Chilmark has its scenic moors, West Tisbury its tree-shaded Middle Road. Edgartown has Chappaquiddick’s North Neck, Tisbury has the headland at the West Chop light and Aquinnah has the Gay Head cliffs (even if rain and sea have washed away the colorful clay that gave them their name). What a pity it would have been if the most scenic natural attraction in Oak Bluffs had simply been allowed to crumble and wash away.
So it comes as welcome news that the rapidly disintegrating East Chop bluff in Oak Bluffs are eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency aid.
For travelers from the mainland coming into Oak Bluffs, those sandy cliffs that give the town its name are the first close glimpse they get of Martha’s Vineyard. For storm-tossed sailors, myself among them, they are always a welcome sight.
Sightseers on the Vineyard have long enjoyed seeing Cape Cod’s dancing lights at night from East Chop Drive, the gleaming moon paths below on Vineyard Sound, whose waters are studded with sailboats on summer afternoons.
Some of my earliest Island memories are of after-dinner strolls along the far more spacious bluffs of eight decades ago. There was room enough for a bench there then, not far from Arlington avenue where my French great-grandfather had built a summer house in the 1890s. In the way of Europeans, family members liked to go for walks. Almost nightly, my grandmother would take me for a constitutional down to the bluffs to watch the sun go down. And in daylight hours whenever a guest was leaving on the steamer, she and I would be there to wave goodbye with a white kerchief. On rare occasions we might also see a four or five-masted schooner carrying lumber from Maine sail by.
In later years, my brother John and I often sailed his catboat along the bluff into Oak Bluffs harbor. We would be weary after all-day sails to Tarpaulin Cove or fishing expeditions in the Middle Ground. But then there would be the bluffs welcoming us home.
As they have everywhere on the Island over the years, winds and rain and high seas have eaten away at the bluffs. As long ago as 1929, there were worries about them and a timber bulkhead was built to protect them. In 1940, they were reinforced with rip-rap, and again in the 1960s. In the 1990s, after the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Bob, FEMA funds helped to provide 4,000 tons of granite Ralph Parker barged to the Island from Tiverton, R.I. That was 20 times the weight of the Statue of Liberty that came to shore up the bluffs.
East Chop neighbors have tried to help out, too. The late Sterling Ivision, when he was East Chop Association president, made vigorous efforts to keep the sandy soil on the face of the bluffs in place by planting crown vetch there and urging other East Choppers to do so. But the ferocity of storms in recent decades has undermined the bluffs so severely that in 1970 both big buses and commercial traffic were banned from East Chop Drive. More recently all vehicle traffic has been limited to just the inside lane in winter in response to warnings from engineers that heavy traffic might cause the bluffs to collapse.
Until this year the bluffs were the property of the East Chop Association whose owners’ homes line their top. That ownership has posed problems to the town when it has tried to gain federal and state aid for bluff preservation. But now that problem seems to have been resolved. Last month, the town accepted the association’s offer of 4.4 acres on the waterside of East Chop Drive. There are conservation restrictions on it, but they do allow revetments to shore up the site. And since Oak Bluffs is now the owner of the bluffs, this should make FEMA aid more quickly forthcoming. Matching local funding would probably be required, but town officials believe much of that could also be provided by the state.
Thanks are in order to the town, the East Chop Association and, hopefully, the federal government for seeing that the town’s welcoming white sand bluffs and scenic East Chop Drive above them will be preserved.