From the June 6, 1969 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

So many mists of so many yesterdays have closed in upon the story of the Boston and Martha’s Vineyard Peat Co. that today it is a mysterious enterprise. The fact is that the company, in 1867, acquired 10 or more of the peat bogs or swamps that lie among the hills and woods of the Island’s North Shore region, and built a wharf just west of Cedar Tree Neck for shipping purposes. It couldn’t have been a large wharf, for the sea-worm ends of a few spiles still to be found indicate no impressive construction.

Where the peat was shipped, how much was shipped, and for what purpose, no one now seems to know. Presumably the company promoters believed they have found a market for peat to be used as fuel, and presumably they soon learned they were mistaken.

The only accessible records, so far as anyone on the Island seems to know today, are to be found in the Registry of Deeds. On Jan. 2, 1867, Allen Look of Tisbury sold two acres of peat land to the company; this bog was bounded on the west by land recently conveyed to Allen Look by Benjamin Hillman, and all other sides by land of John T. Daggett. The deed included “the privilege of draining said swamp or land whenever it shall be most convenient, and also the right way to and from said swamp to and from the landing most convenient for said company.”

Another deed from Allen Look covered 3 1/2 acres of peat swamp, more or less, and the bounds included a maple tree on the northeast corner of the land, a horn beam tree, and an oak tree. This deed gave the company the right “to build a wharf from said premises.”

Other peat swamps conveyed to the company were 6 1/2 acres from Wilbur F. Flanders, mariner, of Chilmark; 6 acres and 1 1/2 acres from Dr. William H. Luce of Tisbury — who reserved a six-foot strip for his own use; and another three acres from Dr. Luce “located northwest of Solomon’s Hill, so called; and southwards of the Great Peat Swamp, so called.”

In August, 1873, Oliver B. Dorrance, as an individual, sold back to John T. Daggett “the Pine Tree Swamp” of one and a half acres. Mr. Dorrance, obviously a principal in the enterprise, died prior to February, 1876, and in that month Sara G. Dorrance as administratrix, sold 10 tracts of peat land to Annie Dorrance of Boston. Since this sale was under license by the probate court, the price was named in the deed - $165.

Whether any further attempts were made to dig and ship peat is questionable; in any case, the end came in 1881 when James F. Cleveland, tax collector of Tisbury, “struck off to the town of Tisbury for $17.82, several small tracts or parcels of land in the northwest part of Tisbury, together with a wharf property into the Vineyard Sound.” The peat lots were described as aggregating 30 acres more or less.

Time and winter storms removed the wharf except for a few worn and sharpened stumps that once were spiles, and eventually the owners of surrounding land acquired the various peat swamps from the town of West Tisbury which had split off from Tisbury.

Today the swamp nearest the shore, from which peat was trundled down hill to the wharf, has become a dark pond over which oaks and maples lean. The deep ditch which once drained a working area is obstructed by generations of fallen leaves and by trees that have grown up thickly along its course.

Even on a sunny June day when the light filters down through heavy foliage and strikes full upon the pond and its streakings of green algae, the place has an eerie feeling. The desertion, except for catbirds and chewinks and the secret life of bog and wood, is complete. Seldom does any human being visit this relic of one of the least known of the Island’s commercial enterprises of long ago.

Mankind still burns the past but now it’s mostly oil from deeply buried reservoirs. Scientists aren’t fully agreed as to what part of the past is represented by petroleum; maybe it is formed from decayed rock — it used to be called rock oil — and maybe it derived from transformed vegetation and once-living creatures such as mollusks. Anyway, no one is in doubt as to the origin of peat, that buried past of the Vineyard which was used for fuel long ago.

How long ago? Very long ago indeed, most informed Islanders would say. Only the longest memories go back to the peat houses that were once as useful as corncribs and woodsheds, and almost as common.

Yet as recently as 1867 the Boston and Martha’s Vineyard Peat Co. bought many Island peat bogs and built a wharf on the North Shore from which to load and export peat. The history of that enterprise would bear looking into at greater depth than has yet been possible. Speaking of depth, Islanders of the past century said that soundings were taken in some bogs and no bottom to the peat could be found. Maybe the sounding methods were crude and imperfect, but there’s a fascination about the thought of any bottomless thing.

Compiled by Hilary Wallcox