A remarkable picture of Beach Road (circa 1900) placed on Facebook by Martha’s Vineyard Antique Photos sparked a discussion among Shelley Christiansen, Tom Dunlop, Sam Low and others about erosion at End of the Wall beach in Oak Bluffs. The loss is even more deceptive given the absence of surf on Nantucket Sound and startling because even average northeasters close the road at the culvert we used to call first bridge, once a crabbing spot.
From 1874 to 1895 the Martha’s Vineyard Railroad tracks ran from the Steamship Authority dock along the bluff and on the sand at Town Beach, the Inkwell, Harthaven and State beach, all the way to Katama. Not only hindsight but a substantial amount of foresight predicted the obsolescence of the venture that managed to last 21 years. Edgar Marchant, founder of the Vineyard Gazette wrote: “In the history of railroad building in the New England states, nothing has ever equaled the building of the Martha’s Vineyard Railroad. Sixty-six days ago the trees from which the ties were made were growing in Maine, and the iron for the rails was in the mines in Pennsylvania.”
The first engine tried was a bad fit for the narrow gauge railroad as it was too long for any but the slightest of curves. The second, the Active was brought to Woods Hole and barged to the Island where in an omen to the hubris of the undertaking, on August 17, 1874, it fell into the harbor. Fished out to be cleaned, it was returned to the dock at Katama on the steamer Island Home, and ran its maiden voyage on August 22 to fireworks and brass bands at both ends of the line.
Travel along the dirt road from Oak Bluffs to Edgartown was slow and inconvenient but the impetus for the railroad was purely economic with the dubious goals of boosting the new development of the Mattakeeset Lodge at Katama and sharing Oak Bluffs visitors with the town of Edgartown, itself one of the investors in the railroad. Ignoring the vulnerability of wind and tide in its construction, the train departed from Oak Bluffs seven times daily from 6:50 a.m. to 8:50 p.m. with round trips lasting about two hours. The stretch from Oak Bluffs to Edgartown was a scant 20 minutes, far faster than the quickest horse and carriage ride. For much of its existence the train pulled four cars: the open air Katama with subway car-type seats along the windows and pairs down the center; the elegant enclosed Oak Bluffs, a coach with plush seating four across; a short baggage car Number 5 that could hold 22 passengers: and a second enclosed coach that was added in 1876. The steam-driven locomotive Active was apparently renamed Edgartown and was an 0-6-0, meaning it had three main wheels on each side and none at the front or back. If you can imagine it, the locomotive burned about 1,500 pounds of coal daily and could achieve speeds of 30 miles per hour. A coal-burning, steam-driven locomotive traveling from Oak Bluffs to Katama along Beach Road where our beaches are, seven times a day, every day. Imagine!
In 1895 generating a little less than half the income of 1890, that September the train tracks separated a mile and a half from Cottage City, derailing it for what became the last trip. The company was sold at public auction on Halloween. It’s not clear what happened to the four cars — one rumor had it that the Katama was used in connection with a photography business in Oak Bluffs and that another had become a tool shed on a farm. Serendipitously enough there happens to be a home on south Katama avenue where, at the top of a wall on its porch you can see the letters “Vineyard Railroad.”The locomotive was sold to a construction company in Boston and the rails salvaged, some used no doubt on local marine railways.
Please attend the fun fundraiser at the Portuguese American Club tomorrow at 5 p.m. for Karen Berube — a lasagna dinner with salad and dessert is included with a $20 donation along with a silent and a live auction with Trip Barnes. Tristan Israel, Paul Thurlow, Nancy Jephcote and Joanne Cassidy are providing music. If you can’t make it, mail donations to PO Box 1317, West Tisbury and please write Karen Berube in the memo.
Back Door Donuts, tonight at 7:30 p.m.!
Keep your foot on a rock.