From a Gazette edition in 1958:

Martha’s Vineyard is famous for many things, not least of which are the waters which surround it. Explorers from the earliest times remarked upon the tidal phenomena which were and still are of unbelievable nature.

Curious currents which behave in a manner contrary to accepted rules are generally caused by the widely-varying depths of the water, which in turn are due to the peculiar shoals which nearly surround the Island, except in a few places where ledges, heavy and mussel-grown, intersperse the sandy stretches of sea-bottom.

Such shoals are known to science as being “fluid,” by which is indicated a variety of quicksand where a true sounding of the depth is virtually impossible because of the movement of the sand in the tide and its peculiar consistency. In some places this sand is so extremely fluid that large vessels stranding upon it have been swallowed up within a brief period. Elsewhere the sand may be found more firm, and there have been stories of schooners stranded “hard and fast,” but which floated without aid at the turn of the tide which cut the sand from beneath their hulls.

Of such curious nature is Middle Ground shoal, the long, narrow bank which splits Vineyard Sound in two lengthwise for nearly half its length.

It is a region of strange tidal phenomena. Even in an oily calm it is dotted with whirlpools which spin and disappear and reappear. Here and there the water boils upward as if great jets were being thrown up from the sea bottom, and along the edges of the bank, depending upon the phase of tide, the sea literally stands up with a million tongues of foam-flecked water.

Here, under all conditions the steep bank of the shoal is fretted by the tide, the sand-eels, brit and spirling being dislodged, so that they draw larger fish, such as the bluefish, mackerel and summer fluke.

It may be seen that Middle Ground is a fascinating place; a place of music and pleasure in calm weather, of menace when the winds breeze. Its sandy bottom holds little vegetation and its waters are insane in their behavior. But all this is as nothing compared with the background of this shoal as related to Island folk tales.

Alfred Norton of Makonikey had lived for many years within sight of Middle Ground, and although he was a farmer he undoubtedly knew his tides and ocean, together with small boats, as most of his generation did. He was the man, more particularly than others, who told stories of the shoal.

In his boyhood, he declared, the shoal was an island, long and narrow, even as the strip of sand now lies, but of considerable height. It was grassy and contained clumps of trees, some swamps, where living springs poured out their torrents of fresh, sweet water. The grazing there was unusually good, and he said that stock raisers carried sheep and young cattle to Middle Ground in early summer, pasturing them until fall and hard weather.

The transporting of boat-loads of sheep or calves was therefore a common procedure, and Mr. Norton’s account as relating to Middle Ground indicated that the Vineyarders followed this practice for a considerable period. It is a pity that no one ever asked him why the practice ceased. Presumably the island disappeared and became the shoal as it lies today. But how and when is the question. Folk tales must be involved again for there is no record. Tradition says that a terrible storm occurred somewhere about a century ago. Real hurricanes were not thought of then, but this must have been a hurricane or storm of similar intensity. Perhaps the island that is now Middle Ground was destroyed at the time.

Other islands, such as Skiff’s Island, were somehow wiped out by storms, together with much land along the Vineyard shores.

A person of today, hearing this tale, is inclined to be skeptical and small wonder. He is prone to doubt if there ever was such an island and to doubt all references to it. Yet Alfred Norton was emphatic as he told the story, giving sufficient detail as to be most convincing. And certain evidence supports his words, for the jets that rise today from the shoal, like streams bursting from huge hose nozzles, are icy-cold when the surrounding water is warm. The belief is that these are the flow from ancient springs where once the cattle drank.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner