Martha’s Archipelago

The Vineyard, it turns out, is more than one or two islands.

The year is roughly 4000 BC, and civilization is hopping. Both wine and cheese have been invented, as have combs and mirrors, knitting and spinning, brick buildings, religion, and perhaps writing. Agriculture has appeared around the world, and most of the livestock and pets we know today have been domesticated. Mesopotamian urbanites are drinking beer on sailing ships in the Persian Gulf. And here on Martha’s Vineyard, a Wampanoag fisherman wakes up to discover that the last barrier beach connecting his homeland with the mainland has finally been washed out in a storm. The Island is born.

When the first Vineyarders arrived, Martha’s Vineyard was a hilltop, not an island. The continental glaciers that had once stretched as far south as the ridges of West Tisbury and Chilmark were in retreat, and the oceans were refilling with their meltwater. The first Islanders, ancestors of today’s Wampanoags, didn’t use a boat; they walked here. The land bridge connecting Nantucket was cut around the same time, making that “other island” the Vineyard’s fraternal twin.

The birth of the twins roughly coincided with the drowning of a nearby island – Georges Island, which had been cut off from the mainland roughly 5,500 years before. Georges Island was once larger than the state of Massachusetts and, according to the American Museum of Natural History, was “home to many large prehistoric mammals, including walruses, mastodons, and giant sloths, traces of which are sometimes found in fishing nets.” Perhaps humans too. “Looking at paleogeography I am sure people were [there],” says Canadian paleogeographer John Shaw, though he cautions that he has not seen evidence of a human population there.

The fragile coastline near Pocha Pond on Chappaquiddick.
Neal Rantoul

Today the area is known as Georges Bank, the prolific fishing ground roughly sixty miles east of Cape Cod. The shallowest portions of the bank are only a few feet deep, and as recently as the nineteenth century, says Shaw, “the water level was so low due to a spring tide and a negative storm surge that the crew of a U.S. vessel landed on the emerged bank and played a game of baseball.”

In addition to the big developments – the creation of the Vineyard and Nantucket as islands and the sinking of Georges Island – there were countless other islands and features that appeared and disappeared over the millennia. But reconstructing ancient coastlines before the arrival of mapmakers is a complicated science. As Walter Barnhardt, marine geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Woods Hole, points out, “Sea level rise is not simply a result of ‘filling the bathtub’ with more water. There are other important factors in play, such as vertical land movements, erosion, and deposition of sediment, etc.”

In other words, nature is a sloppy bulldozer: sand shifts, erosion destroys, land rises, and barrier beaches form and break and reform.

Things become only slightly easier once European explorers begin visiting the area and describing or attempting to map what they saw. Deeds from the seventeenth century describe Chappaquiddick as two islands. The landmass we sometimes refer to as Great Neck and Little Neck, on the northern tip of Chappaquiddick where the lighthouse stands, was once a separate isle known as Natick Island. (If it has the same Massachusetts etymology as the town of Natick, it would translate to “a place of observation or lookout.”) The channel separating the two islands was closed in a major storm about 1725.

A detail of Southack’s Map of the Coast of New England, 1731, showing Georges Bank along with anomalous islands near Martha’s Vineyard.

Natick wasn’t, or isn’t, the only island to come and go off of Chappaquiddick. Skiff’s Island is a shapeshifting wisp a mile or two off Wasque that has been the grave of many ships wrecked upon its shores, such as the brig Golden Lead in 1870, the barkentine Hattie G. Dixon in 1906, the schooner Mertie B. Crowley in 1910, the five-masted schooner Marcus L. Urann in 1913, the racing yacht Caribbee in 1963, the seventy-one-foot fishing boat Midnight Rider in 2006, and a fishing yacht competing in the 2010 Monster Shark Tournament. Four soldiers from Camp Edwards died there in 1943 when their cabin cruiser capsized on a shoal in heavy seas during a night landing operation for the Army’s Engineer Amphibian Command.

Skiff’s is deadly because it comes and goes unpredictably. Twice a day, powerful currents course through Muskeget Channel, a mile or so off Wasque. During ebb tide, the massive flow carries sediment south through the broad gap between Chappaquiddick and Muskeget Island. “It shoots straight out like a firehose,” explains Dr. Peter Traykovski of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), noting that the intense flow can’t turn the corner around Chappaquiddick on its outward journey. But with the return tide some of the sediment recirculates gently back, tracing a shape reminiscent of a traffic cloverleaf, depositing sand in the shoals. When waves of migrating sediment stack up, it can lead to the formation of islands like Skiff’s.

In 1886 surveyor Henry Whiting reported the island to be 1,200 feet long and 290 feet wide, containing about four and a half acres, and covered with “beach weeds and grasses.” The following year a story circulated that a group of capitalists had drawn up plans for a large summer hotel upon the isle, which at that time was covered with shrubs. But when they arrived to mark out the site, it had completely vanished. It disappeared again in 1908, and from 1954 until 1973, and has formed and sunk at least three times since then.

For years, tongue-in-cheek Vineyard Gazette writer Joseph Chase Allen datelined his columns on Skiff’s Island, regularly implying that he was sitting in his cozy office there, answering his mail. But the Island’s real inhabitants were hundreds of gray seals. In 1940 the Gazette reported that State Representative Joseph A. Sylvia and pilot Phil Desmarias landed an airplane on the island in February of that year to investigate the seal population, but were chased back into their plane by the annoyed beasts. Some sources say there were trees on it during the mid-1940s, and beach plums were suspected to be growing there in 1978. As of this writing, Skiff’s Island is non-extant. But be sure to check back tomorrow.

Sand on the move at the opening of Tisbury Great Pond.
Neal Rantoul

In 1983, while Skiff’s was nowhere to be seen, a new island formed a mile to the south. Some called it Skiff’s, but others baptized it Porky’s Island, after Everett “Porky” Francis of Edgartown, longtime owner of Captain Porky’s Bait & Tackle Shop. A third island formed in 2008 and was named Charlie’s Island after Edgartown harbormaster Charlie Blair. Similar islands have come and gone near Skiff’s over the years, including Whale’s Back, Gilligan’s Island, and most notably, Hauser Island. In 1983 retired Coast Guard oceanographer Albert Hauser and his team landed three helicopters on his 500-yard-long namesake and planted the state flag there in order to extend the Commonwealth’s three-mile limit, closing the gap and legally wresting control of all the water between the Vineyard and Nantucket from the federal government.

Of course, Chappaquiddick itself is an island, except when it is not. “A five minutes’ sail from Edgartown brings one to the Island of Chappaquiddick,” the New York Herald said in 1889. The paper described the island as “rather barren, save for a few small clumps of rather sad looking trees of stunted growth and half a dozen plain cottages,” but predicted that would change. “Just now there is an attempt at a ‘boom’ on land on ‘Chappy,’ as the irreverent young New York woman terms the island, and any number of lots – fifty by one hundred – are being offered at a bait of $5 per lot.”

Chappaquiddick’s insular status all depends on whether the barrier beach at Norton Point is breached or not. It was an island from at least 1776 to 1869, again from 1886 to 1903, and it was purposefully opened by man in 1921 and 1937 to provide a shortcut to the Atlantic. It opened again naturally in 1952, briefly once more in 1976, and during a spring gale in 2007. Chappaquiddick’s most recent stint as an island ended April 2015, when the gap closed once again.

On the other side of the Vineyard, Nantucket and Vineyard Sounds are also full of shoals that once may have been islands. Many have heard tales about a fabled island at Middle Ground, the shallow bar that stretches west from West Chop, and even of the sheep that are said to have grazed upon it. But evidence in writing or in charts of dry ground there is absent. The 1822 The American Coast Pilot described Middle Ground as “a narrow shoal of sand....There is not more than 3 or 4 feet water on the eastern end.”

Gray seals make themselves at home on Skiff’s Island.
Melinda Fager

Nathaniel Shaler, the nineteenth century Harvard geologist who collected the farms in Chilmark and West Tisbury now known as Seven Gates Farm, classified Middle Ground as “a bit of submerged land,” though he added that “In ‘Letters from Chilmark,’ published in the Gazette in 1867, the statement is made that a sunken forest is found in the Sound where tops and branches of trees have been repeatedly taken up, and that this sunken forest extends far out among Nantucket’s shoals.”

According to Traykovski of WHOI, Middle Ground has its roots in a ridge of ancient boulders and cobbles left by the retreat of a late Pleistocene glacier. But, he says, the shoal we know today is mostly “active sediment.” Not unlike Skiff’s, he says, Middle Ground is mainly a result of the ebb tide pushing sediment west through Vineyard Sound. Unable to wrap neatly around West Chop, an eddy is formed where slower water drops the sand it is carrying, leaving a long bar
trailing off the chop.

There are many tales of submerged lands on Martha’s Vineyard, some of which may have existed as islands for some period of time before finally drowning. In 1833 Edward Hitchcock, the state geologist of Massachusetts, described a “submarine forest” in Vineyard Haven, which was then called Holmes Hole. “It is on the west side of the harbor, and was described by the pilot as having the appearance of a marsh at low water,” he wrote. “Stumps have been found there in considerable quantity; of the cedar at least. Near the southwest extremity of the Vineyard, on the north shore, I was informed that another forest of a similar description may be seen.

“Geologists are not a little perplexed, satisfactorily to account for submarine forests,” he added. “In general it has been supposed that these forests have subsided in consequence of earthquakes, or other internal movements of the earth.”

Edy’s Island’s jigsaw-like coastline occupies a quiet corner of Menemsha Pond near the Coast Guard station.
Peter Simon

Charles Hine, in The Story of Martha’s Vineyard, wrote of a sunken forest in Edgartown Great Pond. “In Wintucket Cove and in Janes Cove adjoining are to be found under the water the stumps of great trees that small boats sometimes ground on. These are relics of an ancient forest which go to show that the land has sunk from its former high position, as these trees must have attained their growth above high water mark. The same thing is found on the shore of Vineyard Haven Harbor, and possibly at other points on the island, while well out in Vineyard Sound it is stated that anchors have brought up tree tops, indicating a former forest.”

In the early 1970s, G. W. Burns discovered a red maple stump sixty-five feet offshore, near the Lake Tashmoo opening, the crown of which was submerged under four feet of water. It was radiocarbon dated to approximately the year 1580 AD. More recently Harvard Forest director David R. Foster noted that there have been “quite a number of studies of the trees and peats that have been snagged from the ocean floor...stumps of trees rooted in or encased in peat that became submerged. These can be quite old – like the pines that stick out of the peat at Stonewall Beach today. [West Tisbury resident] Prudy Burt helped us snag some of those, which we dated to 10,000 BP.”

As the recent closure of the vulnerable stretch of East Chop Drive makes clear, the process is ongoing. It’s not the first road to go, however: Michigan Avenue once circumscribed the western shore of Point Pond on West Chop. You probably haven’t heard of either the pond or the road for the sea encroached by the turn of the twentieth century and Point Pond is long gone, now part of outer Vineyard Haven Harbor. Michigan Avenue fell below the high water mark by 1911 and was abandoned to nature.

What does the future hold? Islands will come, and islands will go, but mostly go. The ocean around us is rising at a current rate of more than an eighth of an inch per year. Other islands will form. Aquinnah will likely become an island one day, as it technically was during historical periods when Squibnocket Pond was open to the sea. Current flood maps suggest that the heel of Squibnocket could become its own islet too. And Felix Neck, as well as Cow Bay and parts of the Edgartown Golf Club. The time scale? Certainly millennia, but quite possibly only centuries.

Cuttyhunk (foreground) and Noman’s Land flank the western tip of Martha’s Vineyard and the Gay Head Light.
Neal Rantoul

Should the most dire predictions occur, in which the bulk of the ice on Antarctica and Greenland were to melt – and they will, later if not sooner – the Vineyard will become a string of tiny islets, perhaps Peaked Isle and Prospect Isle among them, strung across what’s left of Chilmark and West Tisbury. Down-Island will sink into the murky depths to become a sort of Black Doggerland.

It’s all temporary. But it likely won’t be tree trunks that future draggers will pull out of the brine. One can imagine the crew of a fishing trawler in the year 7000 puzzling over the three petrified mopeds and the Tom Maley sculpture they pulled up. Enjoy it while it lasts, and leave them something remarkable.