A Travel History of Martha’s Vineyard: From Canoes and Horses to Steamships and Trolleys by Thomas Dresser, The History Press, $21.99, 158 pgs.

Ever since the “father of history” Herodotus invented armchair travel two thousand years ago, writers comfortably ensconced in their favorite easy chairs have been droning on about how “the glory of travel is the journey, not the destination,” or “getting there is the point of going,” or similar lines of hooey. Hardly any of these writers have ever bothered to verify this nonsense. The archives of the Vineyard Gazette contain, for instance, not one single photo of Herodotus standing on a street in Edgartown in board shorts and a tacky T-shirt. It’s entirely possible he never visited the Vineyard at all.

The hundred thousand tourists who’ll be making their way to the Vineyard this summer might sing a different tune from that old “getting there is the point of going” standard. An overwhelming majority of those tourists will share with thousands of returning Vineyarders one iconic experience: the quick trip on one of the hulking vessels of the Steamship Authority. They park their cars in the bowels of the vessel, make their way to a deck crowded with playing children and ogling first-timers, and barely have time to settle in at a booth before the ferry is docking at Oak Bluffs and it’s time to begin the grand scramble to get where they’re going.

A peaceful garden on an Edgartown side-street, a little beach house at Katama smelling of salt air and summer flowers, a screened-in porch in Lower Makonikey where curious raccoons visit on July nights, these things are the point of going. Getting there is usually a tedious annoyance even under the best of circumstances.

One of the many pleasures of Thomas Dresser’s new book from the History Press, A Travel History of Martha’s Vineyard, is the way it persistently and unobtrusively reminds its readers that they are currently experiencing the best of circumstances. This slim, wonderfully illustrated look at all the ways people have reached the Vineyard and traveled around once they got here is a veritable keepsake album of appalling trips.

The Island’s native Wampanoag used dugout canoes to travel from the Island to mainland and back, but they had no horses until European settlers arrived in the 1600s, so their on-Island travel routes consisted of following game trails to traverse the Vineyard’s roughly 100 square miles of ground. Many of the initial roadways laid down by Thomas Gosnold’s Great Harbour settlers after 1642 followed those earlier Wampanoag trails, and passage to and from the Island was undertaken in rickety sailing packets that were entirely at the mercy of rapacious captains, careless crew and capricious winds.

Sailing packets held sway for nearly two centuries, but when the steam engine made wide-scale appearance in the early decades of the 19th century, it took over the routes of the sailing packets, and traffic to and from the Vineyard began to boom. In July of 1830, the steamship Marco Bozzaris brought 200 passengers to Edgartown. Mr. Dresser notes that the vessel had inaugurated a run to Nantucket two years prior that hadn’t gone so well: “On its initial run, Captain Edward Barker, nephew of the owner, ran the ship aground on rocks in New Bedford harbor. He was so embarrassed that he swore his crew and sole passenger to secrecy (a pact that apparently didn’t stick).”

After the Marco Bozzaris came countless other steamships of all shapes and varieties, and on-Island travel proliferated accordingly, with people going the 10 miles north-to-south and the 20 miles east-to-west along North Road, Edgartown-West Tisbury Road, Moshup Trail and many other main routes in all many of conveyances, from horse-drawn trolleys to electric trolley cars to, for a brief while, the Martha’s Vineyard Railroad, which was “born of jealousy, fueled by fear and developed through desperation.”

The very idea of a Vineyard railroad seems like counterintuitive lunacy in 2019, but in the early 1870s it was the fad of the day. “We want a railroad and we are going to have it,” thundered Vineyard Gazette founding editor Edgar Marchant, warning in Biblical terms that without such a modern luxury, Edgartown would face devastating decline: “The town will become a waste, a howling wilderness; rats and mud turtles will crawl over our streets, and owls and bats sit in our high places.”

The railroad is long gone (the owls and mud turtles, thankfully, remain) but in these pages Thomas Dresser gives it as fine a thumbnail history as it’s ever had. Some of the book’s most delightful pages involve the author finding as many sometimes elusive traces of the rails in present-day Vineyard towns and fields (and cemeteries) as can still be seen.

A Travel History of Martha’s Vineyard takes on-Island travel through a breviary of picturesque old automobiles and brings things right up to the present day, when the ferries run with a reliability previous centuries would have envied, and when people move around the Island by car, bicycle, horseback and on foot. Mopeds made an attempt at gaining a foothold, proved menacing and noisy, and are now scorned, but who knows what future innovations may succeed? As Mr. Dresser reminds his readers, change is the only constant. 

And in the meantime, let’s all remember to savor the destination, not the journey. And to refrain from strangling our travel companions before we get there.