Inspired By Boyhood Fascination

My first memories of Edgartown swirl around the Chappaquiddick ferry. I remember seeing the original On Time from the arms of my father – he was wearing an Irish sweater – as we stood by the town-side ramp on what must have been a cloudy and cold early afternoon in June, not long after my mom, dad, and I arrived for the summer of 1965.

I recall seeing the square-shaped ferry bulldozing through the choppy water as she steamed toward the slip – the image is as vivid as a color snapshot in an old family album – some sort of Jeep wagon on her deck, a man in a heavy coat (he may have been the skipper) standing to one side. I remember thinking that the ferry was a kind of toy that grown-ups got to play with. Yet under the dark clouds and in the sharp wind, I also remember thinking that what the ferry did must be something people really depended on, because no one would willingly choose to play with it on a day as threatening as that one.

The ferry became an emblem of the Vineyard for me, something to which I was endlessly drawn. I collected post cards of the ferry and saved up money to ride it back and forth alone as soon as I was old enough. Among the first bylines I ever earned as a writer – at the age of fifteen in the Vineyard Gazette – was a report on the history of the City of Chappaquiddick, the first self-propelled car and passenger ferry, after she sank on her mooring in a gale in February of 1976.

In the fall of 2006, after a stint as editor of this magazine, I returned to the world of writing. The first story I wanted to tackle was a feature on the Chappy ferry. From my research at the Gazette and the library of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, I knew it was among the oldest businesses on the Vineyard, dating back at least to 1807. I also knew no one had ever written a history of it before. It was almost as though the operation was too present, too obviously a part of our lives to bother looking into with any real curiosity.

The article, published in the July 2007 magazine, dramatized the life of the ferry in modern times. Captains had told me what it was like to skipper the boats against the strong tides that run through the entrance to the harbor. Owners of the ferry or their descendants – the ferry has always been a private business serving a public need – had described how completely ownership took over their lives. Even as I was writing the feature, I knew there was enough material for a book on the Chappy ferry.

I began work on it in May of last year, and from the start I felt encouraging forces urging me along.

During the first hour of the first day of my research, scrolling through the microfilm of the 1876 issues of the Gazette, just by chance I lucked upon the name of the man who, in all probability, set up the first ferry to Chappaquiddick at the turn of the nineteenth century – an immigrant from Beaufort, North Carolina, named Uriah Morse, his name all but lost to Vineyard history until that moment. Later a set of files about Chappaquiddick, missing from the collections of the museum for more than seven years, suddenly turned up there in a dusty old box. Along the way a splendid photograph of Jimmy Yates, the last owner of the ferry when it still was a rowboat, fell from a folder at the Gazette and landed face up on my left shoe.

What began in 2007 as an effort for this magazine to excavate an untold story that had fascinated me from boyhood ended in late November of last year – with the indispensable help of hundreds of sources and friends – as the project of my writing life. As I finished up the last chapter, I marveled at what my childhood obsession had evolved into: a 128-page book, with modern day pictures by Island photographer Alison Shaw, scores of dramatic and previously unseen old images, a fold-out illustration by artist Dana Gaines showing how the ferry works, and even its own short film on DVD – produced and directed by my friend and fellow ferry fanatic from boyhood, John Wilson.

As Vineyard Stories, the publisher, sent it off to the printer in February, I could barely measure the good fortune of a writer who gets to tell the story of a boat he fell in love with, from the arms of his dad, nearly half a century ago.

The Chappy Ferry Book: Back and Forth Between Two Worlds – 527 Feet Apart will be released July 1 by Vineyard Stories of Edgartown.