A Community of Scientists on Martha’s Vineyard

Andrew Moore: Swallowtails, 36.75 x 59
Andrew Moore: Swallowtails, 36.75 x 59″, oil on linen.

The geologists, 1786-2015

By Paul Levine

One day last November I joined a walk the Vineyard Conservation Society leads to learn about the Cliffs’ geological and paleontological history. My friend Bob Woodruff led the tour; he learned about the geology of the Island under the tutelage of Clifford Kaye, an internationally known geologist, who in the 1960s made major contributions to our knowledge of the geology of the Vineyard. Kaye, he said, once told him, “Martha’s Vineyard is one of the finest exhibits of glacial terminal moraines and outwash plains anywhere on the planet Earth.”

Bob described how in the previous million years, the action of three glaciers created the hills at this western edge of the Vineyard, and upon their retreat left behind the colorful folded layers of clay that we see today. We followed in the footsteps of geologists, paleontologists, and archaeologists who — lured by the dramatic colors — have come to Gay Head since the 18th century, making it a primary target of study.

Was there a volcano at Gay Head?

In June of 1786, the Reverend Samuel West of Dartmouth and Dr. William Baylies, a physician from Dighton, sailed from New Bedford to the Vineyard. Their destination was Gay Head. They were appointed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston to “examine the mineral deposits of Gay Head and to submit them to a chemical analysis.”

The Rev. West was larger than life. The Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography describes him as caring little for his appearance; he was known for his absent-mindedness. But he knew the Island well — from 1757 to 1759 he had been the minister of the Congregational Church in West Tisbury (at the time part of the town of Tisbury).

West’s interests went beyond theology. He believed in freedom from tyranny, and in 1788 as a delegate voted yes at the Massachusetts convention to ratify the federal Constitution. He is reported to have been an avid reader of history and physical science, and was particularly interested in geology. On occasion he would incorporate scientific ideas into his sermons, and in 1793 he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Scientific Theology by Harvard.

We know very little about his companion, Dr. Baylies, other than that he was a graduate of Harvard and that he wrote about their voyage to the Vineyard in Memoirs of the Academy of Arts and Science, Vol. 2, 1793: “A calm then coming on with a hot sun, and a constant rolling of the boat, I grew exceedingly sick. Nothing could alleviate my disagreeable feelings but a view of Gay Head, through Holmes Hole, at a distance of about 15 miles. A variety of colours, such as red, yellow, and white, differently shaded and combined, exhibited a scene sufficient to captivate the mind, however distressed.”

Upon their arrival at Gay Head, the two men set about collecting soil samples for the analysis of their mineral content. They also described the color and conformation of the cliffs as well as various fossilized fish and whale bones. Baylies found carboniferous stones at the base of the cliffs, which he described as having vitrified surfaces; he concluded that they were of volcanic origin, and felt supported when he found what appeared to be the crater of a volcano, which he named the Devil’s Den.

The Den is visible today as a bowl-shaped depression about 1,200-some feet in circumference and 100 feet deep. And in fact, Baylies and West learned from one of the Wampanoags that, as legend had it, the Den was where the giant Moshup broiled his food.

So, no volcano

West and Baylies may have been the first to investigate the geology as well as the prehistoric fauna of the Island, and perhaps it was because of their exploration that Gay Head became the destination of generations of geologists and paleontologists who reported being struck by the wealth of history and by what the glaciers left behind upon their retreat — impressions geologists recorded in dozens of 19th century publications.

Notable among the visitors to Gay Head was Edward Hitchcock, born in Deerfield. Like West, he was both a theologian and a scientist, and was best known as a geologist and president of Amherst College from 1825 to 1845. Many of his scientific works were illustrated by his wife, Ora White Hitchcock, one of the first women scientific illustrators in the U.S.

Hitchcock’s geological research brought him to the Vineyard for a brief time in June of 1823. In one of his reports he wrote, “Every lover of natural scenery would be delighted to visit this spot. There is nothing to compare with it in New England.” He put to rest the volcano theory when he wrote that the carboniferous material discovered by Baylies was lignite, oxidized carbon from the wood of trees, buried in clay for perhaps a million years and transported to the Vineyard by the glaciers.

Then as now, the land retreats

Even in the 19th century, our geologist visitors were well aware of how shoreline erosion was altering the Island’s topography, and perhaps no one was as aware of changes in our coastline as the eminent topographer and West Tisbury resident Henry L. Whiting (1821-1897), who served the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Service for 59 years, and became the longest-serving and most notable topographer of the 19th century. It was said that he could map the other side of a hill without seeing it.

He first came to the Vineyard in 1844 to survey the Island, a project he and his crew completed in 1846. At various times he camped out in Vineyard Haven, Edgartown, and West Tisbury, and for a time stayed at Asa Johnson’s inn, the house adjacent to Alley’s Store. Patrons, John Alley told me, drank brandy at the inn’s tavern, situated at the “brow” of the curve, giving the corner the name Brandy Brow.

In 1851, Whiting married Anna Francis, the daughter of Asa and Prudence Johnson, and in the following year he bought the old Congregational Church parsonage. It became the home he returned to following his many travels in the employ of the Coast and Geodetic Service. Whiting was a true lover of Martha’s Vineyard, a sheep farmer and, when home, an active member of the Island community. He was one of the founders of the Agricultural Society, becoming its secretary and then president.

Whiting had a great appreciation of the Island’s formation and topography, its coastline and its changes, and he noted these in his Coast and Geodetic Service reports of 1869, 1886, and the report of 1887 titled “Methods and Results: Shoreline Changes on Martha’s Vineyard.” In 1886, Whiting wrote, “The changes along the southern shore of the Island give an interesting illustration of the action of what may be termed a rolling beach, and the power of the ocean sea-dash upon a sandy shore to drive this material before it. The south shore of Martha’s Vineyard is a cave, where little if any other force has operated.”

Nathaniel Shaler’s influence

It is impossible to write about science and scientists on the Vineyard without including Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (1841-1906), a Harvard professor of geology and onetime Dean of Science at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School. As a young man, he explored the Island’s geology, and in 1888 he published his book, Report on the Geology of Martha’s Vineyard. But Shaler is perhaps best known on the Vineyard as the founder of Seven Gates — his thousand-acre hideaway and farm. It was at Seven Gates that Shaler exchanged his life as an academic for that of a gentleman farmer. His only concession to Harvard was to provide a campsite for students of the Lawrence Scientific School summer surveying camp until in 1900, when the number of students outgrew the campsite and they moved to the unused Makonikey Hotel in Vineyard Haven.

Shaler was also a poet: In 1903 Houghton Mifflin published his blank verse poem Elizabeth of England. Based on his service in the Union Army during the Civil War, he wrote From Old Fields: Poems of the Civil War, of which a reviewer in a 1906 issue of Atlantic Monthly wrote, “Seldom has the poetic side of the great conflict, its scenic background, its tragic irony, and its human pathos been so intelligently presented.”

Shaler went on to write numerous essays and books in fields other than geology, but the racist views he expressed in some of his work have undermined his reputation.

Shaler’s biggest contribution to the study of geology on Martha’s Vineyard might have been by way of his student, J. Backus Woodworth (1865-1925) who, along with the geologist Edward Wigglesworth (1885-1945), undertook a massive and now classic study of the geology of Cape Cod and the Islands, published in 1933, that includes a detailed geological study of the Vineyard.

Back to Clifford Kaye

That brings us to Clifford Kaye (1916-85), a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey during the 1950s and 1970s, and the teacher of my tour leader. One day in March of this year, between snowfalls, I traveled to Woods Hole to learn about Kaye from Robert Oldale, one of Kaye’s colleagues in the U.S. Coast and Geological Survey and author of Cape Cod and the Islands: Their Geology, an essential read for anyone interested in the geology of the Vineyard.

Over coffee at Coffee Obsession, Oldale described Kaye as a renaissance man whose interests ranged far beyond geology. He was a collector of rare books and art, and had talent as a conservator. Kaye joined the U.S. Geological Survey after WWII, and after a long period of research in Puerto Rico, joined its Boston office in 1955, where his research focused, in part, on the geology of the Vineyard. Kaye, who lived in Makonikey during his trips, produced many reports that serve as the definitive descriptions of the Island’s coastal erosion and glacial history.

In May 1964, Kaye returned to the Vineyard to lead a two-day geological tour of the Island, a tour that one could take today with the aid of a guide book of Kaye’s published by the Friends of the Pleistocene. It’s technical, but along with Bob Oldale’s accessible book Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket: The Geologic History (out of print, but available at Island libraries) as background, one can follow the tour from a sandpit behind what was the Coca-Cola bottling plant on State Road in Vineyard Haven to the summit of Peaked Hill, on to Wequobsque Cliff (also known as Lucy Vincent Beach) and Gay Head, with stops in between.

Never leave home without your rock hammer

Many geologists, both professionals and amateurs — those who have an abiding interest in the Island’s shoreline changes — have followed Kaye and those who came before him.

J. Gordon Ogden III (1928-1996), best known as “Pete,” was born in Oak Bluffs. He was a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a summer resident of the Island until his death. In 1974 he published “Shoreline Changes Along the Southeastern Coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, for the Past 200 Years” in the Quaternary Science Reviews. In it, he puts many of Henry Whiting’s observations of shoreline changes in a geological context, ranging from emerging questions of how and when to open ponds to how to control natural geological events such as erosion.

One of Clifford Kaye’s U.S. Geological Survey contemporaries, the geologist Maurice (“Mike”) Pease, was brought the Island when he was a month old, and was a summer resident until he moved here year-round in 1984. He knew the Island’s geology well — possibly because he reportedly never went out without his rock hammer.

In the summer of 1986, Paul S. Boyer, emeritus professor of geology from Fairleigh Dickenson University and a longtime Vineyard summer resident, wanted to explore the Chilmark Cliffs at Lucy Vincent Beach and take samples, much as British geologist Charles Lyell did in 1843. However, he needed to request permission from the town of Chilmark in order to do so. The town asked Mike Pease for his advice. Pease approved, and Boyer was permitted to enter the beach early in the morning before the public was admitted. Boyer’s observations from his exploration are described in “The Chilmark Locality of Charles Lyell,” an article published in 2012 in Vol. 53 of Dukes County Intelligencer. It is not known whether he was accompanied by Mike Pease, but if Mike was with him, it was with rock hammer in hand.

What he did best was fish

Conrad Neumann, University of North Carolina professor emeritus of geology, was born in Chilmark in 1933. Schooled on- and off-Island, he wanted to be a fisherman. His mother had other ideas, and when Conrad was 16 years old, she wrote a letter to Columbus Iselin of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution about a job for her son. It was a fortunate introduction, because in 1958, after receiving a master’s degree in geology, he joined the institution, where explorations at sea led him to a lifelong career of research on the carbonate sediments of the seafloor, biological processes of erosion, shoreline, and climate changes.

About himself he once wrote, “What he does best, however, is fish: a result of his legacy of being born and brought up on Martha’s Vineyard Island surrounded by the sea.”

Geology just for fun

Retirement and family ties brought Charles Ratté, longtime Vermont state geologist, to Oak Bluffs in 1997. During his years on the Island before he returned to his farm in Vermont in 2009, he wrote articles on the changes of the Island’s shoreline, and he guesses that he became best known for his testimony opposing the construction of a golf course in Oak Bluffs, in an effort to protect the underlying aquifer that provided the town water supply.

He was also one of the guides on that Conservation Society geological walk, along with the trio of Craig Saunders, Bill Wilcox, and Bob Woodruff. Above all, Chuck Ratté says, the geology on the Vineyard in which he was involved was mostly for fun.

Before coming to the Vineyard in 1983, Saunders, a resident of West Tisbury with a degree in sedimentary geology, had seen many parts of the world including Alaska, Newfoundland, and most recently Chile. Once here, Craig joined the ranks of those who owe their knowledge of the Island geology’s every nook and cranny to the work of Clifford Kaye. Over the years he has become established as an ecological and environmental consultant both on and off the Island.

So too has Bill Wilcox, another of Kaye’s followers, who with his degrees in geology studied the sedimentary geology of the Vineyard from 1970 to 1975, and worked for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission on matters of water quality, and with the University of Massachusetts Soil Conservation Service. He retired in 2012, but as he told me, every trip either on- or off-Island was and remains a geological field trip.

The third member of the trio, Bob Woodruff, who led our tour last November, is a wildlife biologist who came to the Vineyard in 1968 to become the director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, a position he held until 1980. From the first, he was fascinated by the Island’s glacial history, and learned about it from Clifford Kaye and Pete Ogden.

Woodruff has always thought of the Vineyard in ecological terms, with the understanding that its ecology cannot be fully understood without a knowledge of its geology. As you listen to him, or his colleagues, Saunders and Wilcox, every feature of the land, every stone, turned or unturned, every kettle hole, pond, field, forest, outwash plain, and shoreline comes alive. And as you view the landscape on a walk with them, West and Baylies, Hitchcock, Lyell, Whiting, Wigglesworth, and Kaye, and scores of others who explored the Island in the past will be looking over your shoulder.

Paul Levine, a geneticist, owes most of his knowledge of geologists on the Island to Bob Woodruff, Craig Saunders, Bill Wilcox and Bob Oldale. He would like to apologize to any Island geologists he has inadvertently left out of this story.

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