Take a Ride Back in Time Through Downtown Edgartown

Take a trip back in time with a one-of-a-kind artifact courtesy of the Vineyard Gazette’s TimeMachine. This 1925 home movie of a ride through downtown Edgartown is the earliest known motion picture footage of the town. It’s filled with plenty of sights you’d recognize today. From the Old Whaling Church to the former Kelly House, the Old Brick Bank, and the captains homes along North Water Street, the stately grace of downtown Edgartown is as evident then as it is today.

Narration by lifelong Edgartown resident S. Norton Bailey brings the sights to life with his childhood memories of downtown including the annual paving of Water Street with oyster shells and coal delivery by ships from the mainland.

Edgartown was settled by a group of families under the leadership of Reverend Thomas Mayhew in 1642. Originally called Great Harbor, the town was incorporated in 1671 with the name Edgartown, in honor of the short-lived heir to the English throne, Edgar Stuart of Cambridge. Edgartown found commercial success in the early 19th century as it developed into one of the premier whaling ports in the world alongside other Massachusetts whaling capitols like Nantucket and New Bedford.

Whale oil was an essential commodity throughout the first half of the 19th century. Its practical applications were most common in the commercial production of soap and as the safer, efficient, and (slightly) cleaner alternative to candles. Cities and towns alike across the country relied on whale oil to light the lamps in their homes, offices, and streets. The demand for whale oil made Edgartown residents rich.

It’s in this period that the town as we see it today (and as it looked back in 1925) developed. The tremendous wealth that whaling voyages brought back home to Martha’s Vineyard is visible in the homes that face the harbor. These handsome Greek Revival and Federal style homes (along with many other notable commercial and civic buildings around town) were constructed with captain’s profits from the harrowing and lengthy voyages around the world in search of the precious oil made from the blubber of the whale.

By the middle of the 19th century, the profits in whaling weren’t as rich as they once were. Whales became scarcer, (which meant longer and costly voyages), the devastation of the Civil War left the commercial fleets in tatters, and the development of kerosene killed the consumer demand for whale oil.

After a period of decline, Edgartown found new life at the end of the 19th century when the advent of the passenger steamship and railroad created a new demand for seasonal resorts in the American north east. Seeking sea breeze and respite from the city, families of distinction from Boston (and increasingly further afield) began snatching up the town’s venerable old mansions for use as fashionable summer homes.

This tradition of summer tourism continued through the 20th century and contributed to the renaissance of the island’s image in the popular imagination. Each summer denizens of well to do mainlanders flocked to the shores of Martha’s Vineyard to spend the season under the sun. Notable residents from the first half of the 20th century included stage actress Catherine Cornell, movie star James Cagney, and society matron Emily Post.

Today, Edgartown maintains the historic charm of its whaling roots and the fashionable poise of summertime leisure. Though the streets are no longer paved with oyster shells and the traffic on Main Street only travels one-way, many of the sights described by S. Norton Bailey in this Vineyard Gazette TimeMachine video are as familiar today as they were a hundred years ago.

Video courtesy of the Vineyard Gazette, image credits to Historic New England’s collections. 


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