Summertime, But the Livin’ Wasn’t Always Easy

Cape Cod Life  /  June 2023 /

Writer: Chris White

A new exhibit at the Nantucket Whaling Museum explores the island’s self-reinvention into a world-class tourist destination. 

When Herman Melville visited Nantucket in July of 1852, his novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale was just a dense, heavy book that had been published less than a year prior to unfavorable reviews, and Nantucket was little more than, in the author’s words, an “ant-hill in the sea.” Melville’s novel had yet to achieve any sort of success and wouldn’t until 1919, and the island had only recently begun its re-incarnation from the whaling capital of the world to a haven for well-heeled tourists. Yet for Melville, Nantucket held particular allure, and understandably so. In her 1991 Historic Nantucket article titled, “Herman Melville: Nantucket’s First Tourist?” writer Susan Beegel notes that the author had previous sailed aboard the Charles and Henry, a whaling ship from the island. He had worked as a harpooner, and much of his research for what would become known as the great American novel came firsthand. Still more of his background knowledge Melville gleaned from books, and he had devoured accounts of Nantucket sailors and captains. Indeed, the inspiration for the white whale itself derived from Owen Chase’s Narrative of the Loss of the Whale Ship Essex of Nantucket—the fateful voyage that had ended in cannibalism after a massive sperm whale stove in the side of the ship and sunk her. Finally, after years spent immersed in imagination, in the idea of this near-mythical “corner of the world,” Melville visited the island’s village, cliffs, lighthouses, and beaches. He even met Captain George Pollard, Jr. of the Essex herself. Over the course of a few days, Melville toured the town, met the celebrated astronomer Maria Mitchell and her father, and he reported that he took a carriage ride “to Siasconset, and various parts of the island.” In a letter to his friend and fellow titan of American literature Nathaniel Hawthorne, he described his experience, writing: “The air is suppressedly charged with the sound of long lines of surf. There is no land over against this cliff short of Europe and the West Indies. . . The sea has encroached also upon that part where their dwelling-house stands near the light-house . . . in a strange and beautiful contrast, we have the innocence of the land eyeing the malignity of the sea.”

Steamship rounding Brant Point, August 1949. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association

Melville spent only three nights on the island, and he would never return, but his experience as a visitor exemplifies that of a particular type of early tourist to Nantucket. He had taken a steamship ferry from New Bedford; voyaged with two business travelers—his father-in-law and a friend of his; mixed with the locals; seen the sights; and according to Beegel probably stayed in Ocean House, one of the first hotels in town. People travel the globe for a wide variety of reasons, but Melville ticked off three common ones: history, local culture, and natural beauty—all of which factored into Nantucket’s plan to develop the island into a destination. By the time the author visited, this process was already in motion, and all three of these elements continue to draw visitors that include tourists, long-term vacationers, second-home owning summer people, and the jet set. From the start of the tourist-and-summer industry, the transformational plan also drew workers, entrepreneurs, and permanent residents. In many respects, the details have changed over the years—and certainly the prices have risen—but many of the same attractions and challenges of the season remain. This summer season, beginning on May 26th and running through November 1st, the Nantucket Historical Association’s Whaling Museum is offering Summer on Nantucket: A History of the Island Resort, a featured exhibition showcasing more than 200 artifacts from their collection. The exhibit includes seven focus sections progressing from “Impressions of Summer” to “Must See, Must Do” to “Winter.”

Summer on Nantucket begins with a cornucopia of items, images, art and paintings that illustrate the “Impressions” that people have created of and taken from the island over the course of nearly 200 years of “summering.” This stage establishes the tone for the rest of exhibit, one that combines nostalgia with the celebration and exploration of place—kind of what the concept of summer is all about. Ashley Santos, director of marketing and communications at the NHA, says, “Hopefully some of the items will be really iconic for some people. We’ll have trade signs, island souvenirs, china, postcards, trinkets that symbolize Nantucket. There’s a silver spoon with an image of the old mill on it, beautiful paintings. Guests should be able to hearken back to bygone eras.”

A tour bus stopped at the Old Mill circa the 1950s.  Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association. 

Once visitors’ hearts have sunbathed a bit in the visual evocations of this unique destination’s summertime, the exhibit turns to its central thesis in a section called “The Resort Economy.” Chief Curator Michael R. Harrison explains, “The summer economy was a choice.” The decline of the island’s whaling industry hit about 30 years before the end of New Bedford’s, and Nantucket stood at an unfamiliar crossroads in the 1840s. Its population peaked early in the decade at 10,000 souls, making it a thriving metropolis for the area. But as the demand grew for whale products—primarily oil—so too did whaling ships increase in size. The shoals around Nantucket made it difficult-to-impossible for larger vessels to land, and New Bedford’s deep-water port became all the more attractive. The advent of the railroad compounded this, as it became far easier to ship products from the mainland than from a tiny island 30 miles from shore. Then tragedy struck in 1846 when the Great Fire reduced 300 buildings and homes—over ⅓ of the town—to ash. While the survivors rebuilt, some of them had understandably had enough and decided to leave. To this, Santos adds, “Then the Goldrush in California hit.” This siphoned off quite a few sailors and other island residents and workers who must have found the notion of scoring a fortune overnight more enticing than struggling aboard a whaling ship for a year or two or three at a time. According to the NHA, “No fewer than 14 vessels sailed from Nantucket to San Francisco [in 1848], loaded with passengers and crews eager to seek their fortunes. By January 1850, 650 Nantucketers—a quarter of the voting population—had headed west.” The island that people had called home for generations, and the very foundations upon which it had stood seemed  to be slipping away, like fine sand through spread  fingers. Santos says, “The remaining residents thought, now what?” 

Postcard of Sankaty Head Lighthouse, circa 1970s. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association. 

Town leaders and businesspeople had tried to diversify the economy of the island, but nothing had really taken root. Harrison says, “They experimented with different things such as developing a deep-sea fishing fleet and a straw hat factory, but then decided to market and develop the summer tourist industry.” Fortunately, the fall of whaling coincided with some cultural shifts in America in terms of leisure time. Resorts were beginning to enjoy success on the Cape and Vineyard, and rail travel meant that more people could more easily access the steamships to Nantucket. Soon, island entrepreneurs lobbied the New Haven Railroad, which owned the steamships, to run two boats daily from New Bedford in the summer. “These trips took four-and-a-half hours each way,” notes Harrison, “with a stop at Martha’s Vineyard. Today there are 26 sailings of freight, regular, and high-speed ferries every day in season.”

By the 1840s, the first two major hotels had begun serving guests. “The steamboat company bought the disused mansion of Jared Coffin downtown and converted it into Ocean House, also known as the Steamboat Hotel, right next to the docks,” says Harrison. “This was a multi-story brick townhouse onto which they built an addition, and it served both businessmen and tourists.” On the southeast corner of the island, the Siasconset Atlantic House became the first true beach resort. Guests in town generally would frequent Jetties Beach (although the jetties themselves wouldn’t be constructed until the 1890s), which was just a short walk from Ocean House or guest houses in town. “Sconset was a long horse-drawn carriage ride away,” says Harrison. This made the Atlantic House all the more remote, and until the railroad went in on island, guests here would enjoy isolated vacations apart from the bustle and conveniences of town. Many early tourists came to Nantucket to relax and to escape the foul air of mid-19th century industrialized cities. Culturally, especially amongst those in the upper class, the concept of enjoying the healthful benefits of nature had become trendy. Shooting clubs and hunting camps had been popping up all over the Northeast, and Nantucket locals where happy to provide hunting and fishing charters. Harrison says, “We have accounts as far back as 1810 of people fishing the freshwater ponds here for sport. And commercial fisherman started offering fishing party charters for bluefish, stripers, and swordfish.” The island also created a niche built around the local people. “One used to come and hope to meet characters,” says Harrison. “There were personalities such as Captain Baxter and Captain Folger who would give carriage tours and tell stories of the whaling days.” Baxter, in particular was fond of spinning yarns as he transported guests to ‘Sconset. He also became the first mailman, and long-term vacationers grew fond of his tooting horn, according to the NHA.  

Photo courtesy of The Nantucket Historical Association.

Nantucket’s reinvention of itself from whaling capital to summer playground took place over a span of decades. Harrison says, “It was fairly gradual, but it picked up after the Civil War when people began to have more leisure time.” The Whaling Museum’s exhibit displays a number of facets of this transformation while also examining some of the challenges that the summer economy has wrought. “The centerpiece of the show is a grouping of dressed mannequins representing different types of people from tourists to builders, caterers, ship captains, and entrepreneurs in outfits from our clothing and costume collections,” says Harrison. Thus, visitors can see what people looked like in various stages of the industry’s evolution. The “Must See, Must Do” section of the show focuses on entertainment but also upon beach culture, including bathing suits from the 1920s, a bicycle from the 1940s, and a circa 1970s surfboard. The final chapters shine light upon the people who have made tourism possible: the bartenders, builders, tradespeople, and domestic workers. This particular section is entitled, “It’s Not All Roses.” The final display is simply called “Winter,” and it offers insight into the island’s quieter hours of reflection, rejuvenation, and respite from the crowds. In a way, this “low season” of planning for the next summer is an annual re-creation of Nantucket’s resort history, a yearly reminder of the town’s commitment and decision to develop as a destination worthy of its original, Wampanoag meaning: “faraway land.” 

Chris White is a freelance writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.

Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.