Skip to content

Subscribe  |  Login  |  Account

The Foundation of Three Centuries

To experience the 300 years that transformed Chatham from farming village to vacation destination, just explore its historic buildings.

The town of Chatham has seen many transitions over the last three centuries. What was once a farming community on the elbow of Cape Cod has become one of the most sought-after tourist destinations on the East Coast where visitors can still walk into buildings throughout town and be transported back in time. “There’s a real preservation-minded community here,” says Mary Ann Gray, archivist at the Chatham Historical Society. In honor of the 300th anniversary of Chatham, which takes place throughout the year. Cape Cod Life combed through documents from the Chatham Historical Society for a deeper look at four buildings that recall the town’s earliest days—and make for a great day of sightseeing in 2012 and beyond.

To experience the 300 years that transformed Chatham from farming village to vacation destination, just explore its historic buildings

Photo Courtesy of the Chatham Historical Society

Godfrey Windmill
Standing 30 feet tall, the Godfrey Windmill was originally built in 1797 by Colonel Benjamin Godfrey on a hill above Mill Pond, commanding a panoramic view of Chatham village, the Atlantic Ocean, and Nantucket Sound. Today, looking just as it did over 200 years ago, the windmill is a proud testament to Chatham’s dedication to preservation.

Godfrey was a prominent figure in Chatham during the Revolutionary War. In 1782, a British privateer entered Stage Harbor with the intent of making off with a brigantine and several smaller vessels. Under the leadership of Colonel Godfrey, the local inhabitants drove the British away using cannon fire. Godfrey also held offices in town and church organizations.

Upon his death in 1818, Godfrey left the mill and his property to his great-nephew Christopher Taylor, who followed in his great-uncle’s footsteps and became a prominent figure in the area. The mill operated continuously for more than 100 years until a gale demolished the end of its shaft and arms in 1907. These pieces have since been replaced with new ones made of white pine, but the interior of the windmill is almost entirely intact and features the original wooden steps and millstone used to grind crops.

In 1956, then-owner Stuart Crocker approached the Chatham Historical Society with his desire to make the mill a historical landmark. He donated the structure to the town under the condition that it be moved from its original location. Today, the Godfrey Mill is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

To experience the 300 years that transformed Chatham from farming village to vacation destination, just explore its historic buildings

Photo Courtesy of the Chatham Historical Society

Chatham Railway Museum

After more than 20 years of town meetings, committee findings, and citizen support, the first passenger train pulled into Chatham in November of 1887. Only 50 years later, the last train left the station on July 5, 1937. The rails were lifted within a year and the station fell into disrepair. Just as Chatham was becoming an attractive destination, the railway became an unnecessary commodity.

With the arrival of the rails, early tourists made their way into the town. During its peak year in 1891, the rail carried over 22,000 passengers and many tons of freight and mail. But with the introduction and abundance of automobiles by the 1920s, the popularity of the railway began to decline.

Amidst the downturn, tragedy struck the railway and community in 1921. Robert Hardy, whose father Josiah was the stationmaster at the time, recalls the incident. According to the March 29, 1987, edition of the Cape Cod Times, “I was a real tot when they had an accident between the station and White Pond. The engine went off the tracks and my father went down there. He told me the engineer was pinned in the wreckage. When they pried it apart, he just died right then and there.”

The only reminder of 50 years of railway traffic in Chatham is the station, standing in its original location on Depot Road. After years of neglect, the station’s owners, Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Cox of Cleveland, Ohio, donated the station and the accompanying land to the town in 1959. One year later, the Chatham Railroad Museum was open to the public. Featuring artifacts like the original groundbreaking shovel, original Chatham/Harwich schedules, an antique ticket machines, models, and a caboose once used by the New York Central System, the building is Chatham’s last tie to the golden age of the railroad.

To experience the 300 years that transformed Chatham from farming village to vacation destination, just explore its historic buildings

Photo Courtesy of the Chatham Historical Society

Chatham Bars Inn

The history of Chatham Bars Inn is as old as Chatham The history of the Chatham Bars Inn is as old as Chatham itself. After buying the land that had once been the Squire Sears Farm, Charles Hardy, a wealthy stockbroker from Boston, intended to turn his purchase into a hunting lodge. He contracted Boston architect Harvey Bailey Alden to build a three-story structure on 70 acres overlooking Chatham Harbor. His dream was realized in June of 1914, when the Chatham Bars Inn opened its doors as an elegant, self-sustaining resort, complete with its own farm and water towers.

Early advertisements for the resort boasted of private bathrooms and a nine-hole golf course, drawing famous guests including Henry Ford, Henry Morgenthau, William Rockefeller, and the royal family of Holland, who stayed during part of their World War II exile in 1944. Along with the tourists came early summer hotels like The Chatham House, The Mattaquason Hotel, and Hawthorne Inn. Today’s sole survivor is the Chatham Bars Inn, which has become a highly regarded year-round resort.
In recent years, cbi (as it is called by those in the know) has acquired numerous distinctions as one of the world’s premier hotels. The inn is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, earned the AAA Four-Diamond Award, and in 2010 was voted by readers to the Condé Nest Readers Choice Top 100 Awards.

To experience the 300 years that transformed Chatham from farming village to vacation destination, just explore its historic buildings

Photo Courtesy of the Chatham Historical Society

Atwood House

Simply stepping into the Atwood House transports visitors back 250 years. The gambrel-roof dwelling is a prime example of early Cape Cod architecture. The low, gray-shingled home and its small, quaint rooms look exactly as they would have when occupied. Electricity is the only modern amenity that has been installed since the home first became a museum in 1926.

Originally from Brewster, Joseph Atwood purchased 70 acres of land in Chatham stretching from Mill Pond to Cedar Swamp. After retiring from a life at sea he and his wife, Deborah, raised eight children in the home, which was originally constructed in 1752 on what is now Stage Harbor Road.

The patriarch was a prominent citizen and a shipmaster in foreign commerce. Atwood is known to have sailed as far away as Messina, Italy, where he traded lumber in exchange for oranges and other Mediterranean commodities.

The Atwood House remained with the family for another four generations. Upon Joseph’s death in 1794, the home passed from his son Sears, who raised seven children there. Many of Sears’ offspring remained in Chatham and set up homes of their own on Stage Harbor Road. Sears, a sea captain himself, would boast that he could stand in his door and have all his children hear his voice in their own homes. John, his son, would be the last year-round resident of the Atwood House.

Over the years, museum galleries have been added to the original structure. As a result of a major expansion and renovation in 2005, there are now eight galleries with permanent exhibits, plus a large special exhibit gallery that doubles as a meeting room.

As Chatham continues to change, its historical structures stand as homage to the town’s past identities. Long after this year’s tercentennial celebrations have past, the pride the community takes in its history will be on display for all to see.

Matt Nilsson is a freelance writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.



You might also like: