From the July 16, 1943 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

“The Bethel” is what the village calls it, and the bethel it is, although something much more than that as well, for it is a mission, and an unofficial training school for the children of Vineyard Haven. Perched on the edge of the water so close that the spray breaking against the low retaining wall that secures its front lawn, will dash against its windows, the Seaman’s Bethel in Vineyard Haven is fittingly located indeed. With it’s red-painted sides, white trim, and many dormers, that cause it to remotely resemble the Dutch colonial style of architecture, it resembles the houses built by the government for lighthouse keepers on lonely rocks or promontories that overlook the sea.

Inside the Bethel, with its dark panelling, well worn furniture, racks and cases of books, and cabinets filled with relics and souvenirs, there is the appearance of the big cabin of a down-East coasting schooner, which again is appropriate enough, for the coasters were the men who caused this institution to come into being, and this summer marks the anniversary of its building, fifty years ago.

Times have changed greatly since those days, and none notice it as much as the pilots, fishermen and aging masters who frequent the waterfront and who relate their recollections of the vast fleets of sailing vessels that once filled Vineyard Haven harbor. With water traffic reduced today to the fishing fleet, an occasional tugboat and barge, the yachts and Coast Guard craft, it is difficult for a youthful person to imagine what the harbor was like in those brave old days.

But a certain amount of light on the subject comes from an authentic source, which is the record of the Boston Seaman’s Friend Society, which owns and maintains the Bethel. Seven years after its building, or in 1900, the record states that 50,000 seamen arrived and departed from Vineyard Haven harbor annually! Small wonder that this port was thought to be promising ground for a seaman’s bethel. And well has it deserved the name.

Madison R. Edwards, the first chaplain of the Vineyard Haven Bethel, had much to do with its establishment. A native of Woods Hole, Mr. Edwards was deeply interested in sailors and their welfare, and began his work among them at his own expense and with his own limited facilities. His home, his boat and such material as he could secure, were all placed at the disposal of coastal sailors, in whose behalf he travelled to Tarpaulin Cove, opened his home, and sailed over to the Vineyard, to hold religious meetings and maintain reading rooms, where men could relax, write letters and play games.

This work began several years before the Vineyard Haven Bethel was thought of, and when finally the Boston Seaman’s Friend Society took note of his solitary efforts, he was added staff, this in 1889. When it was finally decided that a bethel at Vineyard Haven was desirable, Mrs. Gardner Green Hammond, of Falmouth and Chilmark, volunteered to finance the building, and did so.

It was a historic spot. Once upon a time a blacksmith shop had stood there, maintained by smiths who forged anchors and spliced chain cables. Slightly “astern” of this shop, and where Water street skirts the Bethel property, stood a small store, carrying all manner of goods required by ships and sailormen.

Across the street was the spot where for generations the town pump had stood, and even in that day, when the pump had disappeared, salt codfish was processed and packed in the old copper shop that had survived from the whaling era.

The shore line was much nearer to the street than at present, and old inhabitants have said that where the Bethel now stands, there was once twelve feet of water, providing a safe and comfortable berth for the packet fleet that served the town before the steamboat line was established.

There is a mellowness and sense of age about this building today. Not so much atmosphere of many years as the characteristic of things that have seen much service. A smooth, worn sense, as of the handle of a favored implement or tool, which has been grasped ten thousand times by an energetic hand which loved to hold it. There is a homey feeling too, within these walls; a feeling which can develop only through prolonged and intimate human occupancy.

And here today we find Chaplain Tower, Austin to most people, still looking forward to further service among those who go down to the sea in ships and do business upon the great waters.

Perhaps the time may come when the Bethel will be discontinued, but the time is not yet. Soldiers, sailors, fishermen and others frequent the place, and a welcome, a hearty welcome is extended to all in traditional style. The town, too, undemonstrative for the most part, clings to this institution, which so greatly merits the classification sought by Abou Ben Adhem, for man and house radiate the principle which has ruled them through the years, love for their fellow men.

Compiled by Hilary Wall