RAILS ACROSS MARTHA’S VINEYARD: Steam Narrow Gauge and Trolley Lines, by Herman Page. South Platte Press/Brueggenjohann/Reese, Inc. 72 pages. $19.95. Soft cover.
Yes, it’s true.
For 21 years — from the late summers of 1874 through 1895 — a passenger train chuffed along a route that looks inconceivably imposing to us today: from what’s now the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority wharf, over the very sands of State Beach, through the fairways and greens of the Edgartown Golf Club, perpendicularly across Upper Main street, along the border of not one but two cemeteries and into what are now the subdivisions and farmlands of Katama before terminating at two dead ends: the dunes of South Beach and a hotel at Mattakessett whose ugliness was rivaled only by its windswept isolation and self-evident vulnerability to fire.
The Martha’s Vineyard Railroad was born of desperation: Edgartown, whose whaling industry had withered away by the early 1870s, coveted the vacationers who were crowding festive Oak Bluffs, in those days a satellite village of the town. A financial panic in 1873 convinced old-town businessmen — and especially the crusading editor of this newspaper — that a railroad was the only way to get the sporting types of Oak Bluffs to visit the decaying waterfront and somnambulant streets of Edgartown, and if that didn’t make them regret the trip enough, perhaps to venture out to the prairie of Katama to have a clambake in their bowlers and neckties and see a hotel, the Mattakessett Lodge, that looked haunted even at noontime on a sunny summer’s day.
Unhindered by notions of environmental review and heedless of the objections of Oak Bluffs residents who would soon secede from Edgartown precisely because of this sort of economic and political bullying, the new railway was voted on, capitalized, built and commissioned between the end of April and the end of August 1874. But recklessness is the handmaiden of speed, and the building of the Martha’s Vineyard Railroad featured misaligned bridges; a first locomotive that wasn’t strong enough to pull coaches or nimble enough to take curves; and a second locomotive that fell over the edge of the steamboat wharf into Woods Hole harbor and had to be hauled out and reconditioned in Boston before its trip by steamer over to the Vineyard.
But the real trouble was the route itself. For the sake of expediency, half the line was laid on a beach that caught the worst of every northeaster that howled, and these storms buried, bent and washed away the track as if that were the weather’s special project. Eventually the railroad earned a reputation as a merry and even useful thing to ride on. But it never broke even. The seasons were too short, the costs of running a train over sand from the Cottage City of America to the Nowhere of the Vineyard just too high.
You won’t get much of this epic woolly-headedness in Rails Across Martha’s Vineyard, a handsome 72-page primer on the subject by the Rev. Herman Page of Tashmoo, which is mildly disappointing. But, boy, do you get everything else, including the fact that there was a reason for Islanders to think that a steam train was not just a novel idea and probably a ridiculous gamble, but actually a step up from something they already knew.
The year before — in 1873 and after a fair amount of planning and thoughtful construction — Oak Bluffs had inaugurated its own horse-drawn trolley line, which ran from a steamship wharf near today’s East Chop Beach Club, over the bridge dividing what’s now Oak Bluffs harbor from Sunset Lake and then into the Camp Ground, where it circled Trinity Park and doubled back to the wharf. Indeed, trolley lines, both horse-drawn and electrified, would become to old-time down-Islanders pretty much what the shuttle buses of the Vineyard Transit Authority are to us today. In Oak Bluffs they ran inland from the two main steamship wharves to the eastern side of the Lagoon, across the town to a wharf at the Eastville shore of Vineyard Haven harbor and over Lagoon Bridge, up Beach Road and into the very heart of Vineyard Haven itself. There were even semi-plausible ambitions to lay a street railway clear up to Gay Head (now Aquinnah) and down to Edgartown after the railroad quit. The last of these trolleys clattered over the tracks as recently as 1918, failing only under pressure from jitneys, the automobile and a wartime need for the iron in the rails.
There’s no question that rail buffs will snap up Mr. Page’s booklet; he offers — just for instance — marvelous detail in words and images about how the coaches of the railroad were designed, built and operated, where the rails ran and where, surprisingly, traces of the each system may yet be found. But should others take it home? Well, if you care about Island history and if you just can’t believe that railroads laced themselves over roads we drive today and want to learn how it all worked, the answer is emphatically yes.
Mr. Page gives us a lively description of what it must have been like to ride the Martha’s Vineyard Railroad in its heyday. He also presents us with the diary of a college student who served as a fare collector on one of the electrified streetcars 115 years ago. He shows us where remnants of the rails may still be found in the macadam around the Tabernacle and ghostly traces of the streetcar tracks in the hard earth of Waban Park, and how part of the fanciest passenger car of the railroad — it was called the Oak Bluffs — was recently discovered and preserved within a house in that very town.
This slender book is the first volume on the subject since Walter Blackwell of Edgartown published his own important (and much more rudimentary) booklet, Tracing the Route of the Martha’s Vineyard Railroad, in 1973. I should add here that Mr. Page cites a story I wrote long ago about the railroad for Martha’s Vineyard Magazine in his bibliography. But I can add independently that it’s difficult to imagine a more comprehensive account of the railroad that once ran so boldly but hopelessly over the State Beach sands, or of the busy street railway system that inspired and outlasted it.