Nantucket History & People

First Island Tourists Came for the Sheep

Part 1: Island Land Rush

by James Grieder

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first use of the word tourist only as far back as 1800, but as the dictionary’s definition implies, the new word describes an old habit—travelling for pleasure was not new when the word first appeared in print. By the beginning of the 19th century, the elites of English and European society had been touring for two centuries, travelling to the great cities and watering places, and taking the “Grand Tour” of the Continent. Nantucket was an early tourism destination, but not for its sea breezes or cultural offerings: they came for the sheep, or rather, the sheep shearing festival.

“For a century or so an idyllic and pastoral Shearing Feast was kept by the entire population, who, on the first Monday in June, migrated to the ponds near the western end of the island, whither the sheep had previously driven up and penned. Miacomet Plain, with its chain of ponds—one of them still called Washing Pond—then became for three days an encampment of tents and booths, where busy matrons and merry girls cooked such savory dishes as were at that time dear to the island epicure, or set forth those daintier viands prepared at home. The fathers, husbands, brothers, and sweethearts meantime washed the sheep, lightening their labor with a great deal of rough play and many practical jokes among themselves, and returned them to the pens to dry until next day, when the shearing would begin.”

Travelers arrived in an assortment of vehicles, from lowly Nantucket calashes to handsome carriages and loaded omnibuses, to visit the various tents that had been erected near the pond. The 1843 festival featured a new addition to the usual lineup: a spacious tent, 100 feet long by 50 wide and 30 high, erected by the Washington Total Abstinence Society “for the accommodation of the Cold Water Army,” a threehundred- strong troupe of children who marched through the streets of town, accompanied by the Nantucket Brass Band, before heading to the shearing pens.

“When the shearing was over, and the encampment broke up, the lads and lasses finished out the holiday with a surreptitious dance in town—for these were the days of Quaker supremacy, when dancing, music, cards, and most modes of amusement were strictly forbidden. But like most efforts to suppress human nature, these laws were only fully honored by those who had no longer the temptation to break them; and the young Quakers danced, sang, and frolicked in their generation very much as their too-liberal descendants do today.”

The 1840s also saw the first signs of a new kind of visitor to the island who had reasons to visit Nantucket other than sheep. During the early 19th century, the “fashionable tour” was a string of attractions that brought newly-prosperous bourgeois travelers from New York City up the Hudson River and eventually to Niagara Falls. Faster transportation, more luxurious lodgings, and above all, a new awareness of the tourist as a consumer were what distinguished the fashionable tour from what came before it. And while the earlier Grand Tour of Europe featured itineraries designed to allow as much time as possible in major towns and cities, moving with the greatest possible speed through rural areas, a very different kind of tourism, as detailed in Inventing New England: Regional Tourism in the Nineteeth Century, was developing in America.

It’s almost impossible to separate the growth of tourism in the USA from the commercial and industrial development overtaking the northeastern states during the 19th century. It is no accident that the first tourism-based industry sprang up along this northern route. In the first place, the fashionable tour owed its existence to a series of novel transportation systems—steamboats, for example—which existed nowhere else in the United States at the time and provided the means to reach new tourist attractions. These were also attractions in themselves as indicators of progress.

Remarkable though it was, technological innovation was not the only driving force behind the tourism industry’s rapid expansion in the 1820s. Even more marked were changes in the organization of businesses to fit new markets. All along the new route hotels, built on speculation, were not erected in the centers of villages or on turnpikes, but near the new tourist attractions. Such hotels often offered an experience that further distinguished them from the village taverns and roadside inns. The word “hotel” signified that the landlord was offering a new style of privacy and luxury that had recently become popular in larger cities.

At this time, tourists in search of nostalgic experiences increasingly imagined their destination in regional terms as New England, rather than “the seaside,” for example. And in a search for that “new” old New England, tourists were looking for an imagined experience of the past: virtuous simplicity, rural independence, and class harmony.

It was part of the fascination some Americans were developing in these years for hand-crafted works and “primitive cultures”; for the history and artifacts of the “colonial” period in American history; and for the “old days” vaguely associated with pre-industrial farm and village life. Those with the taste for the exotically quaint discovered Nantucket.

Far from being a pristine New England village with ties to the colonial past, Nantucket at this time was a commercial town in decline. In the midst of a newfound enthusiasm for New England rural and agricultural life, Nantucket presented an almost entirely entrepreneurial and even urban history. Nantucket natives were neither rustic nor naive. On the contrary, they had always enjoyed a reputation for being widely traveled, urbane, and shrewd. Instead of a communal and harmonious past, Nantucket presented an unusually fragmented and disorderly one. Racial and class tensions abounded, and traditional loyalties were weak or nonexistent. The island had been settled by Quakers, but they had lost their predominance in the freewheeling days of the early 19th century. Neutral in everything but the pursuit of profit, Nantucket boasted none of the Revolutionary War heroes who were becoming such an important part of the imagined New England past.

Nantucket had one asset quite unlike anything at bustling vacation destinations like the new cottage city at Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard: the “dust of centuries” seemed to be settling on the island. Its quiet and solitude seemed lifetimes away from the bustling, crowded wharves of Oak Bluffs. Only a few years earlier, tourists had shunned such backwaters, but now travelers were developing a taste for them, finding something attractive in the “gray old wharves of … many another quaint by-gone place.”

What Nantucket had, in spades, was a built environment that exuded charm even as it provided housing for a peak population of nearly 10,000 people residing almost entirely within the confines of Nantucket historic core. Of course, that population peak occurred in the 1830s and 1840s, at the height of the whaling boom, and bottomed out at about 3,500 in 1880, but “when the last whaling ship left Nantucket in 1869, visitors were already remarking on the town’s rotting wharves and empty streets.” Sensing a business opportunity, in a pattern typical of the period, during the 1870s a handful of residents and former residents of Nantucket invested heavily in the island’s development as a resort. The first speculative ventures were close to existing population centers—Cliff Road in town and Sunset Heights in ‘Sconset—but developers soon realized that there was under-utilized land on the island where it would be possible to emulate the “cottage cities” being built on the Vineyard and elsewhere, with a luxury hotel for short-term visitors and a railroad built to run between the resort center and the old town.

Until the 1860s and early 1870s, large stretches of barren land and shore were held in common, simply because nobody has wanted them. In the 1870s, investors found a use for this land: barren seashore had become beachfront property, prime locations for the latest vacation destination. Small shares in the commons were bought out and consolidated, and large tracts of land fell into private hands. Many of the developers were Nantucketers who could rely on their extensive off-island networks of friends, relatives, and business associates for investors.

Plans were drawn up for sites across the island, from Madaket to Coatue and Quaise, without much to show for it on the ground. There’s an example of one failed speculative subdivision included in the Nantucket Historical Association’s exibit in the Hadwen House at 96 Main Street. Worcester architect Stephen D. Tourtellot envisioned a 1,000-acre “City of the Sea” at Madaket, Great Neck, and Smith’s Point, with a plan that “filled every inch of the tract with parkland, house lots, and avenues that wind around and over waterways, including Hither, Narrow, and Further Creeks (much of the land is now underwater).” But the disastrous Panic of 1873, during which many banks and businesses failed, triggered an economic depression and brought to an end Tourtellot’s vision of a “City of the Sea.”

Later real estate development flurries of the last half of the 1880s were mostly expansions of areas that had proven viable, including the Cliff area, ‘Sconset, and Monomoy. Accessibility was the biggest problem at the time, and the projects that were successful—at least for awhile—were at Wauwinet and Surfside, which enjoyed regular service by yacht or by train.

In the summer of 1873, the Nantucket Surfside Land Company held an on-site meeting for potential investors in a “gigantic development extending three miles along the south shore between Miacomet and Madequecham ponds”; in attendance at that meeting, along with several off-island businessmen, were the brothers Charles G. and Henry Coffin, heirs to a vast whaling fortune, who owned the land in question. Lots were surveyed and advertisements placed in mainland newspapers. Now all they needed were customers.

Unfortunately for the initial investors, for the better part of a decade the lots remained unsold, in part due to the remote location far from town. The arrival of the railroad, the brainchild of Philip Folger, a Boston resident with Nantucket ties, improved the situation somewhat. The railroad depot doubled as the real estate office of the Surfside Land Company. While the initial capital for the railroad had been raised through Folger’s Boston connections, control of the company remained a family affair: the general manager was Henry Coffin’s son, Charles F. Coffin. For several years the depot was the only building in the area, apart from the Life-Saving Station, but in 1883 the company arranged to have a building brought from Rhode Island to be reconstituted on-island as the Surfside Hotel. Originally planned for a location closer to town, the railroad line was extended closer to the shoreline for a new location closer to Nobadeer.

For a few years, the new Surfside colony thrived, with band concerts, clam bakes, and fireworks galore, capped by a visit from then President Chester A. Arthur, but by the end of the 1880s the number of visitors was declining, despite the addition of a bowling alley and boardwalk leading to the Life-Saving Station to provide more amenities for the guests. The planned cottage city was not thriving—lots were being given away with proof of intent to actually construct a cottage. The hotel ownership changed hands several times, and in the fall of 1891 a storm leveled the Surfside depot. Another gale two years later demolished large sections of track along the south shore, stranding half the railroad’s rolling stock in ‘Sconset. The railroad was sold in 1894, and the southern route was abandoned when a new company took over the line. The Surfside Hotel was left to the elements, and by the end of the decade had deteriorated to the point where half the building collapsed during the winter of 1899.

This sort of speculative disaster was not unique to Nantucket. Resort-development ventures had high failure rates everywhere during the 1870s and 1880s, but Nantucket’s failures occurred just at the point when tourists were flocking to the island in larger numbers each year. It was not simply that the efforts of investors were failures—they misjudged Nantucket’s developing clientele, who seem to have been interested neither in the “crowded haunts” of elite watering places nor the gregarious closeness of a cottage city. Those sailing past Oak Bluffs to Nantucket preferred the privacy of boarding at a small hotel or with a family. An 1882 guidebook listed nine hotels and more than than twenty boarding houses on-island. And visitors did build their own summer houses, not in the planned developments, but on individual lots overlooking the harbor near town, and in ‘Sconset, where fishing shacks were refurbished as vacation homes.

These tourists were looking for a special kind of resort experience on Nantucket. Accounts of visits to Nantucket indicate that tourists were as intrigued by the quaintness and romance of Nantucket’s history as they were by its cool breezes and surf. Indeed, even if they were not initially intrigued by history and quaintness, they might soon be driven to take an interest from sheer boredom.

Few sought out the island for its modern conveniences or fashionable social life. At the very moment when Nantucket’s promoters were straining to provide the typical resort entertainments and luxuries for their visitors, those visitors were looking for something quite different. Novelist Edward Bellamy visited Nantucket one summer in the 1870s—his doctor had ordered him to spend some time on the island precisely because it was an “out-of-the-way, switched-off sort of place,” or as the overworked journalist characterized it, a “a ridiculous little dead-alive down-east sandbank.”

Read more about Nantucket’s early tourists in the next edition
of Yesterday’s Island/Today’s Nantucket in print and
online at on August 3

Articles by Date from 2012