As you walk the cobblestoned streets of downtown Nantucket, passing beneath lofty elms and sycamores, it’s hard not to feel the island’s history all around you. Centuries-old homes and steepled churches stand alongside modern summer retreats, and the gently rolling landscape is dotted with idyllic lighthouses and an ancient, working windmill.
The charming blend of old and new encourages a lifestyle of leisurely garden strolls, sailing, and cool dips in the sea, but this favored family getaway wasn’t always the go-to spot for vacationers. Nantucket’s rise to fame began more than 300 years ago in the pursuit of whale oil. Men would depart on whaling expeditions for years at a time (think Herman Melville’s Moby Dick), and with more than 150 whaling ships at its peak, the little island town quickly became one of the wealthiest communities in America.
A series of unlucky events in the 1840s led to the swift downfall of the whaling industry, with the worst of them being an unstoppable fire in Nantucket’s commercial center and kerosene replacing whale oil as an illuminate worldwide. Nantucket was largely forgotten by the world until the late 1800s when summer vacations became a firmly established trend.
Today, the entire island of Nantucket is recognized as a historical landmark (one of first in the country), and the calm streets and bustling waterfront reflect the same feeling of the town from hundreds of years ago. The historic sites carrying on Nantucket’s stories are almost too many to name, but here are a few of our favorites that definitely deserve a visit:
Most visitors to Nantucket are already familiar with Brant Point Light (it’s the little lighthouse at the mouth of the harbor), but they may not know the much larger Sankaty Head Light perched high on a bluff in Siasconset. Both have been named by the National Register of Historic Places, and Brant Point Light is actually the second oldest lighthouse in America. (There is also a third, much newer lighthouse dubbed Great Point Light at the northernmost point of the island.)
A 46-foot sperm whale skeleton is the main attraction at the Nantucket Whaling Museum – or, at least, it’s the largest. Inside the museum, visitors can find a collection of whaling tools, maritime paintings, and other nautical paraphernalia. There’s also an observation deck on top of the museum that overlooks the glistening waters of Nantucket Harbor.
Among the many beautiful churches in Nantucket, one steeple stands tall above the town. The First Congregational Church, built in 1834, has a 120-foot tall bell tower known for having the best view of Nantucket Harbor. There’s a definite splendor to the structure with its pristine white walls inside and out, vaulted ceilings, ornate chandelier, and surrounding gardens regularly in bloom.
A hillside that was once spotted with mills has given way to just one. The Old Mill is the oldest functioning mill in the country – which is lucky considering it was once sold off as firewood for 20 dollars. The buyer later decided to restore the deteriorating mill to working condition, and it thereafter grinded corn for many years. Today, its red arms and smocked sails are a well-known sight on the island.
This simple building is dressed much like its congregation would have been – without ornament. The Quaker Meeting House was the place of worship for a sect of Quakers in Nantucket for more than 50 years while Quakerism was the dominant religion among Nantucket’s elite and a large number of residents. In present day, Quakers still meet there informally.
While meandering through the beautifully restored homes of downtown Nantucket, it’s easy to forget what time we live in. Each seems to have its own character and style that attest to the time in which it was constructed.
The Oldest House, or the Jethro Coffin House, is the town’s sole surviving structure from the 17th century. Its simple design is a stark contrast to Hadwen House, a Greek revival mansion built in the height of whaling that has towering columns and an ionic portico. Then there is the eccentric Greater Light, a summer home and art studio built by two Quaker sisters. It has 12-foot tall wrought iron gates, magnificent stained glass windows, and six gold columns in the living area.
These homes and many more serve as daily reminders of Nantucket’s storied history, which—more than 370 years since settlement in 1641—is just getting started.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Bob P.B. via Flickr