with a pencil. Models were usually left unpainted and omitted the tiny details that make a full-scale ship model so fascinating to study – no deck houses or port holes, no masts, or cleats and winches – just the shape of the hull and nothing more. That was enough in most cases to guide the design of a new boat. The customer could hold the model, feel its curves and judge the lines, asking for modification and adjustments long before massive keel timbers were laid out and the real work commenced.
As yachting became a thing in the second half of the 19th century, shrew builders realized the half-model would make a nice christening gift to the customer. The model would be mounted on a board, perhaps painted the same colors of the finished boat, and then given to the owner to hang on a wall for off-season adoration and admiration. The New York Yacht Club’s Model Room is a shrine to those yacht models. My early efforts in carving models was transformed by the work of a master model marker, Malcolm Crosby, thanks to his daughter Betsy Crosby Thompson’s channel on YouTube. In one project Crosby adds a few details to a model, and so inspired, I decided to do the same.
I realized in the final stages of the month-long project , as I was struggling to make tiny shackles with sausage-like fingers, that I could spend endless hours fiddling with the details. Instead, I decided to call a halt when the boat was fully rigged, realizing that displaying the full model would be a challenge beyond the usual practice of screwing the hull onto a nice piece of wood and hanging in on the wall. Once scale details like rigging and spars are added, the concern over time is keep dust from building up on the model. At the scale I was working at, a single speck of dirt looks proportionally the size of marble, and to keep curious toddler fingers from destroying hours of intense concentration, I mounted the model inside of a shadow box to protect it from curious fingers and the accumulation of dust. A sail was considered but life is short and there’s a point where enough is enough.
Origins of the Cape Cod Catboat
I first saw the design in Howard I. Chapelle’s book, American Small Sailing Craft. Chapelle defined a branch of American maritime history focused on the cataloguing and tracking of the development of American boat design and its regional evolution from the Old World examples the colonists brought with them from Europe and modifications inspired by the canoes, kayaks, and dugouts used by the indigenous natives. In 1933 Chapelle toured the boatyards and backwater creeks of southern New England and Cape Cod looking for examples of the 200 or so small boat designs used across America in the 19th century. He explored New Bedford’s waterfront and the coves of Fairhaven, and discovered the boat undergoing repairs at a local shipyard. It was a 50 year-old example of what has come to be known as the Cape Cod Catboat, that familiar local icon most closely identified with the Crosby clan of boat builders in Osterville. Chapelle learned the boat had been built fifty years before in the late 1880s on Martha’s Vineyard, where several local builders had been turning out a large fleet of working boats for the island’s watermen. The design element that persuaded Chapelle to fix the boat’s provenance to a Vineyard builder and not a Cape shop was its square cabin house, a fast and inexpensive shortcut versus the process of steaming green planks of white oak in a steam box.
Chapelle’s work is important because of his diligent detective work and the credible theories he proposed for how a practical boat design originated to perform a specific task — say hunting waterfowl from a Barnegat Bay Sneakbox — and then migrated from one region to another, being modified along the way to adapt to local conditions and techniques, the original archetype’s design “DNA” carrying over to modern fiberglass boats. Much had been written about the evolution of the catboat by early expert like C.P. Kunhardt and various contributors to Field and Stream and Rudder, but Chapelle was the historian who dispelled some parochial Cape Cod sentiment that the radical design was invented sui generis by the Crosbys. The Crosby builders — and there were a few of them working independently from their own boat shops around Osterville in the late 19th century — were indeed geniuses, and innovated many construction techniques as well as introducing major breakthroughs such as the swinging centerboard for working in shallow waters (which they decided to do after asking their mother, a practicing Spiritualist, to consult the spirit of an dead ancestor to get his assent).
The Catboat is thought to have been introduced to America by Dutch colonists of New Amsterdam (Manhattan) based on the hull design of canal barges and shoal draft boats used in the Friesian Islands. The beamy, single masted boats were very different from the heavy carvel planked shallops and ship’s boats brought over by the English to Plymouth and Boston. To be classified a catboat the mast is stepped only a foot or two from the stem of the bow, and the hull is roughly half as wide as long — a 2:1 ratio that made for a wide, very stable platform to fish or clam from. Jibs were sometimes added by extending a bow sprit, but the general bones that make a catboat a catboat are a single mast stepped right into the nose of the boat and a beamy, fat, relatively flat hull. The single sail rig meant one person could easily manage a catboat on their own. With three sets of reef points, the sail could be reefed on windy days, and by using a combination of the topping-lift and peak halyard, the rig could be “scandalized,” raising the boom high above the deck and reducing the sail area while the sailor went to work hauling traps, tending a fish weir, or catching fish with handlines. The capacious hull could carry more oysters or fish or passengers than the prevailing working boat used on Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds: the Vineyard Boat or No Man’s Boat, a two-masted open sloop favored by the fishermen on No Man’s Island south of Aquinnah.
The catboat’s single, gaff-rigged sail is huge, laced onto a long boom that overhangs the stern so far from the transom that rigging the outhaul to the clew of the sail sometimes requires a dock or a rowboat to reach the very end of the spar. Another catboat-specific feature is an oversized rudder, sometimes referred to as a “barn door,” the top of which is visible above the water.
The Migration of the Catboat
The catboat first appeared on Cape Cod in the middle of the 19th century after migrating for two hundred years northeast along Long Island Sound to Noank, Connecticut, then Narragansett Bay where a deep-keeled version known as the Newport Catboat became popular; then creeping a few miles east into Massachusetts where the Rhode Island design was well suited to Buzzard’s Bay. It was on Martha’s Vineyard where the principles of what is now considered a Cape Cod Catboat were first applied. Horace and Cornelius Crosby of Osterville launched their first catboat, Little Eva, in 1850, but it appears the radically new design was most popular on the Vineyard where the shoals around the island made a deep keel impracticable. As the design won over more watermen, it migrated to other builders around Buzzards Bay in the 1860s before reaching its apogee in the last decades of the 19th century in the hands of the Crosbys in Osterville and C.C. Manley of Monument Beach.
By 1900 the Cape Cod Catboat was the signature small boat design associated with the peninsula, and it remained popular with commercial fishermen who were quick to retrofit their boats with naptha and gasoline “one lunger” engines.
The arrival of tourism on the Cape in the 1880s sparked a revival of big catboats at some of the earliest resorts — such as the Pines Hotel and Santuit House in Cotuit — who hired retired whaling captains to take their guests for sails and picnics around the bay, the big cockpits of the catboats well suited for carrying a dozen or more guests for a boisterous sail on Nantucket Sound while the old salt at the tiller regaled them with sea stories. Catboats evolved further in the first three decades of the 20th century, morphing into extreme racing machines with a reputation for killing their crews.
The Boat Detective
During a 1933 trip to southeastern Masssachusetts and Cape Cod Howard Chapelle visited New Bedford and Fairhaven looking for old boats to measure and preserve on paper in the form of plans and the formal boat building measurements known as a table of offsets. Chapelle, then thirty-two years old, had been a shipwright’s apprentice and boat builder since the age of 18, and worked in a few shipyards at a time when the shipwrights craft was still alive and flourishing. Seeking to design his own boats, he trained as a naval architect at The Webb Institute, a Long Island school of naval architecture that offers a free education in naval architecture and marine engineering to a handful of lucky students.
The engineering science practiced by naval architects first emerged in the middle of the 19th century when the traditional rule-of-thumb methods of ship design and construction were rendered obsolete by the addition of steam engines, sidewheels and propellers, and riveted steel hulls on massive warships. For centuries shipwrights had worked without drawn plans or blueprints, relying on carved half-models to determine the proper proportions for a new ship. A simple half-model was far more effective than two-dimensional drawn plans because it could be held in the hands, where fingers could trace and feel the shape of the hull and the eyes could sight along the form to critique the curve of the sheer and other subtle but crucial details that are undetectable when examining an unfurled roll of paper plans or trying to visualize the hull’s measurements as expressed by the “table of offsets.” Those tables were included by the designer who would include within a “spreadsheet” of rows and columns of three-hyphenated numbers signifying specific points as measured from a common point, or baseline. Those sets of three numbers represented feet-inches-eighths. Hence“ 3-11-4” is interpreted by the builder as “three feet, eleven and ½ inches” (sometimes a “+” or “-“ is added to the third number to indicate a sixteenth of an inch).
Chapelle was trained in the process of measuring an existing hull and creating a faithful set of plans which could be used by a shipwright to build an exact copy of the original. That process, known as “taking off the lines,” is well explained in a post by Steve Reynolds where he describes taking the lines off a small skiff he admired. Chapelle’s detective work preserved the design of dozens of small boats which otherwise would be lost save for a few grainy photographs. A few years after his trip to Cape Cod he was in charge of the New England section of the Historic American Merchant Marine Survey (HAMMS), a New Deal project started in 1936 that employed unemployed naval architects in the cataloguing of thousands of examples of American maritime history within a 79-volume collection held by the Smithsonian Institution. Chapelle combined his field work with intensive research, combing through archives and back issues of 19th century yachting magazines for clues about the origin of a design and the possible whereabouts of existing examples or the builders who specialized in the type.
The Martha’s Vineyard Cat
In New Bedford Chapelle received permission to “take off” her lines and set to work with plum lines, levels, and tick sticks — notched boards used to measure points on a curve. It’s a complicated process to perform accurately — essentially a method for capturing on paper the subtleties of a three-dimension object. In his writing he referred to the 21’ boat as “an example of an Eastern working cat” and estimated it was built about 1888. He classified the boat as a “Martha’s Vineyard Cat” in American Small Sailing Craft, where he compared it to an early prototype sailed around Newport, Rhode Island on Narragansett Bay.
“A somewhat similar boat existed in the 1880s in Buzzards Bay and along the south shore of Cape Cod, this was the type first called the Martha’s Vineyard catboat,” later the “Cape Cod cat.” These were powerful boats, capable of operating in exposed waters and meeting much heavy weather in careful hands. In working boats the range of size was between 18 and 30 feet on deck.”
Howard Chapelle, American Small Sailing Craft
Chapelle estimated the catboat was nearly 50 years old when he measured the hull in 1933 but he doesn’t indicate what clues led him to date the boat to 1888, nor what made it a “Martha’s Vineyard Cat” versus a “Cape Cod Cat.” Whether it was the square cabin house, or some bronze fitting or other specific detail that fixed the date, Chapelle chose the boat to illustrate his history of the catboat design, noting that the custom of calling a catboat a “Cape Cod Catboat” gradually took over from Martha’s Vineyard, especially as the reputation of the Crosbys in Osterville and C.C. Manley in Monument Beach of Buzzard’s Bay grew with the spread of the design beyond southern New England to the waters along Massachusetts’ South Shore from Boston to Plymouth where they mutated into extreme designs raced on Massachusetts Bay. The application of “cat” to the boat’s design apparently originated in Osterville when Horace and Cornelius Crosby’s first boat, the Little Eva, was judged “quick as a cat” by a sailor impressed by her nimble tacking abilities.
One of the best remembered catboat builders on Martha’s Vineyard was Manuel Swartz Roberts of Edgartown, also known as “The Old Sculpin”. He opened a boat shop by the docks in 1906 and built dozens of catboats there until closing his doors in the late 1940s. Cats were very popular in the fishing port of Menemsha, and were built with fish wells beneath their cockpit alongside the centerboard trunk so the fishermen could open a deck hatch, toss in their catch, and be assured the fish would still be alive and swimming when they got back to the dock at the end of the day, some so overloaded with swimming fish that their decks were awash. The boats could be easily reconfigured for different purposes or types of fishing. Pulpits would be attached to the bow for sword fishing, scallop dredges could be towed astern through a salt pond for bay scallops in the fall, and many catboats saw service as a packets carrying passengers, cargo and mail from the island to ports on the mainland such as New Bedford and Falmouth.
Building the model
I ordered the plans from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History maritime division.
Because of my affinity for Chapelle’s work (he was the curator of the Smithsonian’s maritime collections), I’m focused on modeling the designs described in his book: American Small Sailing Craft, especially boats with some relevance to Cape Cod or my personal interests. I bought the plans for a Long Island Sound Skipjack c. 1870, a Vineyard Sound boat, a Kingston lobster boat, a Crosby catboat, a three-masted schooner, and a few others I may or may not attempt in the future… time willing.
Earlier in the summer I built my third Cotuit Skiff half-model of #66, the Swamp Fox, which has been raced for decades by the Odence family. Why that boat? Larry Odence, author of the definitive history of the class, Mosquito Boats: The First Hundred Years of the Cotuit Skiff, was a huge help to me during my stint as president of the Association of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club, putting in hundreds of volunteer hours in support of the sailing program but also inspiring me with his research and attention to detail as the third edition of his book was printed this past summer. Philip, his son, helped me out by smuggling some paint samples out of the Odence boat shop, helping me get the paint scheme exactly right for I knew if anyone was qualified to have a critical eye it was his dad. Once that was finished in mid-July, I realized I mentally benefit from always have a model underway, something to take my mind off of work and my writing when I take a break and stretch my legs.
When the cardboard shipping tube arrived from the Smithsonian and Mystic Seaport I unrolled the plans for the 1888 Martha’s Vineyard catboat and began tracing the templates of the hull with carbon paper and cutting out patterns from some heavy card stock. Last winter I ordered a big expensive supply of basswood – one of the best woods for ship model hulls – and found a local woodworking shop with a big bandsaw to rip the stock into ½” thick planks. I use the “bread-and-butter” technique of building up the hull by cutting “lifts” or horizonal slices of the hull (the “bread,”) then gluing then together in a stack with yellow carpenter’s glue (the “butter”). I have a very small bandsaw, a Rikon, which my brother gave me a few years ago, and its enough to accurately cut the lifts out of the basswood. I clamped the stack of wood together, let it cure for a day, then carefully cut the sheer – or curve of the deck from bow to stern on the bandsaw. After that I screwed a holding piece onto the back of the hull, clamped that into a vise, and began shaping the hull with a ½” wood chisel and a small Lie-Nielsen block plane that lives inside a pocket of my shop apron.
Refining the lifts into a faithful copy of the hull always brings to my mind the the sculptor’s philosophy that inside of every block of marble lies a statue waiting to be revealed. There’s nothing like a sharp plane and the satisfaction of turning good wood into curls of shavings to release some pent-up stress.
After sanding and gauging the shape of the hull with a set of nine templates copied from each of the hull’s “stations” on Chapelle’s plans I sealed the wood with two coats of TotalBoat Varnish sealer before painting. The traditional color of the old catboats I remember from the early 1960s were white hulls with “mast buff” decks and cabin tops. Mast Buff is an odd, almost flesh-tone color, and seems to have fallen out of favor. appearing occasionally on some lovingly restored boat . Some boat builders used it to paint the mast, hence the name mast buff, as few working sailors bothered to varnish the spars and trim of their boats. Varnish, or “brightwork”, is a vanity of yachts and a tricky substance to work with, requiring at least a half-dozen coats to protect the wood and bring out the amber shine of the wood grain. Working boats such as catboats and sharpies were painted …. and even so, occasionally. The most attention was paid to the bottom – which was typically painted with red copper bottom paint from George Kirby Jr. Paint, the New Bedford inventors of copper antifouling paint. The topsides, or visible part of the hull, were almost always painted white. The old timers joked that there are only two colors for a boat – black and white – but only pirates and fools paint their boats black. I knew first hand from my childhood in the early 1960s that the big Crosby catboats around Cotuit and Osterville were invariably painted with the distinctive Caucasian flesh tone color of mast buff As the name suggests, mast buff was usually used to paint the mast in lieu of clear, golden varnish. Varnished brightwork had no place on a working boat and was regarded as an expensive vanity, appearing on catboats when they were cleaned up for tourist excursions. But as the time approached during my project to paint the model, I couldn’t find any old color photographs or archive of online knowledge of what paints were used on 19th century catboats to guide my color choices. So I winged it.
After adding the keel timber, centerboard, and rudder I taped off the waterline and put three boats of white on the hull with three coats of dark red on the bottom. I use ean xpensive sign painter’s paint, “OneShot”, because it’s oil-based and can, when applied full strength with no thinning, cover pretty much anything in one coat.
All my previous models had a minimal amount of above-decl detail save for tillers on Cotuit Skiffs. Watching Malcolm Crosby on YouTube finish a model of a catboat with extra details such as rub rails and toe rails, I decided the hull of the Martha’s Vineyard catboat would be far more interesting if I included its unique, square cabin house and the big combing, or curved plank that keeps an errant wave from flooding the cockpit. The decision to build a faithful model of the actual boat then led to a month-long, self-taught series of lessons into the bending of wood, the whittling of small details as captured on the plans by Chapelle, and the need to rig the model with its mast, boom, and gaff. Once a modeler commits to rigging and presenting every detail of the original craft the project goes from a couple of weeks of shaping and painting to a couple of months of painstaking detail work. As it turned out, the detail work, while frustrating at times, was the part I enjoyed the most. My biggest frustration was dropping tiny pieces on the floor and then peering at the concrete for ten minutes with my hands on my knees, searching for a wire shackle I had spent thirty minutes bending just so only to have it fall and bounce under the work bench where it hid under a nest of wood shavings.
I used a Dremel and a router bit to hollow out the cockpit, carved the cabin house from a scrap of basswood,, and at the rate of an hour per day here and there, built a sliding hatch cover, carved the sloe-eyed oval porthole so characteristic of catboats, and gradually created a half of a detailed model.
The rigging came last. This was the part I remember from my grandmother’s schooner project in the late 60s as the most challenging part of ship model construction. Working with thread and wire and tiny pieces of wood drilled with drills slightly thicker than a strand of hair gave rise to many a lament on my part of having sausages for fingers. I started looking online for some tips and techniques and discovered some tutorials on YouTube by Tom Lauria, a master modeler here on Cape Cod who specializes in local designs such as Beetle Cats and Wianno Seniors.
Ship models are not for the impatient. There are still a few manufacturers of kits – notably Bluejacket Ship Crafters in Maine – but most hobby shops today have nothing on their shelves. A “scratch-built” ship model is one that the builder constructs from plans, drawings, or photographs without the assistance of a kit which generally includes a roughly pre-shaped hull, some cast metal fittings, a bundle of sticks and dowels, and some illustrated instructions. My grandfather, Henry Churbuck, made a model of the launch that Captain William Bligh sailed 4,000 miles with eighteen loyal crew after the famous mutiny of 1789. The model was displayed in a shadow box on the wall and I spent a lot of time inspecting the rigging of the two-masted boat, the oars and thwarts and cordage, marveling at the minutiae of the furled sails, the coiled lines, and the bronze gudgeons and pintles that held the little rudder to the stern. After he passed away in the late 1960s my grandmother was living by herself in an apartment north of Boston. Upstairs were a young married couple who were friends of the family – she had been our babysitter when my brother and I were toddlers, and he was home from Viet Nam, convalescing from the loss of a leg and other wounds suffered while serving as a Green Beret in the U.S. Army. Together, my grandmother and he each built – separately but simultaneously – identical kits of the famous Nova Scotia fishing schooner, the Bluenose. I assisted a little on my grandmother’s project, and learned a lot from her about working “clean,” thinking and strategizing through a sequence of steps before picking up a tool, measuring twice before cutting once, and most of all the sublime pleasures of pure patience and focus, telling me “You only get to build once, but your mistakes live on forever.”
There was a lot of modelling going on in my family during my childhood, unsurprising as my grandparents needed something to spend their time in the days before television. My father, while a student at Harvard Business School in the early 60s, built a huge radio controlled sea plane in our apartment in Cambridge, using it to think through his assignment and case studies before pecking out his papers on a Remington typewriter. My grandfather had a train set in the basement of his house in Melrose that nearly filled an entire room and required one to crawl underneath to get to the controls in the center, with panels of blinking lights and banks of switches and levers that controlled sleek German model trains that schussed around the copper tracks and toot-tooted going through the lovely shaped paper mâché alps.
For all the trains, planes and boats being built in miniature I have always been drawn to ship models. The Cotuit Library has a few great examples I admired on my daily visits as a child to read the next recommendation from the librarian, Ida Anderson. They are true ship models: big multi-masted clipper ships and whalers with skeins of threaded rigging and webs of ratlines, tiny deadeyes and portholes. Those models pique the imagination with their detailed examples of the rigger’s art – the use of blocks and tackle, wire and rope, sheaves and chafing gear to power and control what was, in the heyday of the actual ship, the most complicated pieces of machinery in the world.
I’ve decided to concentrate on models of boats and ships that have some personal or local relevance. I don’t plan on building any models of 16th century galleons or modern missile frigates; my preference is to recreate the small skiffs, sloops and schooners built around Cape Cod and catalogued by Chappelle. Because my interest in historical boat design stems from a paper I wrote in college about the development of the New Haven Sharpie, I’d like to tackle a full model (as opposed to a rigged half-model) of that iconic oysterman’s boat next. A Wianno Senior is also on the list, as well as a Beetle Cat, a Vineyard Sound boat, a Long Island Sandbagger, a three-masted coastal schooner and …..well, the list is long and life is short and whatever comes next, I have two full-sized Cotuit Skiffs to repair and restore over the winter ahead.
It’s been a great summer to get back into sculling. After a slow start involving some adjustments to the seat and riggers, I managed to get my wherry tuned up perfectly; found a slot on a rack near the beach to store it, and gradually worked up to long, six-mile rows around Grand Island.
I won’t set any speed records, but the boat (which I build over the summer of 2020 from Dave Gentry’s plans for the “Ruth Wherry” out of cedar and polyester cloth) is very stable, is actually fun to row through waves and wakes, and draws lots of admirers on the beach and passing boats.
After three months of regular sculling and I’ve lost a ton of weight, enjoyed hours on the water, and have started thinking about my next boat project.
During the July heat wave I sequestered myself in my airconditioned office and went down the rabbit hole of reading about the exploration of the Arctic, especially the region around Canada’s Ellesmere Island, Greenland’s Davis Straits, and the waters around Svalbard (Spitzbergen).
Harold William Tilman was an English explorer and mountain climber who made his reputation in the Himalayas with his neighbor in Kenya, Eric Shipton. Together they nearly succeeded in being the first expedition to reach the summit of Mount Everest, and are regarded as one of the most illustrious climbing teams in the history of mountaineering. Tilman wasn’t content with merely climbing mountains, he decided to combine bluewater ocean sailing and purchased an old Bristol pilot cutter, Mischief, which he sailed to Patagonia, the Crozet islands, and other remote islands in the southern ocean known as the Roaring Forties, the most storm swept, dangerous seas on Earth.
In the 1960s Tilman advertised for volunteer crew members in the personal section of the London newspapers under the headline “No pay, no pleasure, no prospects” — seeking men who either had sailing or mountain climbing experience to join him on four to six month expeditions to the southern oceans as well as the coast of Greenland, Canada, and the northern islands of Iceland, the Faroes, Jan Mayen and Spitzbergen. Ashore, the eccentric Tilman, a decorated veteran of both world wars, a life-long bachelor who lived on the Welsh coast with his sister and his dogs, wrote a series of books to support his explorations.
Tilman was a navigator, skilled with a sextant but admittedly humble in his accuracy, and a devout traditionalist who liked gaff-rigged boats, cursed marine engines, and was very particular about how a proper yacht should look and be sailed. Mischief carried him around the world and to the northern ice pack on many voyages, but was eventually sank while under tow off of Jan Mayen after crushing some planks on a submerged rock. A YouTube video of the old ship being careened on the beach of Jan Mayen before her loss can be found here.
Undeterred, Tilman bought another decrepit Bristol pilot cutter — one of the fleet of nearly 100 that were built on England’s west coast in the 1880s to carry pilots out to ships bound for English ports. When steam made them obsolete they were converted into yachts, and Tilman, who was as old as the boats he sailed in, seemed to take great pride in sailing the plucky little boats as close to the poles as possible. He would own three of them during his lifetime, sinking two, and gamely buying a third, each one compared to his beloved Mischief. They were fast, seaworthy boats. They had to be, for the pilots competed to be the first to meet the arriving ships ; and they were capable of handling the worst conditions around Cornwall and the southern Irish Sea with only one or two crew members aboard to carry the pilot and return alone to port to wait for the next job. Tilman poured whatever cash he had into repairing the old boats, continuously repairing sprung planks, worn out rigging, rotten timbers and spavined spars, sewing the tattered sails either himself or at the hands of a local shipwright. Once they were at sea, things, as the Russians would say, began to get worse. If it took 2000 pumps of the bilge pump to stay ahead of the leaking, then Tilman would “hove to” and let the boat drift in the seas until the wind and the waves calmed down enough to proceed. Inordinately fond of sailing the wooden boats in icy seas, he timed his expeditions to coincide with the one or two weeks in August when ice-bound hamlets on Greenland’s east coast were briefly accessible by small boat. If he made it ashore — and on some voyages the ice never cleared or the crew rebelled against his dogged determination to sail down some narrowing lead in the drifting pack ice and demanded he turn for home –but if he made it to shore then it was time to explore a glacier or climb a seaside mountain, always gauging himself by the effort it took him to reach a summit.
As a fan of great travel writing, I think Tilman is one of the best I’ve read, particularly in the broad sub-genre of nautical explorers and singlehanded sailors. His biting portrayals of some of his more hapless crew members, most of whom had little sailing experience and were very dismayed to find themselves sailing into the most extreme conditions on the planet on leaky 100-year old boats commanded by a navigator who only had a vague idea of their position, a taciturn commander with a strange drive to sail into frozen oceans littered with immense ice bergs and rafts of floating pack ice in thick fog and the darkness of night, are some of the more memorable passages in all his books.
A great leader, Tilman believed in following the example of the old New England whaling captains who avoided going into port because they knew their crews would desert the ship at the first opportunity. One of his favorite quotes Some members of his crew, terrified to be at sea in a decrepit boat, or disgusted to be served a left-over curry for breakfast, mutinied and abandoned Tilman in some remote port, left short-handed and willing to take any man with a pulse aboard to help continue his quixotic quest to be the first to climb some desolate frozen mountain surrounded by the sea.
Ever erudite, Tilman intersperses his stories with accounts of the history of exploration in the Arctic and Antarctic Seas, recounting the Viking exploration and settlement of Greenland, the discoveries made by whalers and sealers, presenting their stoic tenacity in light of his own voyages’ challenges and setbacks. What emerges over the course of his eight sailing/mountaineering adventures is a story of the end of the romantic era of bluewater sailing — a world without GPS, digital charts, reliable diesel engines, satellite-informed weather forecasts, and the other modern conveniences that have removed so much of the ambiguity and risk of classic celestial navigation. It is also a paean to a generation of explorers — iron men in wooden ships — that roved the seas and high latitudes looking for the blank spots on the maps, the “last of the firsts” — first to circumnavigate Spitzbergen, first to climb Mount Heard, first to set foot on the most desolate, remote places left on the planet.
As a writer, Tilman has the clear declarative style of someone in the habit of diligently maintaining a ship’s log, but enlivens his sea stories with a biting wit, an encyclopedia of obscure quotations, and love for the language of the sea.
He’s by far the best nautical food writers I’ve ever read. Like one of Tolkien’s hobbits who obsesses about stuff like “Gentleman’s Relish,” Tilman lived by the edict that an army marches on its stomach, fretting the most about the difficulty of finding a cook for his expeditions, one who could work in the pitching, heaving chaos of the galley where even the saltiest sailor is sure to get seasick, juggling flying pans on swinging stoves and trying to do the best with a larder consisting of tins of bully beef (the corned beef that is the mainstay of British military rations), lifeboat biscuits (aka hardtack), twice-baked bread (Tilman obsesses about bread, chapattis, tostadas, regarding them as the essential tool for conveying cheese, fish paste, or peanut butter to the mouth), and rotten onions. The high point of any day at sea for Tilman was the “duff,” a kind of boiled pudding made from flour, lard, sultanas and molasses (among other things) in a bucket. I’m grateful he taught me that some indestructible black rye bread he procured from a Danish bakery near Godthab (Nuuk) was an “aperient” or mild laxative.
At about this early stage we first noticed a strange smell in the cabin, all pervasive and difficult to pin down, which I attributed to either a dead rat, fermenting rice, or uncommonly bad cheese. We had on board, stowed in the cabin, six whole ten lb Cheddars, each in a soldered tin. The smell having become intolerable we got to work with a cold chisel to open up all the cheeses. In three of the tins – and it is still a mystery how it got there — we found and inch or two of water. All was not lost. I housed the three sickly invalids in a box on deck where they could enjoy the sun and the wind. They were the last and by no means the worst to be eaten. Good judges, such as Taffy and myself, spoke highly of them, especially when alleviated with a raw onion.
He vanished in 1977 at the age of 79 in the South Atlantic near the Falkland Islands while crewing on an expedition organized by one of his former crew, Simon Richardson on a converted Dutch tug, the En Avant.
One of Tilman’s former hands, Bob Comly, has a wonderful blog about Tilman’s travels. There are a couple biographies of the man: High Mountains and Cold Seas and The Last Hero which I have yet to read. If you want some other Greenland reading I recommend Sloan Wilson’s Ice Brothers, a fictional story of the author’s service in the Coast Guard patrolling Greenland’s east coast for Nazi weather stations, and Rockwell Kent’s N by E.
Jim Gould passed away last Saturday: March 13, 2021 at the age of 97.
His obituary spares me from trying to condense nearly 100 years of an incredibly accomplished life into a scant paragraph or two. I learned more about the man from reading it than he ever told me himself.
That was Jim. It wasn’t about himself, he wanted to know what was new with you, and always had a question for me that would occasionally brighten my inbox such as “Do you have any records of the Job Handy shipyard at Little River?” or “I’m working on a piece about captain’s wives who went to sea with their husbands on coastal schooners. Do you know if Chatfield brought his wife Florrie with him?”
I knew Jim Gould most of the last half of his life, first meeting him in the mid-1960s but more closely after I moved the family to Cotuit year-round in 1991 where he had retired with his wife Anne. He was involved in a number of projects to capture the history of the village he loved. Early on in the 9os he offered to come by the house and go through the old family photos with me, identifying nearly every forgotten face of my great-great uncles and cousins-twice-removed with delightful anecdotes about nearly all of them. A few years later he borrowed some of those photos for his book about Cotuit and Santuit which he and Jessica Rapp-Grassetti published in 2003.
Jim’s devotion to pacifism and Quakerism grew from his D-Day experience on the beaches of Normandy. His career in the foreign service and his professorship at Claremont College were preludes to his passion for promoting diplomacy and non-violence and diving into the history of Cape Cod and Cotuit
Jim was my mentor as an amateur historian. He put up with my questions patiently, corrected my facts, and genially reminded me of the factual ethics of primary historical research (using only first-hand accounts or records whenever possible vs. being lazy and quoting other historians). He did more primary research than any Cape Cod historian, and there have been several. Jim applied the academic rigor of a college professor to the cataloguing of dozens and dozens of old Cotuit homes through hours spent at the county registry of deeds, cataloguing old photographs, and doing lots of detective work in the field. Mention a barn and Jim knew the year it was floated on a barge around the Cape from Brewster to its first resting place in another village before landing next door. His memory was almost photographic and I can only hope I retain a fraction of the mental acuity he had well into his ninth decade.
Thanks to Jim no walk today through the village is boring. He was influential in creating the Cotuit Historic District in 1987, putting in a massive amount of legwork for the Town of Barnstable Historic Commission to inventory Cotuit’s old homes and get them listed in the National Register of Historic Places. He was an ardent preservationist, using stories about the old captains who had built the homes as an effective tool against over-development and thoughtless tear-downs, vanity piers and docks and sprawling subdivisions eating away at the village’s remaining open space.
After I moved to town he recruited me to join him and some others on a study group studying the possibility of having Cotuit declared a state historic preservation district, an rigorous and controversial process where the legislature passes an act declaring a neighborhood such as Beacon Hill in Boston, old Edgartown and Nantucket and even a long stretch of road such as the Old Kings Highway (Route 6A) from Sandwich to Orleans a special district subject to rigorous historical and architectural review before any old structures can be demolished or modified. The concept can be controversial, with a citizen review board given the legal authority to give its thumbs up or down to things like satellite TV dishes or the color of shutters. Jim’s intention was to put in place a mechanism where the village could have a say in the tear-down of old homes and present options to a new homeowner or developer that would preserve the historic character of the village at large. The razing of the Cotuit Inn — the former hotel owned by Congressman Charles Gifford and his wife Florence — that once stood on the hill above the center of the village with its beloved watering hole, Hack’s Bar. had broken a lot of hearts, especially after a generic mass of condos took the place of the old rambling hotel. I supported Jim for trying to put a protection in place, but the horror stories from other historic preservation districts of neighbors feuding with neighbors and review boards acting like overweening dictators soured me and other Cotusions on the idea. Jim bravely made the case of the district before a packed crowd at Freedom Hall, and gracefully folded his tents when it was obvious Cotuit wasn’t ready to add a new layer of bureacracy. As one friend said, “I’ll paint my damn house pink and purple if I want to. House paint is a matter of free speech!”
Though defeated, Jim was indefatigable. He was a pillar of the Historical Society of Santuit and Cotuit. The first paper he presented to the HSSC was in 1971: The Lowells and Literary Cotuit. His second, presented twenty years later, was a History of the Little River District of Cotuit , followed by A History of Santuit with Ken Molloy in 2001, and the following year on the Mansard Ladies of Cotuit.
The biggest test of his research skills required a lot of off-Cape research in the archives of Plymouth and Boston: his 2007 paper on the history of Colonial Cotuit. The country courthouse fire of 1827 destroyed all the earliest land records of the colony from the 1630s onwards, but Jim was undeterred and dove deep into the land deals negotiated by Myles Standish, and the subsequent “Kings Grants” of land to the first colonial settlers of Cotuit in 1648.
He did most of the research himself, in person, at the archives and libraries where the past was stored in paper — none of it digitized or converted into searchable online databases. Where I can send an email to the librarian at the Nantucket Historical Association with a request for a whaling log, Jim had to write a letter or take the boat. Where I can now do a full grantor-grantee title search on a property from my PC. Jim did it in person. I can find every mention of some old Cotusion like Braddock Crocker or Hezekiah Coleman online thanks to the Sturgis Library’s digital archives of the Barnstable Patriot. Jim had to visit in person, request microfilm, and spend hours squinting at a screen looking for the clues which he accumulated into great stories of the forgotten past.
Jim’s love of history was infectious. I majored in American History in college with a focus on 19th century spiritual and philosophical thought and a minor in maritime history. Jim was an expert in both and he revived my love for the topic, inspiring me to dig into the history of Cotuit/Mashpee relations and the Woodlot Revolt of 1833 (which he referred to as “The Troubles”), to use his initial research to delve deeper into the history of colonial Cotuit, hurricanes and gales, and Sampson’s Island and Dead Neck. In return I helped him set up his blog, a rich archive of much of his research over the past twenty years.
Jim led a walking tour of Mosswood Cemetery every Halloween. Every stone prompted a story about a person he could connect from memory to most of the other tombstones in the graveyard. Genealogy was his forte, and he was tireless in tracking down family trees long before tools like Ancestry.com existed. Jim loved the “story” in history, and the crowds who followed him through the graveyard heard his tales of Baby Ella, the infant who died on a whaling voyage and was pickled in a cask of rum with a little window so her grieving mother, Rosilla Nickerson, could mourn her baby; or to hear him recite, from memory, in his distinctive mellifluous voice, the epitaph of Azubah Handy, the first person to be buried in the cemetery under a slate tombstone engraved with the dolorous and oft-quoted epitaph written by Mr. Elisha Holmes:
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.
I’ll miss the familiar sight of Jim on his daily walk picking up litter and stuffing it into a plastic grocery bag which he’d dispose at the Post Office before collecting his mail. He was the only person I’ve ever seen pick up roadside trash who wasn’t wearing an orange jumpsuit under the supervision of a sheriff. Years later, when he wasn’t making the walk any more, I started bringing a bag along with me on my lunch hour walks. His passing is a huge loss.
The Trustees of Public Reservations was created by an act of the Massachusetts state legislature in 1891 in response to a campaign by landscape architect Charles Eliot and others to preserve historic buildings and vistas in the state which were threatened by development.
The organization, known today as the Trustees of Reservations, commissioned Jonathan Baxter Harrison to survey the towns along the coast of the state from the New Hampshire border to Rhode Island and report on the public access situation in nearly 50 seaside cities and towns.
Here is Harrison’s report, extracted from the Trustees’ first annual report published in 1891.
A brief history of how Cotuit replaced a private pier with a public one.
Man marks the earth with ruin-his control Stops with the shore;-upon the watery plain – Lord Byron “The Dark, Blue Sea”
At the foot of Oyster Place Road, on the western shore of Cotuit Bay, stands Cotuit’s only public pier. Nearly 100 years old, the town dock is a commercial-grade pier sturdy enough for a car or small truck to drive onto for the stepping of masts, servicing of moorings or hauling away fish and totes full of whelks.
Inland of the two narrow strips of beach that flank the timber pier there are fifty parking spaces, two security cameras, a solar-powered trash compactor, a rain garden that filters road run-off before it reaches the harbor, a bulletin board displaying shellfish regulations and maps of open and closed relay zones, and a wide-mouthed piece of PVC pipe with a sign inviting anglers to dispose their old monofilament fishing line into its maw. The timber approach to the pier is wide enough for a vehicle and widens to a large square section set atop a cluster of pilings permanently pounded into the black mud. The original section of the old dock is flanked on its east and west sides by two sets of seasonal dinghy floats reached via aluminum gangways. Two wooden park benches sit on either side of the pier. The planks are littered with broken shells scattered by seagulls who’ve learned to drop quahogs from a height to crack them open.
To the south, or right side of the dock, is a chain-link fence and a low concrete wall fronted by a row of boulders half-submerged at high tide. It was there in 1875 that Captain Jarvis R, Nickerson and his son-in-law, Captain Washington Robbins, dumped wagons filled with rocks and sand into the shallows to build the foundation of a stone-fill pier for loading and unloading the cargo carried to and from Cotuit aboard the coastal schooners that once were the mainstay of the village’s maritime industry. Now there is nothing left to indicate there was once a busy commercial wharf there until the early 1920s. The square foundation of sand and rubble is overgrown with salt-stunted bushes and weeds, the faded traces of what was once the working center of Cotuit Port at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
In 2020, the current owner of the property where the old wharf once stood filed an application to demolish the remains of the old Jarvis Nickerson pier and replace it with a new dock for his own use. That application is still pending at the time this was written in February of 2021 but it has focused community attention on the history of Cotuit’s waterfront and its gradual evolution from a commercial port to a summer resort. Buried in the past history of the town dock is a story of Cotuit’s waterfront spiced up with a whiff of greed marking the end of Cotuit’s identity as the home port of a society of sea captains and watermen to its present reputation as a summer resort trying to hang onto what’s left of its traditions.
update 2021.03.04: the current application by 33 Oyster Place has been withdrawn by the applicant.
Today’s town dock was built nearly a century ago in the mid-1920s. Before there was a dock, there was simply the town landing, a narrow strip of empty beach at the end of a road that curves up a hill to the former commercial center of Cotuit.
There were other places like the Oyster Place landing in the village – places where one could “land” passengers or cargo from a small boat. There was a landing on the shore of the inner harbor at Cordwood Landing and another inside of Handy’s Point at the end of Little River Road adjacent to the old Handy shipyard. The foot of Old Shore Road, where Braddock Crocker built the first dock on the harbor in 1787, is called Hooper’s Landing, after Samuel Hooper, the village’s first summer resident who came to town in 1849 seeking a Cotuit captain to sail one of his ships to China and who ended up buying that captain’s farm with the promise to look after it while the sailor was at sea. The village also had a landing at Riley’s Beach at the bottom of Cross Street in the High Ground near the harbor entrance, as well as other landings at Rushy Marsh, Crocker Neck, and Shoestring Bay. In the 19th century most Cotuit residents knew where the landings were, but were unsure about the actual boundaries, unaware the town only owned the land as far as the high water mark in some cases, meaning any person landing on such a land locked landing would technically be trespassing except at high tide.
There were no “beaches” in the village before the 1920s. Few people, if any, went to the beach in the mid-19th century with the intention of swimming and basking in the sun. There were bathhouses scattered along the shore where people would change into their “bathing costumes” before wading into the bay to cool off during a summer heatwave, but there were no public beaches set aside for recreation. The waterfront was a working place, the domain of sailors, shipwrights, oystermen, and fishermen who used the beaches to build, launch and repair their boats. The shore was cluttered with skiffs moored to cedar posts set in the mud, flanked by heaps of oyster shells (in the early days of Cotuit’s oyster business the clams were shucked and brined in barrels before being shipped off-Cape) used to pave the village’s sandy roads and paths down to the waterfront. While the colonial ordinances from the 1640s granted ownership of the beach down to the low water mark, the owners of the shoreside lots in the mid-19th century were mainly sailors themselves who shared the beaches with the local watermen who worked the oyster grants and fished in Nantucket Sound. Some of the watermen built shacks along the shore, small sheds tucked under the foot of the bluffs that circle the bay, set atop cedar pilings to spare them from flooding on high tide: weathered shanties used to store nets, traps and cedar planked skiffs. The paths down to the waterfront crossed private property but no owners seemed to mind, given that most of the village was dominated by the names of a few old families such as Nickerson, Fish, Hallett, Coleman, Bearse, and Handy and more often than not the man walking down the path with a pair of oars over his shoulder was a cousin, nephew or son-in-law.
Captain Nickerson builds a wharf
The Nickerson family came to Cotuit in 1810 from Harwich when Seth Nickerson, a fisherman looking for a protected anchorage to moor his fishing boat (Harwichport had no harbors then), sailed west seeking a safe harbor and a place to settle. He came upon a small salt pond with a channel into Nantucket Sound at Cotuit’s Rushy Marsh. The pond (now closed off from the sea) was protected by Sampson and Gull Islands, with a deep water anchorage behind them where a small ship could lay protected at anchor. A hurricane in the early 1800s washed the first Nickerson settlement out of Rushy Marsh (leading local historian James Gould to speculate that the area became known as “Oregon” because an early map noted Rushy Marsh was the “original” Nickerson settlement). Nickerson moved his family north to the bluffs overlooking Sampson’s Island giving that neighborhood it’s present name as the “High Ground.”
The Nickerson’s prospered, multiplied and spread throughout Cotuit Port to such an extent thag by 1880 more than a quarter of the homes in the village along Main Street were occupied by one Nickerson or another as noted on the edition of Walker’s Street Atlas published that year.
Jarvis Nickerson was born in 1817 in Cotuit Port to Seth Nickerson’s son Shubael and daughter-in-law Rebecca Phillips Nickerson. Like most Nickerson men, he went to sea in his teens and learned the ropes aboard a whaler. In 1840 he married Deliliah Ellis of Harwich and a year later their first child, Rebecca was born. Rebecca married Captain Washington Robbins in 1861. Robbins was master of the Mary B. Wellington and set a record sailing from Boston to New York, returning in a few hours less than five days. He was an excellent mariner and had a reputation as a “driver”, which meant that he sailed his ship hard and with as much sail as she could carry. The Wellington was lost in a collision in Boston Harbor with a vessel owned by Capt. Benjamin Crosby of Cotuit.
Jarvis and his son-in-law owned the schooner Hattie M. Howes — along with shares in other Cotuit coasters – a practice the local captains employed to spread the risk of a shipwreck across several ships rather than stake all of their financial security in a single ship of their own. The town built a road from Main Street down to the town landing in 1867 and a few years later, in 1873, the two men applied to the state Board of Harbors Commissioners for a license to build a solid fill-wharf on the foot of the Jarvis’ property beside the landing’s beach, described by Cotuit historian James Gould as “merely a side landing for fishermen.” In January 1874, the legislature passed House Bill No. 12, “An Act to authorize Jarvis R. Nickerson and Associates to construct a wharf in Barnstable.”
Solid-fill wharves were the sturdiest and easiest method of constructing a waterfront structure in the 18th and 19th centuries. Wagon loads of boulders, stones and land fill were hauled down to the beach and dumped to create a raised piece of land that jutted into the waters past the low water mark and beyond until enough depth could be assured to permit a boat or ship to tied up alongside. Also known as “quays” or “moles, solid-fill wharves were the basis of most early wharfs. Timber docks were favored for seasonal use, their posts pounded into the bottom with mallets because the heavy equipment needed to drive a substantial and permanent wooden piling into the mud didn’t exist in the late 1890s.
Nickerson and Robbins encased the 40’ x 60’ rectangle of landfill with a wooden bulkhead, then decked over the pile of sand and rocks with heavy planks. In 1881 a derrick was erected on the wharf “which will be a great convenience to boats landing cargoes.” The following year the Barnstable Patriot reported: “We hear Capt. Jarvis Nickerson is going to enlarge his wharf, and the schooner H. Cole will load and discharge there in the future.” Evidently neither the addition of derrick, nor the expansion of the wharf, required new liceses from the state’s harbor commissioners, as there are no mentions of any additional petitions by Nickerson in the commission’s annual reports.
The pier was leased to the Sears lumber company of Hyannis beginning in 1887 for the storage of lumber and coal. Other tenants over the half-century the pier was in existence included a plumber, carpenter, boat builder, fishmonger and oyster company . Several shanties were build inland to house those tenants. The wharf became the busiest part of the Cotuit waterfront as soon as it was completed, and it shifted the commercial center of Cotuit Port south from the cove at Hooper’s Landing where the waterfront was undergoing a transition from a depot for island packets and cordwood schooners, to a summer resort at the Santuit House.
Cotuit Bay was (and remains) too shallow to serve large schooners and ships such as whaling barks. Local knowledge of the channels and shifting shoals was mandatory for any vessel of any size to enter and exit the bay. But because Cotuit Port was situated on the middle of the coastal route used by schooners hauling freight between Boston and New York (before the opening of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914) Cotuit was a popular layover for schooners that needed to make repairs , wait for a favorable tide to carry them through Vineyard Sound, or in the case of the three dozen schooners that called Cotuit their homeport, a place to stop to check in with the family, pick up some clean clothes, and re provision the schooner’s galley. Few of those schooners could enter the shallow bay, anchoring instead outside of Dead Neck in Nantucket Sound at an anchorage called “Deep Hole” , a spot marked as the “Cotuit Anchorage” on old nautical charts. In early December, before winter’s ice closed the harbor, most of Cotuit’s fleet of schooners would be brought inside of the bay and moored in Round Cove off of Jarvis Nickerson’s wharf. Only the smaller, two-masted “tern” class of schooners with centerboards regularly entered the bay to load and unload their cargoes at the wharf. Jarvis Nickerson permitted schooners other than the one belonging to him and his son-in-law – the Hattie M. Howes — to use his private wharf, Old photographs from the 1890s show several schooners rafted up alongside the end of the wharf . Two large coal sheds were erected close to the town landing for the storage of coal delivered to the village by schooners (coal can spontaneously combust when wet, so storing it under a roof was important).
In the mid-1880s Jarvis Nickerson suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right of his body. His sailing days at an end, in 1884, less than a decade after its construction, Jarvis Nickerson’s wife Delilah sold the wharf to Freeman Ballard Shedd of Lowell, Massachusetts.
The Shedd Pier Years
Freeman B. Shedd was a former pharmacist born in the mill city founded and named for the same Lowell family that had made Cotuit their summer home since the 1870s. Shedd served in the Civil War as a medic and saw several battles during his enlistment in the Union Army. After the war Shedd returned to his former job at a drug store in Lowell where he and a co-worker invented a men’s cologne called “Hoyt’s German Cologne.” Shedd ran the company and amassed a fortune that enabled him to bequeath a 200 -acre park to the city of Lowell which bears his name today.
Shedd expanded the pier and continued to run it as a depot for cargo entering and leaving the port. During his three decades of ownership, he added a boat shop on pilings to the southwest side of the landfill, and erected the coal sheeds on the property beside (perhaps even encroaching on) the beach belonging to the town landing.
Jarvis Nickerson died in 1892, finally succumbing to the stroke that had crippled him. His widow Delilah continued to live in their home atop the bluff overlooking the bay.
In 1904 an unknown incident occurred at the town landing that was enough to motivate Cotuit’s voters to place two articles on the warrant for discussion at the 1904 town meeting . The first article was to: “…see if the Town will vote to instruct and impower the Selectmen to employ a competent surveyor and have the present Town Landing (below the estate of the late Jarvis Nickerson) in the Village of Cotuit resurveyed and permanently bounded and appropriate a sum of money therefore, and to act fully thereon.”
Had Shedd or one of his tenants on the wharf encroached on the town’s strip of sand? We may never know unless some forgotten document or plot plan emerges from the archives.
Thanks to Mark Walter and his persistence, a librarian at the Massachusetts archives was able to locate the plan for Shedd’s 1906 application to the state’s harbor commissioners for a license to expand the pier.
Time is a cruel eraser of history and the deeds and newspaper clippings from that period lack any back stories that might explain why Cotuit requested a survey of the town landing’s boundaries. Histories and reminiscences of life in Cotuit often omitted the “bad” side of recent events because their authors were sensitive not to offend the parties involved or their extended families. A historian must infer, from the limited amount of primary source material available, that all issues brought before the town meeting at the voters’ request had their origins in some issue or conflict, especially an issue as specific as that 1904 warrant article calling for a survey of the property specifically adjacent to Jarvis Nickerson’s commercial wharf, and not the other side of property adjacent to the boathouses belonging to Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell. One can speculate that Shedd had done something (or announced plans to do something) that irked the old sea captains who tacitly ran the town from the Mariner’s Lodge in Thomas Chatfield’s sail loft and Freedom Hall’s attic.
The addition of the second article for the 1904 town meeting was about another town landing in Cotuit: “To see if the Town will vote to appoint a committee to look up the records of the Town’s Landing at Little River and report at the next Annual Meeting.” Seeking official clarification of the legal status of the village’s waterfront holdings was to be expected given the memory of an alarming dispute between the town and two Cotuit property owners that occurred eight years before. There was an urgent need across the entire Cape after the turn of the century to nail down what public access points existed as the old captains and watermen in other Barnstable villages and Cape towns realized the informal paths and ancient custom of sharing the beach was insufficient against the plans of an off-Cape real estate speculator determined to exercise or even nullify the public’s traditional but informal rights on their land.
The natives grow restless
The two town meeting articles of 1904 concerning the status of Cotuit’s landings were intended to determine the precise boundaries of the two most important pieces of public property on the shores of Cotuit Bay. Perhaps the articles were forced by some unrecorded expansion and encroachment of the old Sears Co. pier’s operations onto the public landing. The need to a fix the property lines of the public’s landings wasn’t just Cotuit’s problem. It was a familiar issue from one end of the peninsula to the other in the first decade of the 20th century, as one Cape Cod town after another formed committees and hired surveyors and title examiners to determine which, if any town landings a town thought it owned, were actually owned. Droves of off-Cape developers and syndicates of investors were buying large tracts of property held for generations by the descendants of the Cape’s colonial settlers. The land boom had already transformed the working waterfront from a few scattered homes and beach shanties, into summer estates owned by summer people from Boston who became alarmed by the sight of an oysterman walking over their land to get to his skiff and posted no trespassing signs to stop the practice.
Cotuit first confronted the ambiguity surrounding its landings in 1896, almost ten years before the rest of the Cape realized they were facing a huge problem and the risk of losing public access to the shoreline. The real estate boom arrived early in Cotuit, fueled by the early influx of guests introduced to the village’s many charms while visiting the Thorndyke, Hooper, Lowell and Codman estates, and by wealthy vacationers who lodged at the Cape’s first hotel: the Santuit House overlooking Hooper’s Landing. In 1890 Grand Island (known today as Oyster Harbors) was purchased by a “company of New York and Boston men” who intended to develop the former woodlot and Wampanoag summer camp with a golf course and shoreside mansions. Their plans depended on the legislature’s approval of their request to construct a draw bridge from Osterville to the islandin 1891. Cotuit’s carpenters were busy across the bay building the first summer homes on Grand Island, and the scenery around the shoreline was changing from undeveloped bluffs and saltmarshes to rows of new houses on land that for over 100 years had been only used for cutting cordwood needed on Nantucket.
“Wherever the summer people have bought places on the seashore…”
In 1891, the legislature, at the urging of Frederic Law Olmstead’s protégé Charles Eliot, passed a bill to create The Trustees of Public Reservations, a non-profit organization devoted to preserving the state’s remaining historical structures, vistas and open space vanishing under the pressure of development. Among the Trustee’s founders was Cotuit’s Colonel Charles R. Codman, owner of the three-story mansion atop Bluff Point. In the first annual report of the Trustees, an extensive (and sad elegy to an old way of life) was published as an appendix: J.B. Harrison’s “Report upon the public holdings of the shore towns of Massachusetts.”
Jonathan Baxter Harrison, was a prominent New Hampshire minister and crusading journalist who devoted his career to advance the emerging cause of conservation and preservation through his writing and eloquent letters to the editors of New England’s newspapers and magazines. Those letters are credited with making the general public aware of the urgent need to preserve open space and guarantee their access to the shoreline. Harrison surveyed the coastline of Massachusetts from Salisbury on the New Hampshire state line to Westport on Rhode Island’s. His report as published in the first appendix of the Trustee’s first annual report is a sad obituary to a way of life along the state’s coastline, one vanishing under the pressure of wealth and greed.
“I found everywhere recent changes in the ownership of land, and a movement of people of means from the cities and the interior of the country to the shore regions of the State . I found leagues and leagues together of the shore line to be all private holdings, without the intervention, in these long reaches, of a road of space on the shore to which the public has a right to go. I walked across the domain of one man who owns about six miles of shore line. I found a great population inland hedged away from the beach , and all conditions pointing to a time, not remote, when nobody can walk by the ocean in Massachusetts without payment of a fee.”
J.B. Harrison, author of the Trustees of Public Reservations’ “Report upon the public holdings of the shore towns of Massachusetts.”
Harrison was alarmed and saddened by the impact the new money was having on the remote sea-side towns and villages, and his report warned about the threat those places faced to their ancient paths and town landings as outsiders bought the land and posted no trespassing signs.
“Except in a few instances, the public holdings in these towns have not been measures, and their area is unknown. It would be well to have them accurately surveyed, the bounds marked, and their area made a matter of public and authoritative record.
“In a large proportion of the shore towns the public holdings have diminished in extent. Not only have all the old common lands, town pastures, and woodlands and extensive shore holdings been parcelled out to individual possession, but many of the towns have permitted serious encroachments upon the smaller public holdings which were intended by the founders and early inhabitants to be permanent. In many instances it is evident that the first settlers had a pretty clear idea of the value and need of open spaces for public use in town and villages, and they showed commendable foresight and public spirit in providing for them.
“Wherever the summer people have bought places on the seashore, they show a disposition to exercise the right of exclusive domain, and to repel as trespasser all who enter upon their grounds for any purpose whatever. In some instances, people are thus excluded from places where rights of public resort and passage have been exercised for generations. Even where the ancient legal rights of the people are clear, they are being generally relinquished because it costs too much to maintain them against such aggression.”
Harrison’s report predicted “The problem of title to the shore, and the use and enjoyment of it by the people of the State, will in time be a most vital and important public question here.” Regarding the situation in Cotuit, Harrison was prescient. A year after he wrote his report for the Trustees of Public Reservations, its next annual report of 1893 found in Barnstable “There are believed to be five public landings; but of these only two – one at Cotuit and one at East Bay, Osterville – are known to belong to the town.”
The landing with no beach
When Cotuit petitioned the selectmen in 1904 to send a surveyor to mark out its town landings, the village’s elderly sea captains backed the request. They had already confronted the issue of who owned the traditional ways to the shoreline eight years before in 1896, when two property owners in the High Grounds – Capt. Oliver C. Lumbert and Alexander C. Adams – applied to the state Board of Harbor and Land Commissioners for licenses to build two wharfs on the small beach behind Sampson’s Island that is known today as Riley’s Beach.
When the Harbor Commissioners published two legal notices in December 1895 announcing the date and time of hearings for the Lumbert and Adams’ piers, the people of Cotuit took immediate notice, enough that the following month, on January 27, 1896, the Barnstable Patriot reported:
“Cotuit is interested in a matter before the legislature to provide for a public landing in the westerly part of the village. For years one of the public roads has led down to the shore, at which there was a boat landing. On one side of this road the land is owned by Alexander C. Adams and on the other by Oliver C. Lumbert. The town only owns to the high water mark, and the stretch between this and the low water line belongs to the two abutters. These parties have forbidden trespassing on their property, and the townspeople are shut out from the landing except at high tide. To remedy this, they have petitioned the legislature for the right to purchase or take by right of eminent domain the strip of land in question.”
Barnstable Patriot, January 27, 1896
The contingent from Cotuit filed an article for the town meeting “To see if the town will raise and appropriate a sum of money for the purpose of purchasing a town landing in the village of Cotuit.” At the town meeting in early March of 1896 “Captain U.A. Hull, T.C. Day, Thos. Chatfield and Capt. Walton Hinckley spoke in favor. Their arguments persuaded the other town meeting members from the town’s other six village to appropriate $200 to buy the beach rights from Lumbert and Alexander. At the request of the board of selectmen, the state legislature approved House Bill No. 171 to authorize the town of Barnstable “to take certain lands in the Village of Cotuit, between low and high water mark, for a public landing place. To take by purchase or otherwise, so much of the flats and lands between high and low water mark, adjoining a town road, which road leads from the Country Road (Main Street) .”
The Shedd Pier expands
Bruised and perhaps on high alert after the surprise that the town didn’t own the beach rights, Cotuit’s contingent of old sea captains remained on high alert and served as a warning to Osterville, Centerville, Hyannisport and Hyannis that they too might not own the shorefront they believed they owned. The newspapers from the era note other villages in Barnstable asked the selectmen to do the same surveys and title searches in the othervillages. In Eastham, and Wellfleet the towns’ selectmen were asked to “ascertain the cost of a town landing.” In Centerville the matter was so urgent that some concerned citizens bought an ad in the newspaper to urge the County Commissioner “to view the Town Landing in the Village of Centerville on Long Beach, for the purpose of locating same; and erecting necessary bounds.”
In1898, two of Cotuit’s captains — Carleton Nickerson and Thomas Chatfield — fought Osterville’s long-standing desire to cut through Dead Neck and create a channel directly from West Bay to Nantucket Sound. The two sailors argued any man-made alterations to the natural coast line would lead to shoaling and changes to Cotuit Bay – arguments the state ignored when it approved the construction of the Osterville Cut after two raucous public hearing by the state Board of Harbor Commissioners at Freedom Hall in Cotuit and a day later in Osterville. Yet, besides settling the location of the town landings and keeping Cotuit Bay open, the Cotuit captains had another pressing issue on their list of concernhs: the town’s shellfish regulations, or lack thereof.
At the same town meeting in 1904 where Cotuit asked for an official survey of the town landings at Little River and Oyster Place, the village also proposed article 27 “to make all possible effort to prevent the destruction of shellfish in the water of the Town or do anything in relation to the same.”
There are no published reports of shellfish being destroyed in Cotuit, but elsewhere in town, at Barnstable Harbor on the northside, locals were furious that out-of-town fishermen were trapping eels in traps called “fykes.” Without providing any context for the issue or publishing any reports about shellfish being destroyed, the Patriot reported: “Capt. Chatfield advocated that something be done to prevent the wholesale destruction of shellfish. Capt. C.H. Allyn. Lorenzo Lewis, A.S. Childs, and Dr. W.H. Row spokes on the article. A motion to indefinitely postpone was voted down. John S. Nicholson advocated that the Selectmen enforce the present laws and prescribe regulations for taking shellfish. It was later so ordered.”
A year after Cotuit asked to clarify the boundaries of the town landing, in 1905 Shedd filed an application with the state for a license to “maintain a wharf, partly solid and partly on piles, and to widen a portion of the same, on piles in Cotuit Harbor.” Whether this was an “after-the-fact” attempt to get permission for something he had already built, or because the pier needed repairs and modifications, Shedd received approvals from the town and the state to go ahead with the work, with the proviso that “….no part, however of the proposed widening to extend easterly of the line E-F on said plan, extended southerly.”
It is unknown if Shedd ever made the improvements, but the wharf had definitely expanded far beyond the footprint of the original 1875 pier.
A stranger comes to town
In 1912, Harry D. Haight — a summer resident of Wakeby Pond in Sandwich and a wealthy executive at the Eastman Kodak Company of Rochester, New York — became a big fan of Cotuit’s oysters. So big a fan that he decided he should own all of of them. Oyster harvesting began in Cotuit in the mid-19th century, and ever since about a dozen Cotuit independent oystermen had tended the oyster grants given to them by the town. Those early oystermen had shucked, brined, and shipped the oyster meat off the Cape in barrels, but the extension of the Old Colony railroad from Sandwich to Provincetown in 1874 opened up a lucrative opportunity to ship live oysters off of the Cape packed in barrels, unopened and still in their shells to the restaurants of Boston and New York.
In 1912 Haight founded the Cotuit Oyster Company and incorporated it and its trademarks with the Commonwealth’s Secretary of State. Haight, emboldened by the backing of his silent partners and investors, stunned Cotuit when his intentions to consolidate and dominate the local oyster business became known as he bought up nearly all the independent oyster grants in Cotuit; grants that had been worked since the mid-19th century by a dozen or more local oystermen. The May 13, 1912 edition of the Barnstable Patriot contained three separate items announcing Haight’s sudden arrival in the village.
“The Cotuit Oyster Company has rented the building formerly occupied by A.C. Savery and C. H. Stubbs and is fitting up office there.”4
“We understand H.D. Haight of Boston, who is treasurer of the Oyster Company has bought the house of Mr. W.B. (William) Crosby at Little River and will live there.”
“We understand that H.D. Haight for Boston, a summer resident of Wakeby, has incorporated an oyster company with a capitalization of $150,000 and is manager of the same. The company has taken over the oyster grants of nearly all the growers of Cotuit.”
Haight was busy in the spring of 1912. On May 12, 1912 the Cotuit Oyster Company purchased William Crosby’s land in Little River, including a license Crosby had received from the state in 1910 “to build a sea-wall and pile wharf and to fill solid and maintain a building on piles in Cotuit Bay.”
In June of 1912, Freeman B. Shedd filed an agreement at the Barnstable County Registry of Deeds made between himself and Haight’s Cotuit Oyster Company to sell the wharf and land around it to the Oyster Company for $4,000 to be paid in four installments over the next year. In August the Oyster Company purchased the “house of Delilah Nickerson [Jarvis Nickerson’s widow) over looking the wharf and coal sheds they have lately purchased.”
Before Haight’s company could finish paying off the promised $4,000 to Shedd, the Lowell cologne king died in March of 1913. Two months later Shedd’s daughter and the executors of his estate filed a new agreement reached with Haight at the registry of deeds, extending the deadline for the remaining payments to the end of the year.
In early 1914, the Cotuit Oyster Company petitioned the state for “a license to build a bulkhead, fill solid and extend a wharf in Cotuit Harbor.” The license was granted that spring and and the plan submitted with the application notes the land was the property of the “Estate of Freeman B. Shedd” with, in parenthesis — “(Cotuit Oyster Co.) — appended below it. It would take another four years until 1918 for the Cotuit Oyster Company to officially take possession of the deed to the wharf and surrounding land from Shedd’s daughter Mary , when a final payment of $1,018 was made on the property.
Haight’s expansion plans for the wharf didn’t especially concern the Cotuit sea captains. But his private-equity tactic of consolidating the independent oyster grants under one roof did.
The hottest article on the 1914 town meeting warrant was number 30, but the moderator moved it for discussion after the rest of the warrant had been discussed and voted on:
“To see if the Town will appoint or cause to be appointed a committee of not less than three to investigate the conditions governing the leasing of grants for the cultivation of oysters and other shellfish in, and adjacent to the water of Cotuit Bay; to ascertain the conditions under which the Cotuit Oyster Company is cultivating oysters and other shellfish, if any, in the waters of this Town of Barnstable; the number of grants together with the full description therefore used by them; the number and par value of its shares of stock, together with the names and residences of the owners thereof; the number of barrels and kinds of shellfish which it has marketed each year, and any and all other particulars which may seem to said Committee, material to the issue and to report the same to the town, on or before the annual meeting of 1915: and to raise and appropriate a sum of money not exceeding $500 for the expenses of said committee and to act fully thereon.”
“Article 30 was tabled for discussion until the very end of the town meeting. The Patriot reported on March 3, 1914: “It concerned the residents of Cotuit mainly and they indulged in a spirited discussion, assisted by others of the townspeople. Senator Gifford (state senator and future U.S. Congressman Charles Gifford), Capt. U.A. Hull, Maurice Crocker, Wm. B. Crosby, B.F. Crosby were among the participants in the discussion. A motion was first made to indefinitely postpone, the vote was doubted and found to be tied, 19 for and 19 against. Captain Chatfield moved the appointment of a committee of three to investigate the matter and appropriation of $200 for the same. This motion was not adopted.”
The Barnstable Patriot’s account of the 1914 town meeting discussion and decision to investigate the Cotuit Oyster Company.
A two-person committee was eventually appointed to look into the Cotuit Oyster Company and its finances. In 1915, at the annual town meeting, E.L. Chase and Z. H. Jenkins, the committee of two who investigated the company, made their report:
“At the outset we awaited the outcome of the pending legislation regarding the leasing of grants to non-residents or corporations, feeling that that might be such as to render much research on our part unnecessary.
“That Legislation not as far reaching as was at first anticipated, but does make provision for leasing for grants to corporations.
“ We have learned from the commissioner of corporations that the Cotuit Oyster Company reported on June 18, 1914
“This company has taken over (by some agreement) 14 separate grants in or near Cotuit which were originally granted to and held by residents of this town. We cannot learn that any resident has invested money in the enterprise, other than as they may have accepted stock for the assignment of said grants.
“During the year 1912 we believe they planted about 53,547 bushels of seed oysters and during 1912 about 3,000 + bushels. Marketing during the two seasons, about 15,000 and 16,000 bushels, respectively. During this past year we cannot find that they have either planted or harvested any considerable quantity if any.”
Report to the town meeting of 1915 from the committee appointed to investigate the Cotuit Oyster Company.
The report was accepted, and discussion deferred until later in the meeting. The Patriot reported “The last thing to come before the meeting was the discussion of the Cotuit oyster question. Capt. Thos Chatfield addressed the meeting at some length on this matter, after which the meeting was adjourned.”
The newspaper may not have been inclined to quote Capt. Chatfield’s harangue against Haight and the oyster company, but thankfully a hint at the emotions stirred up by the controversy can be found in a tattered copy of a pulp novel about Cotuit published in 1923 by Milton Bradley, better known as the company that sells Monopoly.
In 1923 Captain Chatfield’s son-in-law, Charles Pendexter Durell, published the second novel in his Blue Watertrilogy for teenaged readers: Heave Short!
The book is set in a fictitious village on Cape Cod named “Saquoit,” (A blend of Santuit, Cotuit and Waquoit) and it tells the story of a spoiled rich boy from Boston, Sam Hotchkiss, who comes to the village one summer while his father convalesces from some unknown illness. Young Sam becomes friends with an elderly whaling captain named “Seth Nickerson,” who tolerates Sam’s entitled snobbery and takes him clamming and sailing in his catboat the Cynthia B.. TThe first volume in the series is dedicated “To Captain Thomas Chatfield, A Mariner of the Old School” and Durrell, writing in his foreword, acknowledges “the friendly assistance of Captain Thomas Chatfield and Captain Freeman S. Hodges [Chatfield’s son-in-law], from whose nautical experience I have gained much.”
In the second book in the series — Heave Short! — Sam Hotchkiss returns to Saquoit via the railroad depot where his train is met by the driver of the Saquoit stage coach service Eben Bates (based on Cotuit’s avuncular Willie Irwin). When the stage stops momentarily at “Craig’s Mill” (Marston’s Mills) so Bates can deliver the mail, another passenger in the coach tells young Hotchkiss that Bates is being “wooed by a Mister Hastings” with a fancy dinner at a local hotel that very night.
“Hastings?” asked Sam. “I guess I don’t know him.”
“No, you wouldn’t know him. You ain’t been here since last summer and Hastings jest hove in. Wal, I’ll tell ye. He’s what they call a promoter, from New York. Got lots er money: dresses right up to the nines. He’s formed a stock company to run all the shellfish business in town. Been buyin’ all the shellfish grants he could and sellin’ stock in the company besides. Purty good thing, too. He’s bought nigh everybuddy’s oyster grants here at Saquoit and over to Masonville [Osterville], and they claim there’s some big capitalists back of it. I hear that Cap’n Seth and two or three more is kinder holdin’ off and won’t sell out to the company, nor buy stock, nuther one. I reckon after a while they’ll come to it. I’d go into it in a minute if I had any money.”
From “Heave Short!” by Charles Pendexter Durrell
The story of the oily Mister Hastings and his plot to roll up all of the independent oystermen, fleece them of their savings by selling them worthless shares in the company, and then skip town is the outline of the plot that ties together the novel’s picturesque attempt to capture life in Cotuit during the Roaring Twenties, interspersed with dramatic forest fires and the dismasting of the Captain’s beloved catboat, the Cynthia B..
Sam Hotchkiss becomes alarmed by Captain Seth’s fretting that the poor oystermen of Saquoit are being screwed out of their savings by Hastings, so the boy decides to write a letter to his father, a well-connected Boston businessman, and asks him to consult an attorney about Hastings’ new oyster company.
By the time the book reaches the denouement of its plot, that same lawyer, (as well as his ace investigator and a district attorney looking to make an example of the confidence men prowling the Cape) all converge on the village to investigate Mr. Hastings and catch him in the act of shaking down an oysterman. High excitement ensues when Hastings, realizing he’s been found out, tries to flee the scene but is tackled by the plucky Sam Hotchkiss.
All’s well that ends well. Hastings is arrested, brought to trial and sent to jail. Durrell wraps up his story of the Oyster Company scheme with:
“After the trial, when the investors in the scheme had their money and their oyster grants returned, the village relaxed into its former quietude. Uncle Seth and Aunt Cynthia were happy once more, with no shadow of fear for their friends and neighbors to bother them.”
You won’t have Harry Haight to kick around anymore
Harry D. Haight sold the wharf and land to Stuart and Wilson Scudder in 1920, eight years after the Eastman Kodak executive founded the Cotuit Oyster Company and attempted to roll-up the independent oyster grants granted decades before by the town to the local oystermen who had worked them since the 1850s. Haight struggled to keep the oyster company afloat and was probably shunned by some villagers dismayed by “the shadow of fear” that followed his arrival in 1912. In 1920 Harry Hastings called it quits and sold his shares in the Cotuit Oyster Conpany to Charles Gifford, who first appears on a document as the company’s new treasurer when he signed the deed that sold the Oyster Company’s remaining land to his wife Fannie in 1921. The Scudders represented Scudder Bros., a Hyannis-based coal and heating oil dealer (that was the origins of the Scudder Bros. that founded the Hyline Ferry service in the 1960s). The transaction was completed under the condition that the Scudders demolish the coal sheds and not build any new buildings on the property over the next twenty years without the written approval of Fannie Gifford.
Gifford kept the Cotuit Oyster Company alive for a decade and a half, eventually selling it and its trademark “Cotuit’s R Superior” ( as well as the exclusive right to market any oyster taken from Cotuit Bay as an official Cotuit oyster) in 1934 to a subsidiary of a New Haven oyster company that operated it until the early 1960s when the operation was sold to the same company’s local caretaker, who in turn sold it to Dick Nelson, who sold it to its present owner, Christopher Gargiulo.
End of an era
In 1922 the last of Cotuit Port’s whaling captains died at the age of 91. Thomas Chatfield had arrived in Cotuit in 1846 after running away from his home on the Hudson River to Albany, where he was adopted by Seth Nickerson, Sr.’s sons Aaron and Horace and put to work as a deckhand on their schooner, the Highlander. They brought Chatfield home with them to Cotuit Port, where the young man was taken in by Seth Nickerson, taught the fundamentals of celestial navigation, and then sent to sea in 1848 with the elder Nickerson’s son Captain Seth Nickerson, Jr. .
Chatfield married Florentine Handy, Nickerson’s granddaughter, completed three voyages aboard the Massachusets to the whaling grounds of the North Pacific, and in 1856, at the age of 26, was given command of the Massachusetts. In 1858 he rescued his shipwrecked brother-in-law, Captain Bethuel Gifford Handy, brought him safely to San Francisco from the frozen Russian coast of the Sea of Okhotsk, and left Bethuel in command while he rushed east via Panama to enlist as an officer in the Union Navy. During the war Chatfield commanded a small schooner on blockade duty along the west coast of Florida. The city of Tampa surrendered to him, and with the influence of Admiral commanding the Gulf Squadron of the Union Navy, joined the Masonic temple in Key West.
Returning to Cotuit Port, Chatfield spent the years after the Civil War owning and skippering the schooner Joseph Eaton, Jr. , then retired to make and mend sails and perform rigging services for the coastal schooner trade in the sail loft above his boatshop in the village center. Along with Captains Carleton B. Nickerson, Ulysses Hull, James Handy, William Irwin, and many others,Chatfield led the fight for Cotuit against the closing of its shores, the end of independent oystering in its waters, and the Osterville Cut that would forever alter its coastline.
A Dock for a Dock
Before Chatfield died, the town meeting voted and approved a request from Cotuit to “construct a public wharf at Cotuit, same to be located on the public landing at the foot of Oyster Road.” A committee consisting of Milton Crocker, William H. Irwin, and William F. Nickerson was appoited to “have charge building the wharf.” In 1923 they made their recommendation to the board of Selectmen.
“To the Selectmen of Barnstable:
Your committee after due investigation and consideration find that there are four available places along the shore frontage in Cotuit Harbor where a wharf may be located. These are all town landings of more or less merit for the purpose. In the judgment of your committee the two farthest to the west seem the less suitable owing to exposure to the strong southwest winds which prevail and which render a pile-driven wharf less liable to withstand the buffeting of wind and waves. A wharf of stone or concrete structure would be expensive. Moreover, the water is shallow and unless the wharf is extender’, far out it would seem to be unsuitable unless the places were dredged, except for skiffs and boats of small draft. Cotuit has no public bathing beach of any extent but insofar as such privilege does exist these two places seem to be as good as any. and perhaps better.
Of the two remaining places the one furthest to the east seems to be as well adapted as the other except for the depth of water. This place would also require dredging and consequently entail expense. It would even then be no more desirable than the remaining place of which we are soon to speak. Moreover, this also seems to be a place very suitable for bathing purposes. The shore does not make off abruptly but on the other hand gradually shelves making the water warm and safe for everyone. It is at a very convenient distance from the center of the village and easily and safely approached by people who walk or by automobile parties seeking shore privileges.
“We now come to the last available place, this, in the judgment of your committee, seems the logical place. It is in the immediate center of the village and consequently convenient for visitors coming in boats or yachts to do with little traveling after they land whatever errands or business they may have to transact. It appears to your committee to be of less value than any of the other places for bathing purposes owing to the comparative abruptness of the shore and the “presence of fish houses close at hand. The abruptness of the shore on the other hand, and consequently deeper water, makes it particularly adapted for a wharf. The expense of construction will be less because of the short distance of extension into the water necessary and because less dredging will be required. This location is opposed by some because the wharf will interfere with the bathing. This is true in a measure, but not wholly objectionable on this account. It seems the most desirable place available, and as has been said before, the logical one.
“Your committee, therefore, with the utmost respect and consideration for those who differ, make the following recommendation: That the proposed wharf be located in Cotuit harbor at the public landing known as the foot of the Oyster Road, between the shore frontage of Mr. A. Lawrence Lowell and Mrs. McKinley.”
1923 Report of the Cotuit Town Dock Committee to the Board of Selectmen
In January of 1924 the state legislature passed House bill No. 1214 (which had been filed by the town’s state representative) authorizing the town to extend the wharf and public landing in Cotuit Harbor. The dates when the town dock was constructed and officially opened aren’t known, but knowing the village there was doubtlessly a celebration to mark the occasion. The first photograph in this essay was taken by Chatfield’s grandson, Hugh Knight, and it shows the new dock beside the demolished remains of the old Nickerson pier, and the Congressman’s summer office standing where stacks of lumber and heaps of oyster shells were once piled up. The office is identifiable from its brick chimney which was all that remained standing after the 1944 hurricane demolished the building. The presence of a Ford Model A (first released in 1923), and a high-bowed, black hulled motorboat are additional clues that the dock was open circa 1925.
What remains unknown from the research into the saga of Cotuit’s town dock are some minor but possible important details. In 1942 the Gifford’s filed a map of the property which shows a 10-foot strip along their property and the town landing which widens the parking lot at the driveway for 33 Oyster Place Road. Did the town acquire or take that strip when it built the dock? The 1942 map also shows what appears to be a row of pilings extending diagonally and inland from the corner of the former Nickerson pier, all falling within the 10-foot strip of expanded town landing, and indication the town landing was widened onto the northern edge of the Nickerson-Shedd-Oyster Company land.
When did the town actually take possession of the landing? Was Oyster Place a town road, a county road, or a path opened up to become a wagon track? The road was built in 1867 according to Jim Gould, but the deed, if it was granted to the town in the 1700s or early 1800s, was probably lost in the disastrous County Courthouse fire of 1827 which destroyed ninety-three of the ninety-four books of deeds recorded since the first English settlers arrived in the 1630s. At some point the town landing was widened, but it isn’t known at this time if the town took the land from Congressman Gifford by eminent domain, sale, or gift. The Congressman passed away in 1947 without rebuilding his summer office by the shore, nor ever using the remains of the old wharf as a dock.
Gifford was a very successful real estate developer and legislator and so can be assumed to be an expert in real estate law, especially the Colonial laws regarding ownership of the waterfront and the rights of a land owner to not only close the beach between the high and low water marks to any trespassers (with the exception of hunters and anglers engaged in “fowling” and fishing, and sailors in the act of navigation) but their own riparian rights that extended a substantial distance off of the beach into the waterways, rights the first Colonial administrators granted to property owners in order to encourage the private construction of commercial wharves to handle the oncoming rush of settlers, cattle and cargo that arrived with increasing frequency in the mid-1600s.
Gifford was intimately involved in the fate of the old commercial wharf. He ended its fifty year run as a commercial venture by buying out Harry Haight and selling the property — as the company’s treasurer — to the Scudder Brothers who began to demolish every vestige of the former wharf save its low concrete wall. With the Oyster Company’s other property at Little River — the former William Crosby land — Gifford was quick to end its use of the old Jarvis Nickerson wharf and consolidate the Oyster Company at Inner Harbor.
Gifford would also have been extremely interested in the town’s plans to build a town dock on the landing beside his property, and he must have realized that it’s plans set it in very close proximity to the former commercial wharf he bought back from the Scudder Brothers in 1921. He would have known the footprint of the planned town dock would infringe on the riparian rights that went with the old wharf. There were no zoning regulations in the town of Barnstable when Jarvis Nickerson first built his wharf in 1875, and certainly no prohibitions against the construction of new docks such as the Dock and Pier Zoning Overlay district that banned them in Cotuit after passing with enormous effort in 2001. Yet Charles Gifford — 12-term Republican Congressman, prosperous real estate developer, oyster company owner and cranberry farmer — could easily have built any pier he wanted to and objected to the town’s plans to crowd a pier of their own next to his property.
The former president of the Cotuit -Santuit Civic Association, Stewart Goodwin, in a 2021 letter opposing the present application to build a long dock next to the town landing, related to the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals the story of how as a teenager he worked around the Gifford property as a landscaper, and on one occasion in the early 1940s while visiting the Congressman in his office asked Gifford why he didn’t have a dock — to which Gifford replied, “it would spoil my view.”
To the present
Oyster Place Road wasn’t paved until 1954. In 1957 — with the backing of the Cotuit Civic Association — an article was debated at the town meeting to spend $5,000 to extend the pier further into the harbor. That request was voted down (by the same frugal town fathers who turned down Sidney Kirkman’s gift of the 15-acre Bluff Point property and beach and sold it for the cash instead), but the request came back the following year, seeking $6,000 for the extension and repair of the wharf. That article was indefinitely postponed, but the request came back yet again to the town meeting in 1961 — this time the price tag was $14,000 for the extension and repair – and it too was defeated.
In the 1970s the old square pier was extended out into the harbor with an additional L-shaped extension. In the early 1980s the town installed four floating dinghy docks with aluminum gangways, in an attempt to keep up with an explosion in the number of moorings being set around the western half of the Bay. In the late 1980s, Tom Hadley of Cotuit began a private launch service to carry boaters out to their moored boats from one of the dinghy floats. While he sold the launch eventually, he still drives it to this day for the present owners of the service.
Congressman Charles Gifford’s grandson, Frederic P. Claussen, was the last native Cotusion to live on Oyster Place. Fred was Barnstable County’s Register of Probate for 39 years, making him the longest serving elected Republican official in Massachusetts of all tine.
In 2005 Claussen granted the town a permanent easement from the town dock’s parking lot across the base of the old commercial wharf to perpetuate the path the Giffords had let the public use to access the shoreline of the cove. When a subsequent owner of 33 Oyster Place erected a fence and blocked that path, Claussen re-asserted the old easement, but the property owner fought it and persuaded the town’s attorney to nullify Fred Claussen’s easement and convert it into a revocable easement that could only be used in daylight hours. The present owner, who is seeking to demolish the remains of the commercial wharf, has offered as part of his application to build a private pier, to reinstate the Claussen-Gifford way to water permanently.
As always (because I don’t know what I don’t know) I appreciate any corrections, clarification, contributions or questions. The best way is either to comment here, or email me at david AT churbuck.com.
 In 1882 there were thirty-one schooners run by Cotuit captains. The Barnstable Patriot noted in its December 5, 1882 issue: “On Saturday, Capt. J. Hallett sailed the Plough Boy from Deep Hole to an anchorage near Jarvis Nickerson’s wharf. These are harbingers of the coming winter fleet. In anticipation of the winter, sailboats have been quite generally pulled up onshore and some of them nicely housed.”
 The Cotuit Oyster Company’s business office was located on School Street, across the street from the current Kettle-Ho at the intersection with Main Street, it isn’t known if the Patriot’s report referred to a shanty on the Oyster Place Wharf or the School Street office.
This is a half model of the whaling bark Jireh Swift, built in 1853 in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Plans of whaling ships are hard to find because builders worked from their own half models and the design was so ubiquitous no naval architect seems to have drawn one. I finally located a set of plans in the Smithsonian’s collection which were derived from a recent half model.
This hull will be finished bright (varnished) to show off the walnut topsides and mahogany bottom of the hull. The keel, cutwater, waterline and stern post are made from 1/16th” basswood veneer. I’ll mount it on a red oak backboard eventually.