by Frances Karttunen
The erosion currently ravaging the west end of Nantucket is no new thing. A long spit of land with Smith’s Point at the very tip once extended right past the island of Tuckernuck and approached Muskeget. Nobody remembers who Smith was, but the Wampanoag name for the point was Nopque, meaning ‘Landing Place,’ and it may have been way out there that the first English settlers came ashore in 1659.
The sand spit was useful to livestock owners for moving sheep and cows on and off Tuckernuck. As late as 1869 it was still possible to ford the water between Nantucket and Tuckernuck in a wagon.
The long spit is long gone, and since then the sea has periodically broken through what is left at Broad Creek to create Esther’s Island. After awhile the breach spontaneously repairs itself. Life on the outer edges of Madaket has always been a contest with the encroaching waves.
A more protected location is on the landward side of Hither Creek (locally pronounced “crick”), a long narrow body of water reached via a channel between Jackson’s Point and Little Neck. On Hither Creek are a boat landing and a boatyard, and from the far north end runs the Madaket Ditch, the product of a cooperative effort by the Nantucket Wampanoags and the earliest of the English settlers back in 1665.
According to an agreement between them, preserved to this day in the Nantucket Registry of Deeds, the Wampanoags and the settlers would share the work of digging the waterway between Hither Creek and the north end of Long Pond and then share equally the catch of fish running through the ditch, provided that the Wampanoags did their part in maintaining the fish weir. The English proprietors had purchased the whole west end of the island from the local sachems, so from their point of view, they were offering the Wampanoags a golden opportunity to take fish on English land. The Wampanoags probably did not see it in the same light.
Nonetheless, dig they did, and the Madaket Ditch has enjoyed astonishing longevity as a place for taking herring (specifically alewives) on their spring spawning runs from salt water to fresh and for spearing eels during their runs to breed in the ocean.
For how many decades the Nantucket Wampanoags took part in maintaining the weir on the Madaket Ditch we have no record, but their numbers fell precipitously in the 1700s as the English population burgeoned, and then the epidemic of 1763-64 all but wiped them out. After that, the annual herring run and eeling at the full moon were left to the descendants of the Englishmen who first labored alongside the Wampanoags to open Long Pond to Hither Creek.
Throughout the 1700s and the 1800s fish taken from the Madaket Ditch fed Nantuketers. Before refrigeration, the alewife was prized as a fish that took well to salting and kept through the year. Even in the twentieth century, maintenance of the ditch was considered worthy of town investment. The Annual Town Report for 1908 reports general repairs and an expenditure of $200 for cleaning out roots, restoring the ditch to a full six feet wide, and rebuilding one of the bridges over it.
There was, in fact, a Committee on the Madaket Ditch, which reported: “We recommend that the old rules (adopted by the town in 1882) be in force regarding the use of the ditch.” In the following year’s annual report the committee “respectfully reports that the ditch is now in very satisfactory condition, is accessible and valuable to all who have occasion to use it. The ditch has been cleaned out and is in excellent condition, and we trust the voters will decide to keep it so from year to year.” And indeed there were additional reports of maintenance for the years 1911, 1912, 1917, and 1918.
Even in the absence of regular town-funded cleaning, the ditch remained navigable by kayak throughout the twentieth century and still is there, a monument to seventeenth-century engineering. Presently, because of a steep decline in numbers (comparable, in fact, to the demographic decline of Nantucket’s Wampanoags in the 1700s), there is a moratorium on the taking of herring. We can only hope that given the moratorium, the population will rebound.
A wild hunt of a rather different sort took place in Hither Creek on October 4, 1954. In the wake of Hurricane Edna a ten-foot, 300-pound shark described as a “blue-nose” was washed into Hither Creek and could not find its way out. Madaket resident Mildred Jewett had a legendary soft spot in her heart for dogs, cats, and ducks, but it apparently did not extend to fish. “I knew it wasn’t something that belonged there,” she said in a newspaper interview. So she and a neighbor went out in two boats and chased the shark back and forth, up and down Hither Creek until it was exhausted. When Millie attempted to impale it on a pitchfork, the shark’s skin proved too tough to pierce. In the end the exhausted creature was dispatched by a bullet from a Massachusetts state policeman’s service revolver.
Millie Jewett is far better known for assuming responsibility for the safety of boatsmen in the waters off Madaket than for exterminating huge fish. Originally called the Great Neck Station, the Madaket Life-Saving Station was opened in 1891. Located on land that has now washed away, it was manned by keepers and crews who assiduously carried out rescue drills. The rescues actually performed were few and far between, however, the first taking place in 1903. In 1915 the station was transferred to the Coast Guard, and shortly after World War II the station was decommissioned.
Millie Jewett, born in 1907, had grown up with Madaket Station as a year-round next-door neighbor, and it was hard for her to see the Coasties leave. She was certain that it was a bad idea, and proof came within hours of the station’s closing in January 1947, when a freighter, the Kotor, running off-course in dense fog, went aground at Madaket.
Subsequently, Millie—who had always aspired to military service and who had trained dogs for the U. S. Army during World War II—became the official Coast Guard look-out for her end of the island, in radio contact with Brant Point Coast Guard Station from her West End Command Post. Hers was undoubtedly the only Coast Guard facility in the nation that also sold ice cream and cigarettes to the public.
Frances Karttunen’s books include The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, Law & Disorder in Old Nantucket, Good Things from the North Shore, and her Nantucket Places and People
series are available in local bookstores in print and for the Kindle.