It was just 100 years ago that Union Chapel raised a spire 96 feet into the air. There was nothing else higher in the rapidly growing community of Oak Bluffs at the time, but a year later the Sea View Hotel was built opposite the new steamboat wharf, and one of its towers was 100 feet high with a flagstaff on its peak adding an additional 16 feet to the overall height. It stood on the bluffs, while the Union Chapel was built on lower ground. The Chapel Hill on which it was built was little more than a mound of slight elevation.
In 1878, the Massachusetts Baptist Association dedicated a new temple which had been built the year before in a grove of trees on the Highlands. It was an open air structure, octagon in shape, “with a monitor roof, atop which was a flagpole, the tip of which was 140 feet from the ground.” The next year the Methodist Camp Meeting Association replaced the canvas-topped tent in which they had held meetings for nine years, with a new Tabernacle, open to the air and circular in shape. Above the saucer-shaped roof there rose a second roof, then a third roof, and above all was a domed cupola and staff. The lighted cross came much later.
Any insinuation of worldly competition should be promptly discounted as shameful and unworthy. The important fact is that Oak Bluffs eventually became a political entity because of gatherings of off-Island visitors who came to attend religious services.
The Methodists started the retreat to the Vineyard back in 1835. At that time there were only scattered farms in the Oak Bluffs area which was politically a part of Edgartown. The soil was generally sandy and poor, and there were many marshy expenses. It was the presence of a grove of large oak trees and the ability to arrange for an inexpensive lease that caused the location of a camp meeting site. The project was initiated by several Edgartown residents.
Steamboats brought the worshipers to the old New York wharf which extended the Vineyard Haven harbor at the end of New York avenue. They either walked the weary mile to the hallowed grove, or rode in horse-drawn vehicles. They lived in tents arranged in a circle about the patriarchal oak trees: some in family tents, and others in large dormitory tents. They met for worship under the interlacing boughs of the sturdy trees. The preacher exhorted the gathering from a raised stoop which had a roof. He, at least, had protection from sudden showers.
The annual meetings continued with various ups and downs until, in the years following the Civil War, it was reported that thousands came during a season to the grounds of the Camp Meeting. They came ostensibly to attend religious services, but more and more often it was hinted that they came to enjoy the unique attractions of the Vineyard. Croquet flourished to the disapproval of some. Not only was it a secular activity, but the temptation to cheat was ever present. There was also the temptation, especially to youth, to go for an evening stroll along the shore. This discredited act was known as “bluffing.” 

Crowds Arriving

Meanwhile the 35 acres which had been leased and eventually purchased had become crowded, and the Vineyard was receiving off-Island publicity. One publication referred to the Island as “The Great American Watering Place.” A rather notorious character was quoted by a New York newspaper thus: “The Association bought these 35 acres for $3000.00. They are now worth $300,000.00, and in 10 years I could make them worth $3,000,000.00”
The directors of the Camp Meeting Association were distributed by such publicity. Also, because of the cramped quarters, it seemed wise to acquire more property. Such a procedure would not only give their adherents more room, but would keep out undesirables. They decided to purchase adjacent acreage.
But it was too late. Suddenly there appeared upon the scene the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company which managed to buy a considerable acreage before the Camp Meeting directors got around to buying it. There was great consternation among the directors. They feared the influx of worldly influences, and they were irked by the fact that the presence of their Association had added value to land that would otherwise have been worth very little. You can’t blame them.
On the other hand, you can’t blame the half dozen men who formed the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company. If you were a retired sea captain who had made a modest fortune and were looking for a good investment that would yield dividends, you wouldn’t bury your capital in the back yard. The fact that you might be a church member in good standing wouldn’t interfere with an honest business venture.


Three Sea Captains

There were three retired sea captains, along with an Edgartown merchant whose father had been a sea captain, and a Boston merchant who formed the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company. Later a promoter from Foxboro joined the group and ran things. It was claimed that all of these men were highly respectable, some of them “even Christian men,” and therefore not at all antagonistic to the camp meeting atmosphere. In fact, their company agreed to sell or lease all the lots subject to the restrictions and regulations of the Camp Meeting Association.
It might surprise some present Camp Meeting ground dwellers who, today, are considered perfectly respectable, and even Christian, to discover that they are breaking conditions stated in the original bills of sale by playing cards or serving cocktails.
In spite of affirmations of the members of the Land and Wharf Company that they had no intention of offending the occupants of Camp Meeting property, the officials of the latter group took an exceedingly dim view of the situation. It was such a dim view that in the late sixties, just over 100 years ago, the Camp Meeting Association erected a seven foot picket fence around its entire acreage. Its gates closed for the night at 10 p.m. However, the “bluffers” found ways of crawling under or of scaling the barrier. Occasional traces of the fence can be found today.
The Association even went so far as to purchase 55 acres of land in the East Chop area which was then called the Highlands. But this action roused a great deal of protest from Camp Meeting adherents, so that eventually the men who had advanced the money for this purchase organized the Vineyard Grove Company. One of the men had claimed that the move was protection against the encroachments of the Oak Bluffs Company. One of the men had claimed that the move was protection against the encroachments of the Oak Bluffs Company. There was the suggestion that life in Oak Bluffs outside the Camp Meeting area might become so worldly that its adherents would need a place to which they might retreat.

Sandy Mile to Eastville

The Oak Bluffs Company, meanwhile, was instrumental in getting the railroad from Boston extended from Monument Beach to Woods Hole. The company built a wharf at Oak Bluffs. This relieved the hundreds and sometimes thousands of arriving campers from trudging on foot or being transported by horsedrawn vehicle the sandy mile from Eastville.
The company succeeded also in getting the Western Union Telegraph Company to lay a cable from Falmouth to the Vineyard. Previously, there had been a semaphore at the East Chop lighthouse to receive from or send to the mainland important messages.
The company built bath houses, a boardwalk from the wharf southward for 2,600 feet, an octagonal pavilion, and an open observatory. The Arcade on Circuit Avenue was built for business purposes. Streets were surfaced with blacktop. Plans were under way for a luxury hotel to be built opposite the wharf. But first it seemed necessary to build a house of worship.
When the Association built the fence around Camp Meeting property there was the intimation that religion and worship were contained therein, while worldly influences were dominant outside. The company directors undoubtedly resented such an insinuation. One can imagine them in solemn conclave. A director might have exclaimed, “We are righteous and God-fearing men, and so are the people who come here who had not connected with the Camp Meeting.”
Another might have suggested, “We must build a place of worship for them. It’s not enough to provide bathing, band concerts, good roads, and promenades. People must have a place in which to worship.”
Apparently it didn’t occur to the Association directors that the outsiders might have entered the Camp Ground to attend religious services. Instead, they seemed obsessed by the idea that the fast growing community was without a place of worship.


Canvas Tabernacle

In August, 1870, before the directors of the Land and Wharf Company had reached first base with plans for a chapel, a canvas Tabernacle was raised on the site of the original Wesleyan Grove, at a cost of $3,000. The great oaks under which the first services had been held were now all gone.
In November of that year an anonymous wayfarer sent the following report to the Vineyard Gazette: “Row after row of cottages with shuttered windows and barred doors and not a solitary croquet stick or chignon to gladden his hungry vision. Occasionally one meets a squad of melancholy hens whose downcast eyes and contemplative bill seem mourning the loss of departed swill-tubs and garbage barrels, from which they have so often received refreshments. But be of good courage, O Fowl! a few brief months and the summer will return and thou shalt be renewed.
“This place is now eminently fitted for the habitation of a poet of melancholy cast...But in the midst of all this desolation, there is one thing decidedly enlivening - the din of saw and hammer. It does seem as though they would never get through building cottages.
“The Highlands is comparatively quiet, though by no means lifeless...The planning completed as far as building is concerned, and awaits arrival of the machinery which is expected daily. It (the building) is 70 feet long by 30 feet wide, with a side projection 20 feet by 35 feet for engine room and boiler. The mill will probably be in operation in 3 or 4 weeks.”
Early in this century, the building ended, but large units of rust machinery stood for some years on the ground near the Huss property. Now, in the present 1970s few Vineyarders are aware of the reason for naming an adjacent right of way Old Mill Road, or for using the name Mill Square Park for one of the East Chop open areas.
The anonymous wayfarer went on to note that Oak Bluffs was all commotion, with they laying of paved roads, a board walk to the bathing beach, and the building of the eight-sided pagoda. “Last but by no means least,” he concludes, “there is to be a chapel on Chapel Hill, proposals for which are already being received. It is to be finished by July 1 (1871) and cost $10 to $12,000.00. This is to be really a unique affair and a decided monument to the locality. It will be free to preachers of every theological complexion (including of course the Liberals) so that all will have an opportunity of hearing the truth as they believe it. All this is by the Corporation.”

Scarcity of News

This view of life in late autumn in Oak Bluffs was welcomed by the Gazette editor who, the week before, had apologized for the scarcity of reported news. This was because he had spent two and a half days printing ballots for the coming election. The following week he wrote of “the handsome residences, cozy cottages, mammoth hotels, churches and public buildings.” The new landing was reported to be a fine stone structure. The number of wharfs and piers on the Island had increased.
The summer of 1871 sounds more eventful than any summer before or since. The Gazette spoke of the new bridge across the Lagoon opening into Vineyard Haven harbor, claiming it had become the resort of sentimental lovers who frequent it on moonlight nights. A maiden, looking at the tall masts in the harbor, described them as “silent sentinels guarding the portals of ‘Haven’.”
Coastwise shipping flourished in those days, and often in bad weather the harbor was crowded with schooners, mostly three- and four-masted, many of which were bringing lumber from Maine; along with tugs with barges loaded with coal from Pennsylvania.
On June 23, the Gazette reported that the “new chapel has been raised, and when complete, with the spire reaching an altitude of 96 feet, will overtop everything. It will be a novel structure, and will seat about 800 persons.” It wouldn’t be finished by July 1, though, as predicted, and it cost $16,000 instead of the estimate of from $10,000 to $12,000.
Two weeks later, the Gazette reported the celebration of the 300th anniversary of both Edgartown and Tisbury. The day’s program was held near the Camp Grounds, undoubtedly because they were centrally located for both towns. The Vineyard Comet Band played the Bartholomew Gosnold Quickstep. Singing and more band music was “interspersed with brief (?) remarks from some distinguished persons who are always ready to talk.”
Before considering details of the program, readers should understand that there was then no harbor in Oak Bluffs. The body of water now kept open to the Sound between jetties was usually landlocked, and one could walk on the beach from the Highlands to the Oak Bluffs wharf. It was called Squash Meadow Lake, presumably because of the Squash Meadow shoals off shore. By the turn of the century it was called Lake Anthony, and eventually it became Oak Bluffs Harbor.
The day’s program on that historic occasion began at 9 a.m. with a procession. At 10:30 there was a regatta on Squash Meadow Lake, and at noon a Grand Collation was served, followed by after dinner speeches. At 2 o’clock there was an address. An hour later the Home guards were featured. And at 4 o’clock Copenhagen was played by the entire audience in a ring. There were accommodations for 10,000 people. Alas, that there were no moving picture cameras in that day!

Side-Wheeler Days

Late in July of that eventful summer of 1871 the steamer Martha’s Vineyard made her first run. Steamers already in operation were the Monohansett and the Island Home. This new steamboat with side paddles preceded the Martha’s Vineyard of the mid-twentieth century. By the beginning of the twentieth century the first Martha’s Vineyard was used primarily as an excursion steamer.
The first Illumination had occurred in 1869, so the eventful summer of 1871 included one of these unique celebrations. There was also the expectation of the building of the Sea View Hotel.
Finally, in the Gazette issue of Aug. 23, we read about the dedication of Union Chapel on Aug. 20 at 10:30 a.m., with the Rev. Dr. Turner of Hartford, chairman of the dedication committee, presiding. “After the organ voluntary there was the singing of the Credo from La Hache’s Mass for Peace by the Park Street Church choir. The invocation and reading of scripture was by the Rev. J. J. Roberts, D.D. of New York, followed by a hymn sung by the congregation. There was an Introductory Address by the Rev. Dr. Quint of New Bedford, a Dedicatory Prayer by the Rev. Dr. Brown of Warren, R.I., the Principal Address by the Rev. Tiffany of Newark, N.J., and a Concluding Address by the Rev. Mr. Clark of Newtonville, Mass. After the singing of a hymn by the congregation the Benediction was pronounced by the Rev. Dr. Woodruff of New York. Mr. L. P. Thatcher superintended the singing.”
According to the Gazette article “the addresses were remarkable for their non-sectarian character, as became the occasion and the varied elements embraced in the congregation. The speakers united in commending the liberality evinced in the erection of the chapel and hoped that the influence of the new church might be as widely felt as its peculiar opportunities would seem to warrant.”
By this time you might think that everyone would have heaved a deep sigh and, after a noontime repast, have succumbed to the relaxing power of Vineyard air. But no! At 3:30 p.m. the Rev. Dr. Gould of Hartford preached in the Chapel from Matthew 27:22, on the subject, The Trial of Jesus Before Pilate.
Union Chapel, as everyone knows, is octagonal in shape. The late J. Gordon Ogden Jr., who was president of the Oak Bluffs Christian Union, a corporation which now owns and maintains the chapel, once claimed that as far as he knew there was no religious significance in the use of the octagonal form or in the dominance of “eight” throughout the building.

Octagonals Generally Favored

“It is my belief, though I have no way to prove it,” Dr. Ogden said, “that the chapel was made in such a fashion because its founders wanted it to look like a house of God, and yet, because it is nonsectarian, did not want it to follow the building pattern of any established church.”
It is a fact, however, that in the latter part of the past century the octagonal pattern was used now and then. Such a style undoubtedly was uncommon, yet it must have appealed to the directors of the Oak Bluffs Company, for they used the octagonal form also in constructing the pavilion by the bathing beach, often referred to as the Pagoda.
It is claimed that the Baptist Temple, torn down years ago, was octagonal. In later years when the still existing Tabernacle was built, with a circular roof topped by a square super-structure, the cupola at the apex was and still is octagonal. And above the church, situated at the edge of the circular park, rises an eight-sided spire.
When the chapel was first built it was trimmed and decorated lavishly. This was an age of gingerbread and rococo. The eight walls of the chapel were capped by a smaller octagon, out of which rose a tall eight-sided cone making the roof. From the peak of the roof rose a spire of intricate design somewhat suggestive of a minaret. Lesser spires rose from the peaks of the tower windows.
The official entrance faced on Narragansett avenue. Above the porch-like vestibule was “an upper porch with fretted woodwork and a balcony railing of ornamentally pierced boards.” Opening into the lobby inside were an attiring room, a lavatory, and stairs leading to the choir loft and to the balcony.
The balcony extended around five sides of the octagon, supported by square posts. From the peak there were eight wooden braces that converge to suspend a large chandelier. Supports for the peak were a series of large wooden triangles placed so as to form an eight-pointed star right in the center of the peak.
The original glass in the windows high in the peaks was a special blue imported from France. Two windows in the vestry were leaded stained glass, probably the work of Tiffany’s in New York. There was a “profusion of knicknacks” with “bizarre crimson and yellow scroll work.” There were no pews, but rows of chairs which, appropriately enough in a chapel established by three sea captains, are slightly modified versions of the well-known captain’s chair. They had beautiful caned seats.
There seems to be no information available about the architect and designer. Dr. Ogden thought that the chapel was built by Vineyard workmen, “as the method of construction is similar to that found in a good many Vineyard houses erected around that period.” 
After all the excitement during the summer of 1871, the following summer might have been an anti-climax had it not been for the completion of the new Sea View Hotel, located where the recently built Town Hall stands. Perhaps emboldened by the success of the ornate Union Chapel, the members of the Oak Bluffs Company really extended themselves in building the hotel. “It transformed the whole aspect, the whole character of the community. Its towers were an imaginative flight, its whole effect was that of a fantasy, a wish-fulfilment, of the time. Like some chateau of dreams it stood, magnificent, and with an air.”
Furthermore, it had cost $102,000, and the furnishings cost $30,000. The north tower was 100 feet high, topped by a flagstaff 16 feet in length, thus dwarfing the Union Chapel spire. What a change from early life on the Camp Ground in a dormitory tent, with water available from a centrally located hand pump! 
In fact, what a change all over. On sterile soil, and amid stagnant pools, there had arisen a fairy tale town. Walt Disney couldn’t have imagined anything more miraculous. And yet - can’t you imagine the mumblings from oldtimers: “I don’t know what the world is coming to!”
The imaginations of the oldtimers would have been staggered by a glimpse into the next 100 years. What happened during those years would fill many large tomes to overflowing. What this prelude is leading up to is the story of Union Chapel during the century of its existence. That story will appear in the Directory Edition of the Gazette.