The history of Oak Bluffs traces back to 1835, when the Methodist Camp Meeting Association of New England first established a religious retreat at East Chop on the northeast side of the island. They set up their camp in an oak grove, which gave rise to the name “Oak Bluffs.” The Methodist Camp Ground quickly became a popular destination for spiritual rejuvenation, drawing large crowds of attendees each year. Over time, the camp expanded, and a more permanent infrastructure began to take shape.
By the mid 1860s the end of the Civil War, the growth of a prosperous urban middle class, and the availability of reliable steamboat service to the island made Oak Bluffs a target for business as well as religious interests. In 1866 a consortium of island and mainland investors formed the Oak Bluffs Land & Wharf Company, with the goal of developing a village of vacation homes adjacent to the Methodist lands.
The Company engaged Boston landscape designer Robert Morris Copeland (1830-1874) to develop this plan for the village, dated October 25, 1866. The plan—oriented with north at the right–includes roughly 1000 parcels available for sale, laid out along wide, curving avenues; Ocean Park and numerous other open spaces; other amenities such as a chapel and bathing houses; and unfettered public access to the waterfront. The plan’s visual impact is much enhanced by views of seven different cottage designs by Boston and New Bedford architects in the “Carpenter’s Gothic” style already prevalent in the nearby Methodist Camp Ground, with a price list at lower right.
The Company’s plans for the village were at the time somewhat in flux, as can be seen on this 1871 plan, also by Copeland. Here the amount of open space is greatly expanded—thus reducing the amount available for sale but in theory increasing property values–though the layout of the core around Ocean Park remained largely the same. In any event, comparison with a modern map of Oak Bluffs shows that, broadly speaking, the development was realized more or less along the lines of Copeland’s vision.
The Company’s investors are thought to have plowed some $300,000 into Oak Bluffs, much of it for the mammoth Sea View House hotel at the head of the steamship wharf. Lots sold quickly, but already by 1872 the financial situation was dire: the Company had no cash on hand, recurring operating costs, and substantial debts to service, but few lots remaining available for sale. The situation was exacerbated by the Panic of 1873, which reduced cash flow and made their debts even harder to service. In 1878 the Company sold the Sea View House, wharf, boardwalk and bath houses for $110,000, but most or all of that went to paying down debt.
The Company limped on for a time but seems to have dissolved in acrimony and litigation over the disposition of its parks and roads, though I have been unable to determine if and when it was formally shut down. The village itself survived, of course, and today is the point of debarkation and popular destination for thousands of tourists each summer.
OCLC 317760194 et al, giving holdings at Boston Public (i.e., the Leventhal Map & Education Center), Cornell, Massachusetts Historical, and Yale. There is no record of another example having appeared on the antiquarian market. Background from Skip Finley, “Captains of Cottage City[:] The Men Behind the Boom of the Bluffs”, MVMuseum Quarterly, vol. 59 no. 3 (Aug. 2018), pp. 21-32 and Oak Bluffs Planning Board Master Plan Update Committee, Oak Bluffs Comprehensive Master Plan… Adopted April 25, 2019, pp. 12-18.