George Eldridge’s first chart, of the waters from Chatham Lights to Monomoy

George Eldridge, surveyor / Tappan & Bradford’s Lith., CHATHAM LIGHTS to South West Part of handkerchief. Chatham: George Eldridge, Dec. 1851.
Lithographic navigation chart, 22 ½”h x 19”w at neat line plus margins, spot color to buoys. Restored, with areas of faint residual discoloration and vertical cracking evident, and a couple of small stains. Still, very good for a navigation chart intended for hard use at sea.

A rare 1851 chart of the complex and shifting waters between Chatham Lights and Monomoy Shoals, and the first of many produced by George Eldridge.

This chart, and the legendary publishing career of George Eldridge (1821-1900), had its origins in an accident at sea:

“George Eldridge, master of a fishing vessel, was convalescing at home in Chatham from an injury. A furious storm in April 1851 opened a new inlet through Nauset Beach, a short distance east of Chatham light. The current formed new dangerous shoals called Chatham New Harbor Bars, lying directly in the track of vessels bound east or west through Vineyard Sound. Eldridge explored, sounded and charted the shoals. Local interest and support encouraged his publication of the chart as an independent venture, with some local financial backing.” (Guthorn, p. 48)

The “local interest and support” was no doubt available because there was at the time no large-scale navigation chart of the area around the “elbow” of Cape Cod (The U.S. Coast Survey had begun work in the area around 1845-46, but it did not publish a Preliminary Chart of Monomoy Shoals until 1856.)

The chart is oriented with South at the top, and given the ever-changing configuration of the bars and shoals off Chatham, it can be difficult to align it with a modern map of the area. Roughly speaking, the coverage begins at Chatham Light and the northern edge of Stage Harbor and extends south to Monomoy Island and Vineyard Sound (The chart identifies Chatham Lights, but one of the pair was moved to Nauset in the 1920s.) Hundreds of soundings are given, along with notations indicating currents; shoals and other hazards; and buoys, lighthouses, light ships and other aids to navigation. Sailing directions are provided for entering Stage harbor and navigating the shoals off Monomoy. Consistent with Eldridge’s later work, the whole is executed in a style that is attractive but entirely functional and free of unnecessary information or adornment.

I’ve no idea how many copies of the chart were run off, but given the pent-up demand the print run was likely rather large. The charts must however have seen hard use, and few examples seem to have survived: I am aware of but one institutional holding, at the Library of Congress, and the chart appears infrequently on the antiquarian market.

The reception of this first effort seems to have been positive, for in 1854 Eldridge issued a much more ambitious chart of Vineyard Sound and in 1860 one of the New England coast. He remained active until around 1900, continuing to produce charts but extending his business into chart books, sailing guides and tide books. The business prospered, even in the face of competition from the U.S. Coast Survey:

“Although based upon the official Coast Surveys, the Eldridge charts were unsubsidized and more expensive. They survived because of good design, simplicity, omission of extraneous shore topography, legible sounding and notes, and the use of compass courses only.… Their loyal public, fishermen, coaster, tug masters, and yachtsmen, often continued to use obsolete Eldridge charts until the beginning of World War II.” (Guthorn, p. 12)

Eldridge’s son George W. (1845-1914) later took over the business, and the family firm continued issuing charts through 1932. Though under new ownership, the Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book is published to this day.

Guthorn, U.S. Coastal Charts, p. 48 (illustrating the Library of Congress example). Not in Digital Commonwealth: Massachusetts Collections Online; OCLC; Phillips, Maps of America or the on-line catalogs of the Boston Public Library and Harvard. Background on the firm of Eldridge may be found in Garver, Surveying the Shore, p. 129 and Guthorn, U. S. Coastal Charts, p. 12.