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.
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.
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.
The recent 12MC article Small Change, Big Difference created an unusual amount of interest. One comment from reader Ross arrived embedded with a challenge:
This reminds me of a question I’ve often wondered: Which place changes the most when you add "New" in front of the name? In other words: Which "New" place is the most unlike the place it was named after? My guess: New Britain (the island in Papua New Guinea). It’s hard to imagine a place more unlike "Old" Britain.
Ross obviously put a lot of thought into his well-educated choice. This example might be the best one around, at least as good as any top tier of contenders. I thought I would see if I could add some other places to the list for consideration and open the discussion to a broader audience.
Britain had Ireland nearby so I suppose PNG’s New Britain needed a New Ireland nearby too (map). The two were located in close proximity just like their namesakes. Face it, just about anything geographic or climatic in Papua New Guinea would differ considerably from anything in the British Isles. One could select just about any place with a "New" prefix in the tropics and it would score well in this contest.
The New Ireland name in PNG was affixed to an island, a string of islands and a province. The largest town on the island of that name, Kavieng, became the capital of the larger province of New Ireland. This was the site of fierce fighting in World War II and wartime relics can still be found within the area. Today most visitors come for the military history or to dive on pristine coral reefs located just offshore.
New Ireland used to be New Mecklenburg (Neu-Mecklenburg) which would be equally odd. Maybe it should get extra credit for being distinctly different from two separate European locations. Plus New Guinea differed from Guinea (see 12MC’s Upstart Eclipses Namesake for that story) to add to the distinction even further.
New Amsterdam is Guyana’s oldest town, with a rich history. About 1733, the name New Amsterdam was given to a little village that sprang up around Fort Nassau, several miles up the Berbice River. In 1785 it was decided to abandon Fort Nassau and move to the neighbourhood of Fort St. Andries lower down the river at the confluence of the Berbice River and its tributary the Canje River which is now the site of present day New Amsterdam… New Amsterdam, covers about 13.7 square kilometers in area with an estimated population of approximately 35,000.
New Amsterdam might also deserve bonus points. Not only did it differ considerably from Amsterdam in the Netherlands, it looked nothing like the other New Amsterdam on the tip of Manhattan Island that formed the nucleus of New York City.
The Bergtheil or Bramsche Colonists: In the early 1840’s, just after the colony of Natal had been annexed by the British, the Natal Cotton Company was established. One of its directors, Jonas Bergtheil, went to Germany to attract settlers to Natal to grow cotton for the Company. After much searching, he found a group of people in the area of Bramsche, Osnabrücker Land, Kingdom of Hanover (now in Lower Saxony) who were willing to try their luck in this new colony. The Bergtheil colonists settled in New Germany, Westville, just outside Port Natal (later renamed Durban)…
Then I watched the video driving tour and it looked like any suburb anywhere. The location may have been distinctly removed from Germany, however, it still had an air of familiarity.
New Bedford Inlet, Antarctica
New Bedford Inlet, Antarctica Does Not Look Like New Bedford or the Original Bedford Either
It was hard to reconcile the disconnect between Antarctica and temperate climates. I found a "New" location hidden within its folds and I’ll bet there were plenty of others equally out of place. New Bedford Inlet wasn’t discovered until 1940 when it was "photographed from the air… by members of the United States Antarctic Service (USAS), and named after New Bedford, Massachusetts, the centre of the New England whaling industry in the middle of the 19th century." It was a horribly inhospitable spot packed with glaciers and freezing temperatures in Palmer Land. That hardly resembled Massachusetts even during a bad winter.
New Bedford in Massachusetts was in turn named for Bedford in England. New Bedford Inlet didn’t look anything like England, either. Once again I thought this type of nesting deserved extra credit.
A Couple More to Ponder
I found many others. I wanted to mention two more although I won’t elaborate on them much.
New Caledonia (map), a collectivity of France in the Pacific Ocean east of Australia probably wouldn’t be confused with Caledonia (i.e., Scotland)
New Washington (map) in the Philippians resembled neither Washington, DC nor the state of Washington in the United States. However it was named for George Washington directly and not for either of those other locations so it probably didn’t count.
Can anyone come up with even more extreme occurrences to add to Ross’ list?