Leave your credit cards and your worries behind and hop a ferry over to Cuttyhunk, our little sister to the west. It’s an undiscovered island filled with 400 friendly summer people, beautiful wooded walks, welcoming beaches and a sense of peace and tranquility reminiscent of life in the 1950s. Or even earlier.
Recently I was invited to speak at the Cuttyhunk Historical Society on my book about the wreck of the steamship City of Columbus, which ran aground in the winter of 1884 between Gay Head and Cuttyhunk. Two dozen people attended to hear my talk, and the rest of the two-day visit was my own. The event turned into a self-guided revelation of what summer ambiance could really be, as I strolled the quaint village, walked along distant shores and met many people.
The town of Gosnold, the smallest of the 351 towns in Massachusetts, is made up of the Elizabeth Islands — Nonamesset, Uncatena, Weepecket, Gull, Naushon, Pasque, Nashawena, Penikese and Cuttyhunk. Cuttyhunk hosts the town government. There are about 120 registered voters in Gosnold and about 30 year-round residents on Cuttyhunk. A few dozen more live on Penikese, Nashawena and Naushon.
Cuttyhunk. The syllables of the name ripple off the lips of the nautically knowledgeable. The island was settled briefly by Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602. It gained prominence in the latter half of the 19th century when wealthy New Yorkers formed the Cuttyhunk Fishing Club in 1864, an exclusive enclave which morphed into a rustic hostel. Presidential visits figure prominently in Cuttyhunk history — Garfield, Cleveland, Harrison, both Roosevelts, Taft, Bush senior and Clinton all paid their respects to Cuttyhunk. Today, it is a summer refuge for vacationers who seek a quiet escape from the mainland, visiting boaters and fishing enthusiasts chasing the striped bass that run thick in the rock-infested waters around the island.
There are few cars and fewer inspection stickers on those vehicles. Golf carts rule, softly puttering along the paved and unpaved roads that crisscross the northern part of the island, where most houses are situated. Pathways lead down to the southern side, where an imposing monument to Gosnold dominates the shoreline. At the highest point, the lookout features a picnic table atop one of four World War II bunkers, offering a 360 degree seascape, with the cliffs of Gay Head and lighthouse prominent along one horizon. Another path lies to the west along Church’s Beach, with gentle rolling surf, a swimmer’s delight —the pathway then winds up and into hilly woodlands far out of town.
Downtown Cuttyhunk features the conveniences of a post office, a market, (cash only) a church, the town hall, elementary school and historical society. A souvenir store, pizza parlor and raw bar for clams and lobsters are nearby. Two inns offer accommodations, overlooking Vineyard Sound. The Cuttyhunk Fishing Club serves an expansive breakfast (cash only) and encourages visitors to bring their own food to cook dinner in their kitchen.
Although not as rugged as St. John in the Virgin Islands, the island offers similar remote walks to pounding surf. Like Monhegan island in Maine, it is well-offshore, yet boasts enticing beaches. Like so many of the New England islands, Cuttyhunk has families who trace their vacations back for generations. A strong sense of family and community prevail. Residents appreciate the tranquility and peace of their island which blooms through the summer months and then fades to a small band of hardy year-rounders in the off-season. There is a strong respect for the privacy of others, though narrow concrete walkways pass by kitchen windows, and there is an equally strong sense that everyone knows everyone else.
Over the course of about 30 hours, (I arrived by ferry from New Bedford at 10 a.m. and left the next day at 4 p.m. ), I amassed 288 photographs of this charming community. It is an outpost, both geographically and chronologically, offering a few fortunate souls the opportunity to savor the deep quiet of a place that is remote and relaxed.
As my ferry departed for the mainland, a couple of dozen kids jumped off the town pier into our wake.
An enviable tradition entices a visitor to return.
— Tom Dresser