From the June 22, 1956 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

In the year 1870, it is reported, 27,000 vessels passed through Vineyard Sound, and this was not necessarily a large volume of traffic. The Sound then was a main highway of the sea, and the times were good for shipping. Many years later, steam largely replaced sail, and the Cape Cod Canal was dug for a short cut, so that Islanders with a view of Vineyard Sound missed the sights of the old days.

The Sound has gone through many eras. It has served outbound and inbound whaleships, privateers, men of war, old time fishing smacks, modern sea sleds and power cruisers, canoes and ocean liners, lobstermen and scientists, pirates and missionaries, hijackers and rumrunners, coal schooners and coal barges in long sequence behind gallant little tugs — the list is practically endless so far as floating craft are concerned.

First there was discovery, and a narrative of Gosnold’s voyage in 1602 tells how his ship came into a “fair sound.” Then a shift of eras, and early commerce was finding its way through Vineyard Sound on the way up or down the coast, and practically all vessels plying between Boston and northerly ports to the West Indies used the highway of the Sound.

Those were times of freebooting, and since rich cargoes passed through Vineyard Sound, here was an attractive place for pirates. In 1689, Capt. Thomas Pound, one time commander of the British frigate Rose, turned to piracy with a crew of some twenty-five men including Thomas Hawkins and Eleazer Buck. On Aug. 27, Pound chased the brigantine Merrimack into Holmes Hole, the present Vineyard Haven, and plundered her of provisions.

An annal of a different sort, involving smuggling rather than piracy, dates back to 1740. The brig Orotava of Boston, Robert Williamson, master, carried two guns according to her papers, but actually she mounted seven. For convenience she also had an extra set of ship’s papers and an extra name, Fortune, so that she could shift identity with all possible speed.

Countless vessels of those earlier years passed through Vineyard Sound, lay for shelter at Tarpaulin Cove, or anchored for water and supplies, or for refuge, in the harbor of Holmes Hole. Perhaps the significance of the Sound in maritime affairs may be put most strikingly through some mention of the Jonathan Grout telegraph.

On Oct. 24, 1800, he obtained a patent for a line of semaphores from the Vineyard to Boston, to be operated from hilltop to hilltop, with telescopes used for sighting.

Through the decades that followed though the Grout telegraph functioned for a few years only, the unending procession of vessels through Vineyard Sound continued. In the year 1860, some 90,000 vessels were counted as they sailed within sight of Gay Head.

For about a hundred and fifty years the vessels passing through Vineyard Sound had been of all kinds, from ports far and near, carrying all sorts of cargo. Gradually the change from sail to steam brought a change of times. Although tramp steamers and coastwise lines such as that from Boston to Savannah, made use of Vineyard Sound, most of the bigger vessels used outside routes; and much more commerce was now carried by the railroads than ever before. Coastal shipping declined in importance. From 1870 to 1909, however, was the era of the great coal schooners of New England, and most of them were intimates of Vineyard Sound. Fifty years ago a Vineyarder on any hilltop could look out on a sunny day and see the light flashing on dozens of tall sails as the schooners made the most of the winds that blew at the time. It was not unusual to see four or five five-masters, one or two six-masters, a dozen or so smaller schooners, and various incidental craft, all at the same time. Now and then the seven-master herself, the Thomas W. Lawson, sailed past.

That was increasingly the era of coal barges, too, as they began to displace schooners. Long tows of barges, many of them converted, became more and more familiar, and at Vineyard Haven during a blow the tugs clustered beside the wharf, until as many as six or seven, or even more, lay side by side.

In the end it was steam, together with shifting conditions in industry, and the growth of the railroads, that brought to a close the era of the coal schooners.

And the opening of the Cape Cod Canal, which was completed in 1914, shifted to the inner waterway the main stream of water traffic that had used Vineyard Sound. This change did not happen at once. During the early years of the canal, many vessels continued to go through the Sound. But, little by little, the Sound was deserted by most of the familiar steamers and sailing craft.

Eventually the canal was acquired and improved by the federal government, and this was the natural artery for coastwise traffic of the new times. In the Sound one now saw for the most part fishing craft and yachts.

Compiled by Hilary Wall