Stepping onto Nantucket’s Main Street is like stepping back in time. The street is a delightful time capsule, from the majestic homes of the wealthy whale-oil merchants to the quaint cobblestones that pave many of the roads. While strolling down there as you are marveling at the scene/landscape, you will be met with the history permeating the air.
Main Street was paved with cobblestones starting in 1836 or 1837, although some paving may have begun in 1834. To create a long-lasting paved surface, flat-topped oblong rocks were diligently chosen. The rocks were placed upright, and their narrower ends were securely embedded in a layer of sand. But anyway, Nantucket doesn’t have an abundance of these rocks!
From where did the cobblestones come from?
From where did the cobblestones on Main Street originate? Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not entirely clear. Two stories attempt to explain the origin of the cobblestones.
One is that they were brought to Nantucket as ships’ ballast and were used to pave the island’s streets. However, this is unlikely, as the whaling ships and small trading vessels that visited Nantucket in the 19th century usually carried various materials and goods that were essential for the islanders. They rarely came “in ballast” with no cargo aboard. Also, the ships that called into Nantucket’s harbor were usually heavily laden with cargo and would not have had room for ballast.
The other tale is that these cobblestones were obtained from Gloucester to pave Main Street. In 1954, R. Newton Mayall designed a map for the Nantucket Information Bureau which stated that Main Street was “paved with cobblestones in 1837 brought from Gloucester.” When asked about his source, he could not present any evidence.
Nantucket historian Will Gardner reached out to a local historian in Gloucester in 1961. He was informed that there was an extensive stockpile of oblong stones located on the Gloucester waterfront at the time and that cobblestones from there had been shipped to Boston in the past. Still, he could not confirm whether cobblestones had also been transported from this port to Nantucket.
The fact that there is no concrete evidence to prove either of these theories is undeniable. It is known that many cobblestones were used to pave the streets of Nantucket, but there were no sources on the island, and this means that they had to have come from somewhere else.
In the 1830s, Nantucket was well connected with other ports along the east coast, so the cobblestones on Main Street could have come from almost anywhere. The town was wealthy and flush with commerce, so it was able to afford the best materials available at the time. It’s not possible to know for sure which of these two stories is true without any further evidence. All we can do is speculate about what may have happened.
You can hear one more story: perhaps the stones were unearthed from Tuckernuck, where a similar variety can still be found. It’s possible that they were a consequence of years of sand processing, which resulted in piles of the material being scattered across Nantucket’s roads before they were paved. This is just a guess. Also, the charming tale of how cobblestones found their way to Nantucket from Europe as ballast stones is a beloved one amongst tour guides; however, it’s simply an urban legend.
The Nantucket Historical Association strives to keep alive the meaningful history of the island, educating and entertaining all visitors. They do this through a wide array of programs, collections, and properties, all of which are highly accessible and ensure that Nantucket’s impact is felt far and wide. By preserving the past, they can promote the island’s importance and build an appreciation of its legacy.
The Pace of Progress
The origins of the cobblestones that lined Nantucket’s Main Street are a mystery, but their presence didn’t last long. As the town rapidly modernized, sewer systems were installed beneath the stones. Over time, multiple excavations created pits and divots in the street, and by the 1910s, the original cobblestone architects had moved on to more lucrative job opportunities – building asphalt roads. Cobblestone paving was quickly becoming a forgotten craft.
The cobblestone roads were in bad disrepair, and the pressure of progress was strong to cover them with bituminous concrete. One by one, Liberty, India, Center, Federal, and Orange Street were all paved with asphalt. In 1919, a proposal was made to pave the commercial section of Main Street – known as “Main Street Square” – with concrete. But the Civic League and a group of summer residents opposed the initiative and instead pushed to re-cobble the street. The town allowed them to use their own funds and labor, along with the town’s tools. Since no local contractors would bid on the project, the activists recruited a team from Brockton, Massachusetts. The team did a great job of their duties, but the victory was short-lived.
Nantucket was developing rapidly and becoming a popular tourist spot, which meant digging up its cobbled roads to make way for new gas, water, and sewer lines. But in 1926, the construction didn’t go as planned. The cobblestones were laid in the frozen, poorly graded ground, resulting in hollows and bumps in the street. People began suggesting paving the road with asphalt. Though asphalt had long been the preferred construction material, its drawbacks were soon revealed. The black top would wear away quickly and needed expensive repairs, plus the town was beginning to appreciate the few cobblestoned roads that remained.
In 1930, after installing a much-needed water main, Water Company president Frank Gifford was in a position to repair Main Street. Gifford referred to the task of laying cobblestones as a “lost art,” but he stood firm against public opinion and refused to reset them until he could find the perfect “expert paver” to come to Nantucket and do the job. Unfortunately, the mason who was supposed to arrive failed to show up and refused to work. With no other choice, Gifford and the selectmen decided to bring the lost art of cobblestone to work back to Nantucket. They only had one option: The John C. Ring Construction Company. John C. Ring had been the largest road builder on Nantucket, but he had abandoned the cobblestone business years ago. However, one of his employees, Antone F. Sylvia, was up for the challenge.
The Cobblestone Renaissance
Antone Sylvia had a long and prosperous career with John Ring Construction, spanning more than half a century. Why he was chosen to become Nantucket’s premier mason is a mystery, though his childhood may have had something to do with it. In any case, Antone Sylvia quickly developed unparalleled craftsmanship. In the 1930s, as tourism soared, cobblestones were constantly being displaced, and Antone was there to put them back into place. In 1937, a major sewer project was underway, and after that, Antone put the stones in set right orientation.
Antone lived a long and full life, passing away in 1961 at the age of 95. He was proud of his work in building many of the roads on the island, but his greatest accomplishment was laying the cobblestones of Main Street. To this day, his great-grandson, John Sylvia, runs Sylvia Antiques at Main Street.
The golden era of cobblestones
Antone and Thomas McGrath Sr. were the masters of laying cobblestones. This skill was passed down to Thomas’s son, Tom Jr. This enabled Nantucket to experience a golden era of cobblestones that lasted more than four decades. From 1931 to 1973, there were hardly any complaints about the hollows and gaps on Main Street, apart from the typical need for regular maintenance.
The town spent small amounts on repairing cobblestones on Main Street in 1947 and 1957, which amounts to $1,500. This is far less than what was spent on the bituminous concrete paving of McKinley Avenue in Siasconset in 1947, a whopping $2,500.
The art of cobblestone maintenance was no longer forgotten, and the streets were kept in good condition, leading to an even greater appreciation of the cobblestones. Although cars were now driving on Nantucket, the cobblestone streets still reminded people of a slower, simpler time in America.
In 1955, the selectmen voted to create a Historic District in Nantucket Town, which sparked the preservation movement. By 1967, Nantucket had become an expert on preserving cobblestone streets, and Thomas McGrath was at the forefront of the effort. With the invention of vulcanized tires and improvements to car suspension, the complaints about the noise and roughness of cobblestones had been quelled. The town voted to extend the cobblestones down Main Street to the waterfront in 1966, and Water Street was paved with Belgian blocks. The tar strip across Main Street at Pine Street was also lifted and restored. Cobblestone streets were stunning, durable, easy to maintain, and an integral part of what made Nantucket so special.
After Thomas McGrath
When McGrath suddenly died of a heart attack in 1972, he had not passed on his expertise to anyone, leaving Nantucket without the necessary personnel to take care of its roads. But even the cobblestones required upkeep – the patches would become hollow over time, so the local government contracted Cape Cod & Island Construction for cobblestone repair.
Edouard A. Stackpole, the president of the NHA, worked hard to get more streets to be replaced with cobble. The topic caused a lot of debate, as some were ardent supporters of the cobblestones because of their charm and sturdiness, while others were fervently against them due to their uneven texture. By the late 70s, bituminous concrete was the preferred method due to its speed and efficiency and the lack of skilled masons. In the end, the decision to maintain the paved streets with blacktops was the winner.
What’s happening now with cobblestones
The Department of Public Works has proposed reconstructing Main Street with asphalt to support the increasing traffic and heavier trucks. Concerns have been raised about the proposed project. Current plans would involve removing cobblestones, demolishing old pathways, excavating, laying asphalt, and then laying the cobblestones on top of the asphalt in stone dust instead of the traditional method of installing cobblestones in the sand.
The plan has met with resistance from those who value aesthetics and sustainability, as well as those who fear it could disturb the 200-year-old houses and endanger the century-old American Elms. They suggest using the traditional method of packing and burying the cobblestones in porous sand.
Cobblestone streets evoke a strong sense of authenticity and history and contribute to the unique identity of Nantucket. It is essential to preserve these streets’ special qualities and unique features as much as possible. Moreover, the quality of the cobblestones is also extremely important. Cobblestones have an exceptionally long lifespan, especially in comparison to asphalt surfaces.
The cobblestones of Nantucket have a unique environmental advantage: they are permeable, meaning they shift with the ground instead of cracking, and rainwater can penetrate beneath them. This is especially beneficial for Winter Street, which has a low elevation and is prone to standing water after storms. The Clay Pits, where bricks were once made, were known by the early settlers of this area. The foundations of 86, 88, and 90 Main Street are very high off the ground. This demonstrates the knowledge that the early residents of this area had about the importance of permeable paving surfaces.
Moreover, cobblestones in the sand can give ancient trees the space they need to root and thrive. So, let us remember the importance of this material and the impact it can have on our environment.
The season for road repairs is fleeting, so we must act quickly to improve upon what we have. Nevertheless, the DPW will collaborate with the local community and reconsider their plans to use asphalt. It would be a mistake to use this stretch of Main Street for a new cobblestone paving technique on the island; better if they use the traditional method that has been around for nearly two centuries. After all, these cobblestones have been here much longer than we have, and they deserve the utmost respect.
Nantucket cobblestone streets are a charming part of the island’s history and are a popular tourist destination. These streets are a great way for visitors to get a glimpse into Nantucket’s past.