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Walking on History: The Lost Bass Creek

By Brendan O'Neill

Winter hiking at Five Corners?  On Feb. 9, 2014 an intrepid group of more than 40 walkers participated in the VCS "Lost Bass Creek" exploration, setting out from the post office parking lot near Five Corners in Vineyard Haven.

As part of this year’s “Living at Sea Level” series, the walk used vintage photographs, maps and first-hand accounts to dramatically illustrate the pervasive nature of change, and how it can sometimes occur over short periods of time. Echoing the theme of earlier walks, it emphasized the critical importance of planning for the climate change impacts already underway on our Island.

A complex barrier beach and estuarine system once existed in the area of Five Corners and the flat expanse of the Legion Veteran’s Memorial Park behind the post office. Two hundred years ago, sailing vessels of all kinds entered the Lagoon Pond through the Bass Creek. A navigable waterway of 6 - 7 feet in depth emerged through an opening in the barrier beach near the present location of the Steamship Authority parking lot. It formed a curving arc past the present Stop & Shop and Five Corners locations, widening into the Bass Creek.

In September of 1778, more than 4,000 British troops and dozens of warships moored in the harbor and forcibly re-provisioned their ships. More than 10,000 sheep, 300 oxen, and all manner of goods and possessions left with them. That winter was particularly harsh on the Island, and there are accounts of the impoverished town residents cutting bass from the frozen Bass Creek.

The creek and surrounding tidelands were filled over time with dredge spoils from the harbor, and with a variety of marine debris, including wreckage from the Great Gale of November 1898. About that particular storm Vineyard Haven resident-historian Jim Norton wrote: “That mighty gale brought home with dramatic intensity how subject to the natural elements the fragile quality of human endeavor on the harbor had always been.”

Today, Bass Creek is lost under an area of fill, which is now occupied by more than two dozen structures on the north side of Lagoon Pond Road, running roughly from the bike shop to the former Erford Burt boatyard. That structure, assembled in 1944 from the recycled North Tisbury Baptist Church, was whimsically referred to as the “Bass Creek Meeting House.” Asked in 1983 by MV Museum oral history curator Linsey Lee what it was like building boats in what was an old church, Erford Burt said, “Better the building, better the work.”

Even with all the changes, the outlines of the Bass Creek are still clearly visible on maps and aerial photos.

On the opposite side of Lagoon Pond Road, the houses along "Chicken Alley" (named for the subsistence gardens that once thrived in the back yards) once had Bass Creek waterfront at their doorsteps. Mountains of sand spoils from harbor dredging following the 1938 hurricane were deposited on the Legion field behind Chicken Alley, earning the local name of "Sahara.” It was eventually leveled and loam brought in under the auspices of the local Legion Post, a project launched after the WWII. The field was eventually conveyed to the town and officially dedicated in 1964.

During the whaling era, the Legion Park estuary was navigable at high tide, and whaling boats were hauled out at the head of the park into a glacial ravine known as Cat Hollow, where a tar-works was set up to effect repairs. During the VCS walk, participants visited Cat Hollow, today a quiet, treed treasure conserved with a Conservation Restriction (CR) gifted by landowner John Hughes and facilitated by VCS.

On the return to Five Corners, walkers stopped at a robust stand of Phragmites reeds. MV Shellfish Group Director Rick Karney and staffer Emma Green-Beach discussed their research that could lead to harnessing the invasive plant to help remove nitrogen from our ponds.