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Mystery Island

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Mystery Island

Lying 14 miles off of the mainland and measuring roughly two and a half miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide, this island is the westernmost of the Elizabeth Islands. This island’s location at the entrance to the Vineyard Sound, just 10 miles from the coast of Cape Cod, makes it a favorite destination for sailors from around the world. The harbor here has a 10-foot draft at mean low tide and is protected on two sides by stone breakwaters. The shape of the island is like that of a lobster with one claw broken off.

Mystery Island

In 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold set sail from England with a crew of 32 men aboard the Concord. After briefly stopping in Maine, the men journeyed south to Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and, finally, our mystery island. Though the men were unsuccessful in their attempt to establish a colony, their arrival predates the Mayflower voyage by 18 years and marks the first English settlement in America.

Fishing is a pastime as old as the island—the surrounding waters are home to striped bass, bluefish, and myriad other species. In 1864, local fishermen started a club, whose bylaws stated the club was “for social purposes, for angling, propagating fish, and hunting on the Island . . . and in the waters adjacent thereto.” The club was strictly for men only—members’ families were not permitted on the island.

At its peak, the club had 26 fishing stands all around the island. A record was kept of the daily catch recording the number and weight of fish caught. An island boy was assigned to each fisherman to “chum” the fishing place. The boy would bait the fisherman’s hook with a piece of lobster, which was very common at the time and considered a lowly creature best used as bait. The lobster’s body was broken up and used as “chum” to attract the fish. Some believe the word “chum,” meaning a helpful friend, came from this island tradition.

Mystery Island

Many famous American industrialists and politicians were members of the fishing club, including President Grover Cleveland, railroad magnate Henry Flagler, International Harvester’s William McCormick, and the president of Standard Oil Company, J.D. Archbold. A diamond-studded fishhook was given each fishing season to the lucky angler who caught the biggest fish.

In 1858, three whalers—William Swift, Thomas Nye, and Eben Perry—were returning to New Bedford after an expedition. After getting caught in a storm, the men spent the night on the island with Otis Slocum, who owned the island at the time. The men offered Slocum payment for his hospitality. When he refused, they instead asked Slocum to name a price for the Island—he pegged it at $50. Swift, Nye, and Perry purchased the island.

Mystery Island

When whaling was big business in the nearby port of New Bedford, the island’s pilots were famous for the skills and experience needed to guide the vessels in and out of New Bedford harbor. Many pilots made their homes on the island and would stand atop Lookout Hill with spyglasses waiting for the whalers to come into sight. According to an 1852 history of the island compiled by a former teacher at the island’s school, Louise T. Haskell, the pilots were still very active on the island as late as 1903.

Mystery Island

Mystery Island

“On the hills we often see motionless figures with spyglasses, watching for incoming ships, for piloting is still a business with the men of the (island) and one of the men of the island told me that eleven ships were once taken into New Bedford in a single day by (island) pilots,” said a writer for a local historical society.

Mystery Island

No shipwreck is more famous here than that of the Aquatic. On the evening of February 24, 1893, the Aquatic out of Canada washed onto Sow and Pigs Reef and an island lifesaving crew tried to save the sailors on board during a bad winter storm. The wreck was spotted by the son of the local lighthouse keeper around 8:30 at night. On the island at the time there were two lifesaving groups who frequently braved the elements to help ships in peril. In 1847, the Massachusetts Humane Society had erected stations on the island with appliances for islanders who were always ready to help fellow mariners.

The government also established a station on the island in the late 1880s and seven or eight men were on call, patrolling the cliffs and beaches along the west and south shores. Each man carried signals whose bright red glare warned mariners or alerted ships in trouble that help was coming.

There was friendly competition between the two lifesaving groups, which compelled the Humane Society members to head out to the sinking Aquatic despite the lighthouse keeper’s entreaties for the Humane Society’s crew to wait for assistance from the government crew.

The rough seas were too much and five of the six islanders who volunteered for the mission were swept away and perished. In a sad twist of fate, the crew of the New Brunswick vessel survived until the next day and were eventually rescued from the foretop of the ship. The loss of life on the island was an extremely traumatic event for the island’s tight knit community. A fund of $30,000—quite a substantial amount of money for the time—was gathered for the families of the drowned men. For decades the five lost mariners, who were buried in a small cemetery on the island, were remembered as heroes.

The Indian name of the island means “Point of Departure” or “Land’s End” in Algonquin. Writers have described it as “an experience totally surrounded by water” and the “True Treasure Island.”



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