Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 39 Issue 7 • June 18-24, 2009
now in our 39th season

Ancient Thoroughfare

by Frances Karttunen

Running along the north side of the Lily Pond, West Chester Street is often said to be Nantucket’s oldest street. Sitting up on Sunset Hill and overlooking West Chester, Nantucket’s Oldest House gives the claim credibility, but the argument has also been made that Duke Street (Now Dukes Road) is the oldest. Cliff Road (formerly North Street) is also venerable.  All of these thoroughfares run from west to east, connecting the original English settlement site with the present town of Nantucket.

When, beginning in 1659, the settlers first allocated homestead sites and took up residence on the island, they grouped themselves around a small cove on the North Shore. The little harbor to the west of the present town served the settlers’ purposes for a while.  Into it they rafted loads of lumber to build dwelling houses, barns, fences, a meeting house, and a mill.

At this time there was no village center, and there were no streets to speak of.  The homesteads of the settlers were laid out among the freshwater ponds along the North Shore with a finger pointing inland toward Hummock Pond. To the south and east were Indian lands.

Then, rather suddenly it seems, they were stranded.  Out in the Sound along the North Shore, sandbars are forever forming and marching toward land, pushed by the winter storms with their northeast winds.  One day the settlers found their harbor closed off by a sandbank that they could not clear away.

Initiating an island tradition, they took apart their houses, moved them to a more convenient location, and re-erected them.  The distance of the move was about a mile, and the new site was on the Great Harbor.  The main route taken by the peripatetic houses was along West Chester Street to the Wesco Lots, laid out in 1678.

It has become the fashion to refer to the old settlement as Sherburne as contrasted with the present Town of Nantucket. From 1659 to 1673, however, the English settlement was nameless.  Then “Sherburne” was imposed by mainland authorities and was retained until 1795, when—in the wake of the American Revolution—Town Meeting asked to be rid of it.  Hence, West Chester Street isn’t the thoroughfare from Sherburne to somewhere else.  The settlers and their buildings were in Sherburne before the move, they were still in Sherburne after their move, and so it all remained until 1795, when the old name was relinquished in favor of Nantucket, a catch-all name for town, county, and island.

Along West Chester Street, well short of the shores of the harbor, was the first rudimentary town center: a town hall, some sort of school building, and a jail. Further east and on the highest point of land overlooking the street a house was built for the 1686 wedding of Jethro Coffin and Mary Gardner, and there it sits on its original site, unmoved to this very day.  Still further east the mill was set up on the creek leading out of the Lily Pond into the Great Harbor.

The first town hall, school, and jail are gone without a trace.  The next oldest building on West Chester Street, after the Oldest House up on Sunset Hill, is the Richard Gardner III house, built in the 1720s down on the shore of the Lily Pond.  Both face south into the winter sun and turn their backs to the north wind with long “cat slide” roofs. Up until 1927 another house of this type survived on Sunset Hill—one built by the Paddack family around the same time as the Gardner house down below.

There are many relatively more recent houses lining West Chester Street—that is, houses built in the later 1700s and in the 1800s. Number 19 was originally built in 1820 over on the Cliff.  The lovely little one story cottage was moved in the mid-1890s to make way for the large mansion now located at 11 Cliff Road. In its new location on West Chester, the older house eventually became part of a hospital complex.

Dr. John Grouard had been treating patients in his nearby home. In 1911, he and Dr Benjamin Sharp began a campaign to open a freestanding hospital with a staff.  Over the next two years they engaged a local businessman and a novelist, among others, to further their vision.  A corporation was formed, funds were raised, and the West Chester Street location was chosen for the Nantucket Cottage Hospital.

Nantucket residents were used to being treated at home by physicians who made house calls, and the original intention was for the Cottage Hospital to be seasonal, there to serve summer visitors. It proved to offer such an improvement in medical care, however, that by the year 1915-16, it was open year-round and was in place to deal with the influenza pandemic of 1918.  Although there were deaths during the initial wave of the flu and again when it returned, mortality on Nantucket was much lower than it might have been without a hospital.

Photo courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association

Along with number 19, the houses numbered 21 and 23 West Chester Street were pressed into service for the hospital.  Connections were built between them, and an annex was built on the hill behind.  The nursing staff was hired primarily from Canada.  Babies began being born in the hospital instead of at home, and surgery could be performed in a sterile operating room. West Chester Street, a narrow thoroughfare with no room to be widened, became busy with ambulance traffic and the comings and goings of visitors.

By the middle of the twentieth century, the hospital’s location in a thickly settled residential neighborhood had become untenable. Land was acquired, and a modern hospital was built on what was then the southern edge of town, just off Prospect Street and close to the Cyrus Peirce School.  It was dedicated and opened for business on August 11, 1957.

Then the houses along West Chester Street that had housed the Cottage Hospital reverted to their original use as residences.

Frances Karttunen’s books Nantucket Places and People 1: Main Street to the North Shore, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, and Law and Disorder in Old Nantucket are available at local bookstores.  Look for Nantucket Places and People 2: South of Main Street in fall 2009.

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