If you read enough old copies of the Vineyard Gazette, you’ll notice a recurring theme in the obituaries going back 100 years, especially those on the front page. The idea has been that with the death of a given whaling master, physician or farmer, the Island loses a part of its character that it can never recover.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether we would ever see the obit announcing that the death of a particular Islander means that the very last tie to the old ways of Martha’s Vineyard is irretrievably broken. That no one now remains to tell us in personal detail of how things were before they became the way they are today. That the last old-timer, the last Island character, the last true Vineyarder is gone, and with him or her the last connection to a Vineyard of legend and maybe even myth.

With the death of S. Bailey Norton Jr. on Sept. 8, I fear we have come perilously close to that moment, at least in Edgartown. Bailey was born in Edgartown on Nov. 5, 1920. A student of the Island’s past need only look at the timeline on the Gazette’s new online history page, Time Machine, to grasp the significance of that period.

It was 95 years ago, more than a generation closer to the end of the whaling era than to our own time. It was three years before the launch of the first true car-and-passenger-carrying Island steamer. And it was about the same time that the first visitors began renting homes for the summer rather than staying in hotels or boarding houses. Bailey’s memories went back to the time when the Chappy ferry was still a rowboat, when North Water street was paved in scallop shells and when Louie Nunes, living on the upper floor of a storage building on Edgartown harbor, used to lower his toddler son by a rope into the water to cool the boy off.

For the Island books I’ve written and for the Historic Movies of Martha’s Vineyard project — which I oversee with Bailey’s stepson John Wilson — I have at least 20 hours of his recollections on tape and on paper. As I listened to him during those interviews, old Main street wavered before my eyes, the wharves clattered again with the sound of coal rolling down a chute and the shoreline smelled once more of marsh and creosote, gasoline and steam engines and the open holds of a half-dozen seagoing fishing vessels, some still carrying sail.

I also have a collection of perhaps 100 books on Vineyard subjects. Among those I value most is Bailey’s memoir, My Long Journey Home — A Life Worth Living. It’s the best autobiography of an Islander that I know of, and I refer to my own 2006 Gazette review by saying that his four-page record of the old nicknames in town is, by itself, worth the cover price. (“Santa Claus: A local fisherman who in the midst of the Great Depression decided he could not afford Christmas one year. So, he went outside of his house, fired his shotgun and told his family he’d shot Santa Claus.”)

In my pursuit of Island stories in just the last few years, I have interviewed a Vineyarder whose living grandfather knew his great-grandfather, who in turn knew his own great-grandfather, a man who fought in the Revolutionary War. I have looked into the eyes of another man who in boyhood knew an old Island veteran who had served as a drummer boy in the 40th Massachusetts regiment and who, at Minor’s Hill, Va., spoke with President Lincoln in 1862.

As heart-stopping as these moments remain for me, the greatest of them must be the summer afternoon I sailed down Vineyard Sound in 2014, a reporter aboard the Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaling ship on earth, as she made a ceremonial 38th voyage around coastal New England. From the main deck I looked down onto the sleek corvette shape of the steam yacht Cangarda, accompanying the Morgan on what would be her first visit ever to the Vineyard.

Just forward of the wheelhouse sat Bailey, his cane between his knees. His wife Joan was standing next to him. I felt dizzy for a moment and held the wooden cap of the railing tightly. From the last working steam yacht in all the world, S. Bailey Norton Jr. was looking up at the ship that his great-great-uncle, Thomas A. Norton of Edgartown, had commanded on her maiden voyage in 1841. I shouted through the wind and waved to him. Joan noticed me and leaned down to her husband. He looked a little left and right, saw me up on deck and waved back.

We may say for sure that no one like him will come this way again. But for Edgartown and the Island, thank the lord we were here when he did.