Layers of History
Before the Museum began welcoming visitors to this site it was home to generations of Wampanoag, provided beds and an ocean breeze to sick sailors, and was filled with the laughter of summer campers. With this map you can explore the site and learn more about what is here now and what once was.
The Museum stands on what has, for thousands of years, been Wampanoag land. Generations of Wampanoag maintained home sites or seasonal camps atop the bluffs, gathering fish and shellfish from the Lagoon, water from nearby springs, and animals from the surrounding forests. English colonization of the area began in the mid-1660s, and soon forced the Wampanoag out.
1. Bass Creek
Look to your left. The shingled building with the bright red boat above the door stands on land that was once water. Bass Creek, the channel connecting Lagoon Pond to Vineyard Haven Harbor, once stretched from the foot of this bluff to the current Steamship Authority docks. In 1835, it was deliberately blocked at what is now Five Corners. The Lagoon Pond end was filled a century later.
Listen to research librarian Bow Van Riper describe how the land to your left has transformed over the past two centuries.
2. Oklahoma Causeway
Look to your right. The long, straight, half-submerged structure in the water is the ruins of a causeway built in the early 1870s to connect Oak Bluffs to a new summer-resort development called “Oklahoma.” The resort went bankrupt and over time the causeway slowly crumbled. In 1945, Erford Burt made a channel through it to let boats reach his new boatyard, the shingled building with the red boat over the door.
Listen to research librarian Bow Van Riper describe how the burgeoning tourist industry of the Island in the 19th century shaped the landscape to your right.
3. Compass Rose
Look down, and look closely. This compass rose is a reminder of the Island’s connections to the wider world. The eight ovals spaced around it indicate the directions and distances to places across the globe where Vineyarders went… and from which people came to the Island.
4. Fresnel Lens
Look through the window at the “glass beehive.” Made in Paris in 1854, this first-order Fresnel lens used 1,008 carefully aligned glass prisms to focus the light from an oil- or kerosene-burning lamp into a flashing signal (white-white-white-red) visible for up to 20 miles. Used at the Gay Head lighthouse in Aquinnah from 1856 to 1952, it was donated to the Museum after electricity made it obsolete.
5. 1879 Marine Hospital
Look out to sea. Fifty thousand ships a year passed between Cape Cod and the Vineyard in the 1800s, and many stopped in Vineyard Haven. In 1855, the US government built a lighthouse—an actual house with a beacon on the roof—on this hill to guide them. It was shut down after a few years, and in 1879 reopened as a US Marine Hospital: the forerunner of the building behind you.
Listen to research librarian Bow Van Riper describe the Homes Hole Lighthouse and its transformation into the original Marine Hospital on this site.
6. 1895 Marine Hospital
See the tall windows in front of you? This US Marine Hospital building was built by the government in 1895 to treat sick and injured sailors. The room in front of you, the one above it, and the two at the other end of the building were 6-bed wards. The large windows, porches, and balconies provided sunlight and fresh air to help the patients heal faster.
Listen to Clifton Athearn describe the Marine Hospital and his time working as an orderly there in a 2011 interview with MVM Oral Historian Linsey Lee.
7. St. Pierre Camp
Look around you. The Marine Hospital closed in 1952, and stood empty for several years. From 1959 to 2007, however, it hosted a summer sports camp run by the St. Pierre family. The second-floor wards became bunk rooms (girls on this end, boys on the other), and campers swam and sailed in the harbor, played games on the lawn, and told ghost stories about the dark, dusty cellar.
Listen to Barbara St. Pierre talk about her parents moving their family’s camp to the old Marine Hospital and later transitioning it into a day camp in a 2012 interview with MVM Oral Historian Linsey Lee.
8. REAR WING
Look toward the Museum entrance. The 1895 Marine Hospital had a one-story rear wing (a relocated building from the old lighthouse) attached to it where the Museum entry-way is now. In 1938, it was replaced by a two story brick wing (with an operating room and X-ray lab on the second floor) that was torn down when the building was turned into a museum. The wing was slightly off-center, so today’s entrance is too.
To see the demolition of the 1938 wing of the Marine Hospital in 2017, click here.
9. Sunbird Sculpture
Look up. This interactive kinetic Sunbird lets you compare your energy exertion to the work of a one- square-foot solar panel. It was created to celebrate the memory of Madeline Blakely Heath, whose bequest to the South Mountain Company of West Tisbury for an educational demonstration about solar energy led them to commission artist Tim Laursen to design and fabricate this sculpture.
10. Rose Styron Garden
Created to honor poet and human-rights activist Rose Styron, a long-time seasonal resident of Vineyard Haven, this garden was built in 2019 by master stone mason Lew French. Its seating areas and nooks provide space for contemplation, conversation, and performances. Inside you’ll find a pair of iron pots once used aboard a whaling ship, an old mill stone, and a chunk of black, silver-flecked Cumberlandite found only in Rhode Island.
Notice the “barn?” This is Doherty Hall, an exhibit and program space built when the Marine Hospital was being transformed into a museum. When the 1895 Marine Hospital opened, the old lighthouse building (Site 5) was moved to the back of the property and used as a staff dormitory. An isolation ward, known to locals as the “pest house” stood nearby, in what’s now part of the parking area of the museum.
Listen to Clifton Athearn, who worked as an orderly in the Marine Hospital, describe the living quarters and garage that once stood behind the Marine Hospital in a 2011 interview with MVM Oral Historian Linsey Lee.
Listen to Stuart Bangs, who grew up next door to the Marine Hospital building when it was the home of the St. Pierre Camp, describe the “pest house” in a 2002 interview with MVM Oral Historian Linsey Lee.
Designed by Edgartown boat-builder Manuel Swartz Roberts and launched in 1929, Vanity is typical of the working catboats that filled the harbors of Cape Cod and the Islands from the 1840s–1930s. Captain Oscar C. Pease used her for decades of fishing, scalloping, and summer charters in Edgartown’s waters, then donated her to the Museum, which preserves her as a living piece of maritime history.