A unique archive of manuscript and printed maps and plans tracing efforts over more than half a century to develop the Surfside area on Nantucket’s south shore. The material documents changing conceptions of the area, from a planned community of large lots and generous parkland, very much in the mode of contemporary resort communities such as Maine’s Cape Arundel, to a more pragmatic, high-density model designed to “pack ‘em in.” Until recently the archive has been in the possession of a descendant of one of the original developers.
After decades of great prosperity mid-18th century Nantucket entered a steep economic and demographic decline. The primary cause was the increasing scarcity of whales, which necessitated the construction of ever-larger vessels able to voyage far into the Pacific, but too large to negotiate the sand bar at the entrance to Nantucket Harbor. The decline was accelerated by the double blow of the Great Fire of 1846 followed by the mass exodus of men, boys and ships lured by the California Gold Rush. By the end of the Civil War, which claimed yet more islanders, Nantucket’s population had fallen from a high of 9000 in 1840 to fewer than 5000.
No one quite knew it quite yet, but the island’s long-term future lay with the seasonal tourist economy. By the 1870s the accumulation of wealth among America’s upper and middle classes began to create demand for tourism options, while the explosion of rail and steamer links connecting the island with Cape Cod, Boston, and New York provided a means of meeting that demand.
Against this background a number of real estate development companies began sniffing around Nantucket, among them the Surfside Land Company. Established in 1873 by prominent citizen Henry Coffin, his brother, son and two other local men, the Company purchased land along the island’s South Shore. The parcel was huge, occupying some three miles of coast between Weweeder and Nobader Ponds. This was a visionary move, as the coast was gorgeous but empty of habitation or amenities until a Coast Guard lifesaving station was erected there in 1874.
Sales seem to have been slow until the Nantucket Railroad inaugurated service to Surfside on July 4, 1881. Around the same time a restaurant was opened, and the Surfside Hotel was established by moving a structure piece-by-piece from Providence, Rhode Island. One estimate has it that in its first season of service the train carried 30,000 passengers, many times the island’s full-time population. As a result of these improvements, the Land Company’s sales picked up, and by 1884 180 lots had been sold, though no residences appear to have been constructed. The owners were optimistic though: a puff piece in F. H. Bull’s 1889 Illustrated Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Taunton, New Bedford, Fall River predicted that “within a few years, this splendid line of beach and bluffs will probably become the summer resort of crowds who are now content with far more common-place and less attractive quarters during the heated term.” (p. 133)
Indeed, despite some progress the development never took hold. The Railroad, repeatedly washed out by winter storms, went belly up in 1895 and was reorganized as the Nantucket Central. The Surfside route was abandoned, with the new line running from town through Tom Nevers and on to Siasconset on the eastern end of the island. Surfside withered, the hotel fell into disrepair and collapsed in 1899, and the Land Company eventually sold out for a measly $2.80 an acre. Today Surfside has been developed only sparsely, though traces of the 19th-century developers’ vision can still be seen on maps of the area.
Maps and plans of Surfside
This archive includes a dozen manuscript, lithographic and blueprint maps and plans of Surfside and its immediate surroundings. The content ranges from simple plats of individual parcels to two large and beautiful manuscripts dated 1873 and 1882 respectively.
Taken together, the maps and plans present the evolution (or devolution) of the Surfside Company’s vision for the area. The first item depicts property holdings before their acquisition by the Surfside Company. This is followed by a magnificent 1873 plan for a sort of garden suburb of Nantucket town, reminiscent of plans for similar resorts up and down the New England Coast. The next and largest group demonstrates how within a decade this expansive vision had morphed into a plan for a densely-packed subdivision of tiny lots, clearly designed to pack in as many holiday cottages as possible. By the 1920s, decades after the Company’s plans had failed to materialize, a pair of blueprint plans suggest how the area was divided into a patchwork of large and small holdings, with relatively little actual construction.
- Rufus Cook, Civil and Topographical Engineer. 88 State Street, Boston. MAP OF SURF-SIDE THE PROPERTY OF THE NANTUCKET SURF-SIDE COMPANY. 1873. Ms. in ink and watercolor on surveyor’s linen, 10”h x ca. 27”w at neat line (sides rolled). The area bounded by the Atlantic and extending roughly 4 ½ miles east from Miacomet Pond. Appears to show the parcels from which the Surfside property was assembled. A later note mentions a parcel sold to C.G. Coffin in 1882.
- Rufus Cook. Civil and Topographical Engineer, 88 State Street, Boston. MAP OF SURF-SIDE THE PROPERTY OF THE NANTUCKET SURF-SIDE COMPANY. 1873. Ms. in ink on surveyor’s linen, 22 1/8”h x 45 ¼”w at neat line. A beautiful manuscript depicting the area between Miacomet (to the west) and Nobadeer Ponds (to the east), with the Company’s original vision of a development of some 480 lots including extensive open space and parkland. Largest of the group, and most attractive after the Cartwright ms. of 1882.
- Drawn by D.J. Cartwright Boston Mass., MAP OF SURF-SIDE THE PROPERTY OF THE NANTUCKET SURF-SIDE COMPANY. 1882. SEC. 1. Ms. in ink on surveyor’s linen, 24 ¼”h x 26 ½”w at neat line. Ink stamped numbers to blocks and numerous annotations in pencil, colored pencil and ink. Some street names written in ink. Large plan depicting the area flanking Atlantic Ave. / Nantucket Railroad after they make their turn inland, and the area further west. A beautiful piece, with the title superimposed on a delicately-rendered nautical scene.
- [D.J. Cartwright Boston Mass.], SEC. 5 / SEC. 6. [1882.] Ms. in ink on surveyor’s linen, 24 1/8”h x 26 ¼”w at neat line. Ink stamped numbers to blocks and numerous annotations in pencil, colored pencil and ink. A companion to the previous item, though unadorned.
- Surveyed by H.M. Waitt, Sept. 25, 1885, PLAN OF LANDS AT MADEQUECHAM also showing The Extension of Weweeder Avenue in SURFSIDE. Ms. in ink and watercolor on surveyor’s linen, 7 7/8”h x 15 ½”w at neat line. Narrow area between Atlantic and Weweeder extending east from Central Ave. and the Hotel. Extends 10,040’ east of Andrew Street.
- Henry W. Wilson, Civil Engineer, 190 Dorchester St., Boston, PLAN of lands of the NANTUCKET SURFSIDE LAND CO…. Plan B…. Office 46 School Street, Boston. No date [but ca. 1891?] Lithograph with ms. additions in pencil, colored pencil and ink, 18 ¼”h x 26 7/8”w at sheet edge. Area bounded by Atlantic, South Shore Road (to the west) and Barker Street (to the east). Shows the Nantucket Railroad, Life Saving Station, and high water mark. Not in OCLC.
- [Henry W. Wilson, Civil Engineer,] MAP OF PROPERTY OF THE SURF SIDE SYNDICATE, NANTUCKET, MASS…. LOTS FOR SALE BY ROBERT APPLETON, JR. EAST GRANGE, N.J. No date [but ca. 1891?] Lithograph on very thin paper, image area 25 7/8”h x 36 ¼”w at sheet edge, numerous lots highlighted in blue watercolor. Substantially identical to the previous item, though on a rather larger scale, hence attribution to Wilson. Appleton was an insurance agent and realtor, acting as sales agent for the Surfside Land Company. As of November 2017 OCLC lists but one institutional holding (Boston Public Library).
- Henry W. Wilson, C.E., 190 Dorchester St., Boston, Mass., LAND OF FREDERICK S. HOPKINS, AT SURFSIDE, NANTUCKET, MASS…. July 20th 1891. Blueprint, ca. 28”h (edges ragged) x 37 ¼”w at sheet edge. Blocks and lots of various sizes, all numbered. Appears to connect with Wilson’s plan of Section 1 (next item) along left side.
- Henry W. Wilson, Civil Engineer, SEC. 1. No date [but ca. 1891?] Blueprint, 21 3/8”h x 31 1/8”w at sheet edge. The area between Boston St. and Okorwaw, Lindsay and Oniska Aves.
- Wm. S. Swift, Surveyor, Land at Nantucket SURVEYED FOR HENRY C. EVERETT Nov. 1921. Blueprint, 22 3/8”h x 34 ¾”w at neat line. Subdivision of a large parcel between Western Ave. and the Atlantic.
- William F. Swift C.E., Land in “Surfside” Nantucket. Surveyed for Frederick G. Platt. Dec. 22 1927. Blueprint, 13”h x 17 3/8”w at neat line. Plat of a single parcel between Weweeder Ave. and the Atlantic, with inset showing its location between Madquecham and Toochka Ponds. A note on verso reads “no interest to H.C.E. [i.e., Henry Coffin Everett.”
- Anon., Plan of Portion of Section 2 of Surf-side Lands. No date. Ink on tracing paper, 7 ¾”h x 12 ¾”w at sheet edge. Tracing from “Book of Plans No. 2 page 26” showing 31 numbered lots of various sizes, including two labeled “Hotel” and “Reserve.” “Atlantic Ave. West” and “Atlantic Ave. East” run along the Atlantic shore.
In summary, a remarkable group of maps and plans related to a significant 19th-century Nantucket real estate speculation and development. Impossible to reproduce today.
This group of Surfside maps and plans was acquired as part of a group of some 150 Nantucket cartographic items, all related to division of common lands, property subdivisions, and surveys of individual parcels. As demonstrated by 20th-century correspondence that accompanied the archive, the material belonged to Frank H. and Clara Low (1925-2016) of Nantucket. Clara was the daughter of Henry Coffin Everett (1891-1963) and the great-great-granddaughter of Henry Coffin (1807-1900), one of the key figures of 19th century Nantucket. Henry built the house at 75 Main Street, across from his brother Charles G. at 78 Main. The men were in the whale-oil business together in the firm C.G. &H. Coffin. When that industry failed in the mid-19th century, they—along with Henry’s son Charles F.—were early developers of a plan for Surfside to become a summer cottage community that would rival Siasconset, a thriving resort on the east end of the island. Charles F. Coffin also created a development south of the village of ‘Sconset called Low Beach.
For more on Henry Coffin, see Betsy Tyler, “Henry Coffin: A Profile.” Historic Nantucket Vol. 61 no. 1 (Spring 2011), p. 5. For background on Surfside, see Frances Ruley Karttunen, “Surfside’s Ocean View.” Yesterday’s Island (Winter 2017). And for the Nantucket Railroad, see Peter Schmid, “The Nantucket Railroad.” Historic Nantucket (Summer 2000), reprinted on the web site of the Nantucket Historical Association.
Condition varies from poor to very good, but most good to very good.