This Was Then: Shrinkage – The Martha’s Vineyard Times

By 1870, it was an open secret that things would sometimes disappear into Holmes Hole (soon to be renamed Vineyard Haven.)

Like nearby Woods Hole, Quick’s Hole, and Robinson’s Hole, the word “Hole” refers here to an opening, a mouth. As to the “Holmes” part, historian Charles Banks hypothesized, “It is probably derived from [the Wampanoag word] ‘Homes,’ meaning an old man, and the entire name signifies ‘old man’s hole.’ The word ‘homes’ indicates decrepitude, as applied to an aged person, and probably was applied to an old chief who made this place his abode.”

Holmes Hole’s etymological history later became intertwined with an early 19th century crackpot theory by US Army Officer John Symmes of St. Louis, who declared, “The earth is hollow, and habitable within,” with vast openings at both the North and South Poles. Inside was a “warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals, if not men.” The alleged openings became known as “Symmes Holes,” and his theories would inspire much science fiction, most notably Jules Verne’s popular 1864 novel, “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” The stories became garbled after a snide remark made by former US Secretary of State Edward Everett, and Symmes’ hypothetical hole from the North Pole to the center of the Earth was thereafter often referred to as “Holmes’ Hole.”

But in reality, Holmes Hole was not the kind of hole one might lose your schooner in, or, say, a sack of potatoes. Or your cargo of imported walking canes. US Customs agents made sure of that. Until 1937, Vineyard Haven was an official port of entry into the US Arriving vessels were systematically boarded, inspected, and logged by Customs agents stationed in downtown Holmes Hole.

Tens of thousands of commercial vessels passed annually through Vineyard Sound, dozens of them stopping in Holmes Hole each day. Customs tariffs for imported goods were steep and ever-changing. By 1871, there was a 35 percent tariff on all imported walking canes, for example, as there was for clocks and combs. Cloves were taxed at 5 cents a pound, candles from 2½ to 8 cents a pound (depending on the type), chocolate at 7 cents a pound, and chloroform at $1 a pound. Ketchup was taxed at 40 percent, and corks and billiard chalk at 50 percent. Cuttlefish bone, previously 5 cents per pound, had recently been declared tariff-free. Imported cigars and alcohol were highly taxed and carefully regulated.

But these tariffs were only rarely collected on the island. In fact, an 1872 exposé in the New York World titled “Radical Thievery” reported that the salaries of the nine full-time Customs agents on the Island dwarfed the income brought in by tariffs by a ratio of more than 25 to one. The New York Times included the Vineyard in a list of the top 10 biggest Customs House “swindles” in the country. The Fall River Daily Evening News responded, “Politicians have turned their practical eyes toward the little rat holes along the coast where the government for long years has kept up Custom House establishments, and lo! They have discovered a horrible state of things on Martha’s Vineyard… Now this port of Vineyard Haven has no imports, but one can see that there is a world of business to be done to look after so many vessels, and prevent immense smuggling.”

Smugglers were, indeed, regularly caught. In 1865, the schooner Atlantic, arriving from Cuba, was seized by Customs officials in Holmes Hole Harbor, after 50,000 cigars and a small quantity of sugar and molasses were found concealed behind a bulkhead. And in January 1871, the crew of the US Revenue steamer Moccasin made “a large seizure of wines and brandies” at Holmes Hole. But other stuff just disappeared.

For instance, sailors would occasionally vanish in Holmes Hole. Before the new sailor’s burying ground was established in 1888 off what is now Canterbury Lane, at least 400 off-Island crewmen suffering from contagious fevers (like typhoid, “swamp fever,” and “bilious fever”) expired during the late 1860s and ‘ 70s at the old Marine Hospital on Edgartown Road (which boasted of a “death rate” of only 8 percent.) With no family here to care for their remains, the men were buried in unmarked graves in what is now a residential neighborhood in Vineyard Haven. Their families in Sweden or Nassau or New Jersey likely never learned their fate.

But the most common thing to disappear down Holmes Hole was cargo. In the fall of 1870, a shipper in Maine chartered a vessel to deliver a load of potatoes, hay, and bricks to Jacksonville, Fla. When she it arrived, she it was short of most of its hay her as well as significant amounts of the other cargo. “Smelling a rat,” wrote the Portland Daily Press, the shipper intercepted the captain in Boston to confront him, and discovered he had forged paperwork. A confession was soon forthcoming. “He sold potatoes out of the vessel at Holmes’ Hole, and [the shipper] could prove it.”

Then there was the case of the missing coal. “No coal is ever purchased at Holmes’ Hole,” declared the Portland Daily Press in 1871, “and little of any other kind of fuel is burned there, yet the people always keep warm.” The winter of 1870 to 1871 was a bitterly cold one. The New England Farmer newspaper wrote in March, “Martha’s Vineyard has had an extremely severe winter thus far. The quantity of snow has been unequaled for many years on the Island, and the cold intense. The Vineyard Sound is full of floating ice, impeding navigation seriously. The harbor of Vineyard Haven, formerly Holmes’s Hole, has been completely closed for days at a time, and mail communication cut off from the mainland.”

The Island was at peak deforestation; there were few woodlots left on the Island to harvest firewood. So how were Islanders heating their homes? Coal was becoming the heating fuel of choice across the country, and by 1871 was on the brink of surpassing wood as the principal energy source in the US Why were the good folks of Holmes Hole not buying any?

It was not because the coal was unknown here; it was available commercially on the island by the 1840s, and presumably earlier. Historian HF Norton suggests one reason in his 1923 book, “Martha’s Vineyard”: “It seems, because of the scarcity of money, to have been the custom among the Vineyard people during colonial times to barter, not only with their neighbors but with ships that came into the harbor. The pilot would exchange Homemade mittens, cookies, pies, and other things for molasses, sugar, ginger, spices, and Holland rum. The housewives of Eastville and Edgartown were rich in supplies of all kinds. Coal was burned at Eastville before they ever had it at Boston.”

But that presumes, of course, that the coal belonged to the captain. Moving coal from a train car into a schooner is not a perfectly efficient process; a portion of the cargo is pulverized into dust during transport, which will slightly lighten the total weight, for instance. But by 1871, coal wholesalers began to notice that the losses in shipping had increased from around 1 percent — an acceptable amount of “usual sweepings” — to as much as 10 and 15 percent. “The only explanation of the short weight in their cargoes, which the coal dealers could think of,” reported the Boston Daily Evening Transcript, “was that it was not entirely unconnected with this curious phase of the trade at Holmes’ Hole.”

In 1871, the 100-foot schooner William Deming of Calais, Maine, skippered by Capt. Mariner Cook, delivered a cargo of coal into Boston which fell a little short on the scales. “The consignees had full confidence in the shippers,” reported the Bangor Daily Whig, “and nothing was said about the matter.” But shortly afterward, Cook had trouble with his crew, and fired several of them. In revenge, the ex-crewmen approached the consignees and suggested they visit the vessel. “They did so, and found several tons of coal secreted in several parts of the vessel, and the crew further said that the captain sold three barrels at Holmes’ Hole.”

“It is proposed that hereafter the captains of vessels will be personally responsible for the shrinkage of their coal cargoes,” concluded the Bangor Daily Whig.