Coastal Massachusetts had plenty of history before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. Native Americans long lived there. Even other Europeans explored the area. Nonetheless it was the Pilgrims we all remembered from our elementary school curriculum and a lifetime of Thanksgiving holidays so that’s where I began. I’d been wanting to do that for many years. It had been an empty hole in my personal experience of a particularly important era of American history.
Lesser known in the tale of the Pilgrims was that their initial footsteps in the new world didn’t happen at Plymouth. Initially they disembarked at the tip of Cape Cod in the vicinity of modern-day Provincetown. That Mayflower Compact — the governing document for the Plymouth Colony — was written and signed aboard the Mayflower as it sat in the Cape’s natural harbor. The Pilgrims explored Cape Cod for several weeks seeking a suitable place to establish their colony. The land, they discovered, would be too difficult to farm and it lacked suitable fresh water. Only then did the Pilgrims press onward towards Plymouth.
This initial landfall was commemorated in the early 20th Century by the construction of a large granite tower (map) in Provincetown named the Pilgrim Monument. Visitors can climb 252 feet (77 metres) to the top where it features an open-air room with amazing views of the cape and the town below. I was quite impressed by the experience. It also helped to have picture-perfect weather and few other visitors.
Naturally I stopped by Plymouth too. That was a given. Once again I was happy to have arrived in mid-May with wonderful weather and the bulk of the tourists not arriving for another couple of weeks. We visited all of the historical sites without feeling jostled or claustrophobic.
Well, let’s talk about the rock (map). Plymouth Rock, as the story goes, was supposedly the first place the Pilgrims set foot when they arrived at their new home (after leaving Cape Cod). I’d seen images of Plymouth Rock before so I was able to manage my expectations and not be underwhelmed. It was amusing to watch the faces of other visitors who gazed upon the famous stone for the first time. Plymouth Rock is housed within a grandiose edifice resembling an ancient Greek temple complete with marble columns. People walked up expecting something spectacular… and… it’s just a rock with 1620 stamped upon it. Seriously. It looked like it was dug out of someone’s back yard.
Historically, it actually might be simply a rock without any greater significance. Plymouth Rock was identified by Thomas Faunce in 1741 and he was 94 years old at the time. There was nobody else alive who could corroborate his claim. He wasn’t a Mayflower passenger either although there were still some Mayflower passengers living when he was a child. In theory it’s possible that the Pilgrims first set foot on Plymouth Rock, just not likely. However, more important than the rock was what it represented and that alone made it a worthwhile stop.
Marconi Wireless Station
I moved onto other interests once my Pilgrim curiosity had been satisfied. An historical site of much more recent vintage awaited exploration about half-way up the cape (map). Little remained of the old Marconi Wireless Station other than a few bricks and crumbling cement. Most of it had been dismantled long ago or been consumed by the sea. Guglielmo Marconi built a series of towers while pioneering ship-to-shore and transatlantic radio communications. The facility on Cape Cod was known as the South Wellfleet Wireless station. From this spot, the first direct wireless radio message between the United States and the United Kingdom was transmitted in 1903.
Much of Nantucket’s history focused on whaling. Whaling fleets existed in various coastal communities in New England, and Nantucket had one of the most successful. It also provided a name for the "Nantucket Sleigh Ride" — when harpooned, a whale would drag the small dory boats used by hunters to get close to the whale on a fast, wild ride. Eventually the whale would become exhausted and only then could the whalers close in for the kill. The whaling industry made a lot of people quite wealthy for a time and many of their stately homes lined the cobblestone streets of Nantucket.
I particularly liked this photograph I took in Nantucket Harbor (map) during an early morning fog. Minus a couple of modern boats, it almost looked like it could have stepped out of a previous century when whaling still ruled the local economy.
I wrote about Methodist summer revival camp meetings last year in From Camp to Town. That brought the "gingerbread cottages" of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard to my attention. I won’t bother to repeat the story because it’s all covered in the previous article, however I’ll say that it was lovely to stroll amongst the 300+ historic buildings (map) as well as visit a place in person that I’d discovered while writing Twelve Mile Circle.
It seemed like I was on the road just yesterday and here I was back out in the wilds once again. This time my wife and I were celebrating a round-numbered wedding anniversary so we headed up to coastal Massachusetts and Rhode Island. I’d been to Boston many times previously however I’d never traveled along the horseshoe of Cap Cod nor to the islands offshore nor to very much of Rhode Island other than the Interstate highways running across it on the way to other places for that matter.
Let’s begin another Twelve Mile Circle multiple-article travelogue by focusing on the seacoasts that approximated my route and then move on to other topics in later installments.
We flew into Boston and drove down to the South Shore community of Hull (map). This was one of the oldest towns in Massachusetts, founded in 1622 as a an outpost for the Plymouth Colony to trade with local native American tribes. I captured this image from Fort Revere Park, a place that served as a military garrison protecting Boston Harbor beginning with the Revolutionary War and lasting all the way through World War II. It seemed so quintessentially New England.
Plymouth was a must. Twelve Mile Circle often delves into history so I simply couldn’t skip this most hallowed of New England locations. The site fell along our route and I’d never been there before. I’ll talk all about the Pilgrim connection in a future installment. I’m fixated on seacoasts for the moment so I’ll stick with those. Plymouth had an awesome breakwater to protect its harbor which I guessed stretched about a half-mile (map). Naturally I had to walk to the very end of it along irregularly spaced granite blocks because that’s what one does when encountering a breakwater. There wasn’t anything particularly remarkable to be found at the end although that was hardly the point.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers described it as:
A 3,500-foot-long stone breakwater. This structure begins at a point north of the town wharf and extends easterly from the shore for 1,400 feet, then turns southeasterly, parallel to the waterfront, for 2,100 feet.
My rough estimate of distance seemed to be pretty close to the mark.
Then we proceeded out along Cape Cod, eventually making it all the way to the tip at Provincetown (map). Much of the shoreline was protected within Cape Cod National Seashore. The cape was created by glaciers as noted by the U.S. Geological Survey.
The geologic history of Cape Cod mostly involves the advance and retreat of the last continental ice sheet (named the Laurentide after the Laurentian region of Canada where it first formed) and the rise in sea level that followed the retreat of the ice sheet. On Cape Cod, these events occurred within the last 25,000 years… Sometime after 23,000 years ago, the glacier reached its maximum advance… The ice sheet was characterized by lobes that occupied large basins in the bedrock surface. These lobes were responsible for the location and overall shape of Cape Cod and the islands.
It also created awesome sandy cliffs and dunes, and amazing beaches.
I’m sure Nantucket had some incredible ocean vistas (map). However most of our stay on the island coincided with the arrival of an oppressively thick fog. The bank seemed to sit directly atop Nantucket, permanently affixed, perfectly clear on the ferryboat ride out to the island and perfectly clear once we left. Nantucket had been dubbed the Gray Lady by mariners of yore because of the fog that often shrouded the island. We experienced the Gray Lady in all of her glory. That was fine, actually. It created a mysterious almost haunting atmosphere as we explored weathered cobblestone streets.
Martha’s Vineyard offered considerably more sunshine to the point where it was downright hot during our brief visit at least for most of the island. The far western edge with its spectacular cliffs was enveloped by clouds and a bitterly cold wind, so oddly disconnected with conditions found elsewhere on the island given the small geographic distance. Those photos didn’t turn out well although there were still plenty of sunny scenes like the one I selected.
It was also nice to visit a place with an officially recognized possessive apostrophe.
We finished our whirlwind tour in Newport, Rhode Island (map). The best coastline in town could be found along its famed Cliff Walk. This path was established as a National Recreation Trail, open to the public. Awesome scenes of ocean waves crashing on rocks far down below the cliff framed one side of the trail. Unbelievably huge mansions lined the other side. These homes were constructed primarily during the Guilded Age of the late 19th Century by some of the biggest names of legendary fortunes like Vanderbilt and Astor. Many of these American castles can be toured as museums.
Washington and Idaho seemed to have a little bit of a romance going on with a couple of their towns. Their names could stand alone, however they were paired rather nicely in the form of meaningful symmetry. Those names weren’t accidental either. They were completely intentional.
New and Old
First came the curious case of Newport, Washington and Oldtown, Idaho.
Newport, WA and Oldtown, ID
Newport and Oldtown were contiguous, both situated along the banks of the Pend Oreille River. The distinction between them was somewhat artificial though. They were located on either side of North and South State Avenue and otherwise appeared as a single entity except that one part fell within Washington and the other fell within Idaho.
Newport City Hall by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr (cc)
Of the two, Newport was the newer. That made perfect sense. New should be new and old should be old. It happened to be the second town with that exact name in the area. Oldtown was once Newport before Newport became Newport.
HistoryLink provided an explanation:
Newport, originally in Idaho, acquired its name by virtue of being the "new port" when Albeni Poirier (1861-1936) established a trading post and port on the Pend Oreille River in the 1890s. Upon moving the short distance into Washington, Newport soon became the major town in Pend Oreille County, the last homestead frontier in the United States… During its frontier days, Newport was a steamship port serving the settlers in the Pend Oreille Valley. In 1892, with the arrival of the Great Northern Railway, the town was able to link river with rail, relieving the isolation of its people and eventually transporting Pend Oreille County’s wealth of mine and forest products to distant markets.
Albeni dam pano by Jasper Nance, on Flickr (cc)
Newport, Idaho — the original Newport — gradually dwindled to the point where residents felt it should be renamed Oldtown in 1947.
Lewiston, ID and Clarkston, WA
The pairing of Newport and Oldtown was certainly appropriate although there was an even better pairing along the shared border: Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington. It even had an accurate historical context.
Lewiston, Idaho by Andrew W. Sieber, on Flickr (cc)
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery Expedition between 1804 and 1806, a journey also known by many as the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The two adjoining towns on opposite sides of the state border were named in commemoration of the Corps’ passage. I probably would have placed Lewiston in Washington and Clarkston in Idaho so it could be read Lewis-Clark from west to east on a map, however I wasn’t consulted so it looked more like Clark-Lewis. I’m sure William Clark would have been happy to receive top billing for once.
Tidewater tug at Clarkston Washington by Richard Bauer, on Flickr (cc)
Lewis and Clark actually traversed through the future location of their namesake towns between October 7-10, 1805. As the Lewis and Clark Trail described it:
A succession of treacherous rapids damaged the canoes, and while the canoes were being repaired the Corps dined on fish and dog. It was then that the Captains made the discovery that their Shoshone guide, Toby, had slipped away during the night to rejoin his nation.
Lewis and Clark stopped at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers on October 10, 1805. That’s where the towns would be founded later, Lewiston in 1861 and Clarkston in 1862.
I tried to see if there were other paired towns situated between Idaho and Washington, or perhaps their neighbors and came up short. The closest example I discovered was The Dalles, Oregon and Dallesport, Washington. I’ve not seen other pairings like these elsewhere although I’m sure they must exist.