From a 1952 Gazette edition:
Since Thursday, when the Coast Guard building, three stories high, came towing into Menemsha Creek on a scow after crosssing Vineyard Sound from Cuttyhunk, people have exclaimed: “How unusual!”
But here on the Vineyard the moving of buildings by water is an old story. Not too many men are now living who have engaged in such undertakings, but there are many familiar with the history of similar movings who can point out houses and other structures that floated alongshore to their present destinations.
It would seem as if no place of similar area and population ever moved houses as frequently or as far as on the Vineyard. One reason was that, at least from the beginning of the settlement by whites, the Vineyard possessed no soft-wood lumber. Examination of the oldest houses will show the great majority were timbered with oak and a very few with hard pine, all of which were native growth. But the boarding, of white pine, and the paneling of cedar were shipped from the nearby mainland and were expensive. Not only because they had to be freighted, but because in that early day such boarding was laboriously sawed by hand at a saw-pit with much time required. The extremely wide boards found in the older houses are there not because larger trees were available in those days but because the sawyers saved one or more cuts by leaving them wide.
As for the reason why houses were moved by water, it was because roads were few and they were narrow, rocky, deep-rutted and crooked. They climbed hills, crossed swamps and brooks, and altogether were not at all adapted to the moving of heavy loads on wheels or rollers. Contractors and builders of two to three generations ago rafted lumber through Vineyard Sound to the nearest point to building sites in the up-Island towns which were far removed from harbors. And they boated it ashore from anchored vessels which stood in under the land at convenient points.
Housemovers had available for their use heavy timbers and from early days had casks and hogsheads, all of which could be employed in floating a house and keeping it upright. Once launched, they worked the tides, allowing the floating mass to drift, guiding it inshore or off by means of rowboats to avoid deep water on one hand or rocks and shoals on the other. But the actual landing was simple: the method of “spotting” a floating mass of whatever weight imaginable, has been practiced through the centuries by Vinyarders. It required plenty of line and an anchor or two, plus some judgment that was almost instinct.
Such movings, where houses were concerned, were neighborhood affairs. Whether or not wages were paid the numerous workmen no one actually knows, but it is doubtful. No one could foresee when he might be obliged to call upon his neighbors for some equally demanding service. When the town of Gay Head literally picked up its entire village and moved it more than a mile to the new government-constructed highway, the people probably helped each other with their own efforts and their ox-teams, and having completed the job of moving their own and their neighbors’ dwellings, called it square.
The builders who rafted, operated differently with a smaller crew. There is no tradition of serious trouble occurring when a neighborhood moving took place. The worst incident known refers to a house, still occupied, which slipped on the rollers as it neared its destination. Rather than straighten the mass, the director of the job decided to remove the house from the timbers and rollers as it stood and to locate it right there. This he did, and it may be seen today that the house stands “catty-cornered” to the street, which was a cartpath when the house arrived.
But accident, and on at least one occasion, tragedy, attended rafting, when the sea broke up the raft. The possibility of the sea rising made the older Island inhabitants look soberly on the recent rafting job and they looked even more soberly when they saw the height and beam of the building and the scow which carried it. There was little difference, and instinctively some of them opined that “a beam-sea would have listed her badly, or worse.” And thus it may be seen that there is considerable Vineyard tradition as well as a smattering of history, regarding the moving of buildings by water.
Compiled by Cynthia Meisner