Edgartown: A Little Martha’s Vineyard History

Whenever I sit down to write a new Martha’s Vineyard Mystery, I am always looking for spots where I can incorporate a little island history. I’ve been doing that since the very beginning. I love history—all history. Ironically, I dreaded it in high school. Am I the only one? It bored me to tears. I think we’re doing this whole society thing backwards. As soon as kids are old enough, they should have to go to work and learn a good work ethic. After we’ve earned it, say mid-thirties? We can go to school. I would love to go to school all day now and just learn. Okay, maybe that is just me. Anyway, I love history now and learning more and more about the events that shaped our amazing island is my favourite part of writing. I’m always quite chuffed when I receive a note from a fan saying how much they have learned from Pretty Vineyard Girls or Dead And Buried or any of my other island thrillers. It’s a very cool feeling. So, I’ve decided to write up a brief history of each of the townships in my blog. This is the first one and I’m starting with Edgartown.

Edgartown Lighthouse Martha's Vineyard

The Edgartown Lighthouse has watched over the harbour since 1828

Great Harbor

After it was purchased by his father, in 1642 Protestant Reverend Thomas Mayhew Jr led a few families to Martha’s Vineyard in the hopes of starting a colony. Upon settling, they named it “Great Harbor”. Upon the town’s incorporation on July 8, 1671, they changed the name to “Edgar Towne” after Prince Edgar, the young son of the current monarch, King James II. They believed he was the heir apparent; however, exactly one month before, at the age of three, Edgar had passed. News travelled slowly in those days. The news of his death reached the island shortly after the incorporation. Edgartown and Tisbury were incorporated at the same time; they are the two original towns on Martha’s Vineyard.

Whaling On Martha’s Vineyard

By the 1800’s, Edgartown was a prominent player in the global whaling industry. In an 1850 census of Martha’s Vineyard, out of approximately 1400 men listed, 700 of them were sailors. New Bedford and Nantucket were known for building whaling ships, but it was the Vineyarders who crewed them. Whale blubber was rendered down to oil, turned into candles, or used to fuel lamps of all sorts. It was also turned into soap and used in the working of leather products. Whale hunts were long and unpleasant. A ship would be out for years at a time—three or four years was not uncommon. The longest whale hunt on record was that of the Ship Nile. It was out for eleven years. Why would someone do that? A successful whaling expedition could be extremely profitable but it was a gamble. Records show crew being paid as much as $500 each on a voyage but other voyages yielding as little as $10 per seaman.

Edgartown Martha's Vineyard Water Street

North Water Street gleams with Greek Revival architecture.

It’s no wonder the structures atop greek revival homes of the day were known as “widow walks”. This moniker is actually false. They were built to dump sand down the chimneys to avoid house fires which were quite common. Ships sailed in from all over the world, and the most highly respected ship captains of the day all built their greek revival mansions on the shores of the harbour. It was all of this traffic that necessitated building The Cape Poge Lighthouse in 1801 and then The Edgartown Lighthouse in 1828. The whaling industry sank almost overnight with the discovery of vast quantities of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1860. Petroleum was cheaper and considerably easier to produce. The islanders’ future looked uncertain until the Old Colony Railway extended their train service to Woods Hole in 1872. This was the beginning of the tourist era.

Edgartown Captain's House

Captain’s House complete with ‘widow’s walk’.

Martha’s Vineyard And Tourism

There’s no question that Edgartown like most of Martha’s Vineyard is largely supported by tourism. Of course, there are approximately 15,000 year round inhabitants, a mix of islanders and washashores, but the population swells to well over 120,000 in the summer months. This did not happen overnight. People didn’t wake up one day and decide en masse that they were going to the Vineyard in June. So where and/or how did tourism on Martha’s Vineyard begin?

Oak Bluffs Martha's Vineyard Railroad

Martha’s Vineyard Railroad at Oak Bluffs

When the Old Colony Railroad made its way to Woods Hole in 1872, it made travel from Boston and Rhode Island easy and tourism on Cape Cod exploded.   In 1874, Old Colony Railroad founded the Martha’s Vineyard Railroad. I’m serious. At one point, there was a railroad that ran on nine miles of track between what is now the Oak Bluffs Ferry Terminal to the long-gone Mattakeeset Lodge in Katama, Edgartown. I love trains and I think this is really cool. Imagine a locomotive chugging along beside Beach Road and crossing the JAWS Bridge? That’s so awesome. There was only one  locomotive and she was originally named ‘Active’ but later renamed ‘South Beach’. The Martha’s Vineyard Railroad ran until 1896.

Chappaquiddick Bridge Martha's Vineyard

The spot where Mary Jo Kopechne and Ted Kennedy went over

Once people started day-tripping from the Cape, it didn’t take them long to start building vacation homes on-island. The world really began to take notice when the Kennedy’s started vacationing here and then of course Senator Ted Kennedy had his fatal incident with Mary Jo Kopechne on July 18th, 1969. Then on June 20th, 1975 the world got an eyeful of a completely different sort and no matter what, they couldn’t get out of the water fast enough.


The stories are endless. When you vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, if you are looking for stories about the JAWS production, you will find them. There are JAWS tours, JAWS clothing, JAWS memorabilia, and just about everything else you could possibly want to whet your great white appetite. The Chappaquiddick Beach Club uses the frames of the beach changing tents from JAWS. All five lighthouses are in the movie if you know where and when to look.


Bruce The Shark as captured by Edith Blake

Edgartown Village has been beautifully preserved by the Preservation Trust and in doing so, they have preserved the town of Amity. Catboat Charters takes guests out sailing right where most of the shark action was filmed. Jeffrey Voorhees, the actor who played Alex Kintner, manages The Wharf in Edgartown. Guaranteed your innkeeper or shopkeeper will all have a JAWS story to tell. Amity and Martha’s Vineyard are forever intertwined.

History Continues

Whatever your reasons are for wanting to go to Martha’s Vineyard, I strongly encourage you to do so. I went for the first time with my Dad when I was very young. It clearly was a trip that had a profound affect on me. The African American history on Martha’s Vineyard is fascinating—I’ll touch more on that in my history of Oak Bluffs. JAWS is everywhere. The beaches are some of the best beaches in the world. When you go to Martha’s Vineyard, you are making your own history and that’s the important part. Come with friends and family, enjoy a sunset, a clam bake, and have a pint or two. Hey, it’s The Vineyard!



  1. It’s not just the history of the place, but the people…. When you are born there and go to school there and grow up with everyone, and your parents friends, you get to know the characters, the good and the bad… The corruption…. When we were kids there was barely over 3200 people year round… Henry Beetle Hough to Hinky Pease… My grandmother Irma probably handled all of the kids we grew up with as she was the head nurse at the MV Hospital and a deputy sheriff….her father or grandfather Issac Hamblen was the lighthouse keeper in Edgartown… Barbara Folger, my Mothers Mother was great grand daughter of the Whaling Folgers of Nantucket, Babara’s Husband, Captain Walter Kszystyniak, whom sailed the ferry to the mainland and back in a hurricane, was Captain of the MV Islander…. Martha’s Vineyard isn’t just a place… I suppose it is to transplants and visitors…. It’s home and friends to people who were born there… Like myself and my family….

    1. Let us not forget, Gerry Jeffers, George Searle, Dick Brown… There are so many, that did so much for the Island and the Islanders, before greed and prestige took over…

      1. Irene Henley… Probably the best fisherman on the Island… The Mathews, etc… To many great people and families to list

        1. Thank you so much for your great comments! I love the people of Martha’s Vineyard. I count my closest friends among them. I hope you enjoyed the article.

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