Gazette Chronicle: On the Waterfront (2024)

From the June 7, 1940 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

“Arrived — Schooner Alice S. Wentworth, Tilton, from Nantucket.” “Eben A. Thacher, Pinto, sailed for Woods Hole and returned,” read the familiar items in the Vineyard Haven waterfront column. There are people who read these lines and express wonder that such an item should receive space. They ask why mention should be made of so commonplace an occurrence, almost as regular and uneventful as the serving of daily meals in the average household.

There are several good reasons why the arrivals and departures of the Thacher and Wentworth are noted in the Gazette columns. Perhaps one of the chief reasons is a matter of sentiment for the industry of packeting. Packeting, which refers to the transportation of freight and passengers in small boats operating on a very elastic schedule or no schedule at all, was one of the Island’s earliest industries. In some form or other it has been continued without a break until the present time, and it is a singular fact that despite improvements of all kinds in transportation, the packet business is still of importance to the welfare of the Vineyard and, to all appearances, will continue to remain important.

When or how the first packet came into being no one can say. Mention of such service is found in the earliest records of the Vineyard.

Packeting was in full swing during the Revolutionary War, and many of the vessels burned, sunk or captured by the British were engaged in this service. That their skippers, by means of their uncanny skill in navigating through shoal, rock-strewn waters, in the midst of boiling tide-currents, succeeded in running the Vineyard blockade on many occasions is a well known fact.

In sloops, in small double-enders, open fore and aft, and in schooners of twenty to sixty tons burden, the packet business continued. The invention of the steamboat served to injure the packet business but little for many years. In fact the early steamers were packets in themselves, and were sometimes advertised as “steam packets.” Like the packets, they carried everything and everyone, and also, like the packets, they would alter their course for a mainland port at any time if there was an opportunity to salvage wreckage, or take a disabled sailing vessel in tow. In this last named matter, the sailing packet was the most dependable because, being small and dependent on sails, it could not tow large vessels.

That rivalry existed between the steam and sailing packets may be believed, yet it is not at all apparent that the development of the steamboat line actually affected the reduction of sailing packet service. The passenger traffic did not indeed forsake the small vessels, but the traffic in freight appeared to increase for many years. As these vessels were small, there was work for all of them, and the length of Vineyard Sound alone was an item of sufficient importance to warrant the maintenance of a packet at Menemsha which handled the normal freight for the up-Island towns for years.

All along the North Shore these small vessels loaded clay, farm produce, and paving stones, taking their cargoes to various places on the mainland, and retuning with various cargoes composed of such commodities as might be required by the Vineyard people. Many Island people would take passage on these vessels, traveling to the mainland to do their own buying. There were no restriction on carrying of passengers on sailing vessels, and as no fares were charged, perhaps such a practice would be within the law today.

The tales of packeting in Vineyard waters would fill volumes. Close calls in fog and blizzard, narrow escapes from being cut down by steamships running blind, ledges that popped up dead to looward on calm nights when there was no wind for sailing, and a thousand other stories of similar occurrences.

The times and practices have changed, and the master of today does not depend on wind alone, except in a few cases. The packet business of the Vineyard is confined to two keels, that of the schooner Alice Wentworth, Cap’n Zeb Tilton, which is the last of the schooners, and that of the Eben A. Thacher, power freighter, Cap’n Joe Pinto. These two vessels handle such freight as it is impractical to carry on the Island steamers. Coal, grain, construction machinery and many other items, have no place aboard a passenger steamer of the Island line type.

To those who realize the value of the packet trade and the importance of these small vessels in the Island scheme of things, there is duly apparent cause for their mention in Island news. And there is a comforting assurance that all things are well with the Island, even though ice floes blockade the steamers inside of Buzzards Bay, in the appearance of these familiar lines in the Gazette:

“Eben A. Thacher, Pinto, sailed for Woods Hole and returned.” “Arrived, schooner Alice S. Wentworth, Tilton, from Providence.”

Compiled by Hilary Wallcox

Gazette Chronicle: On the Waterfront (2024)


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