Look up! Widow’s Walks, Weathervanes and White Chimneys on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and the town of Plymouth
While exploring the Cape and Islands, be sure to look up! You can learn lots about the history of the region from its rooftops. From widow’s walks, and weathervanes to the white chimneys on Cape Cod and the Islands, there’s lots to see. Once you start looking it’ll be hard to stop pointing out the widow’s walks, white chimneys, and weathervanes. Make a game of it in the car and see how many unique weathervanes, elaborate widow’s walks, and white chimneys you can spot!
White Chimneys on Cape Cod and the Islands
While you’re touring around Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, or the town of Plymouth, be sure to take a peek at the chimneys on the older houses. Look carefully and you’re sure to see some older houses with white chimneys with a black stripe on the top.
While actual historical evidence is lacking, it’s rumored that the white chimneys with the black tops date back to the American Revolution. The white chimneys of Cape Cod were said to originally be signifiers that Loyalists, sympathetic to the British lived in the homes. The white chimneys were a secret signal, though one wonders just how clandestine a freshly painted white chimney in a sea of brick chimneys could be!
In the 1800s the white chimneys were said to represent the homes of abolitionists. These homes were said to be places where escaped slaves could stay on the Underground Railroad or could seek help from those sympathetic to their cause.
In the 1900s the turn towards colonial style led to a resurgence of the white chimneys on Cape Cod, now for purely stylistic reasons. White chimneys can be spotted up and down the New England coast. Functionally the black stripe atop the chimneys probably helped to hide the smoke stains from the heavily used flues.
On Cape Cod and the Islands, you can spot a high density of white chimneys in Sandwich, Dennis, and on Nantucket. Really once you’re on the lookout you’ll spot the chimneys everywhere!
As an added curiosity, be sure to keep an eye out for the curious looking chimney pots on Nantucket and elsewhere, added atop the chimneys to enhance the draft and outwit the swirling, shifting, seaside winds.
Widow’s Walks on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket
While many have seen the railings atop houses near to the sea, signifying the platform above, their actual purpose might not be what you have heard. These walks, known as widow’s walks or captain’s walks, are often thought to have been constructed for the wives of sailors to gaze seaward, scanning the horizon for the return of their husband’s ship.
Seafaring was always dangerous work, and many wives of fishermen became widows as a result. The stretch of the Cape between Provincetown and Chatham was so known for shipwrecks that it became known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Famous shipwrecks include the Sparrow Hawk, the Whydah, and the HMS Somerset among countless others. (Learn more about the pirate ship Whydah and its pirate captain “Black Sam” Bellamy at the Whydah Pirate Museum in Yarmouth.)
While ships sank off of the Cape, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard, other fishermen and whalers set out further afield, such as the whalers of Nantucket, whose journeys spanned the globe. The Essex, a whaling vessel out of Nantucket was famously sunk by a sperm whale in the South Pacific, recounted in Nathaniel Philbrick’s in the Heart of the Sea, and inspiring Moby Dick.
As the stories went, the wives of fishermen would pace atop their walks, waiting to see the ships on the horizon. While some were delighted to see their husbands’ ships appear on the horizon, many gazed out into the hungry ocean, watching in vain for the return of a ship that had been lost to sea.
Canadian Poet E.J. Pratt captures this emotion of these women in his poem, Erosion:
It took the sea a thousand years,
A thousand years to trace
The granite features of this cliff,
In crag and scarp and base.
It took the sea an hour one night,
An hour of storm to place
The sculpture of these granite seams
Upon a woman’s face.
And as the art installation in Provincetown’s Macmillan Wharf alludes, the wives of fishermen and seafarers have always “Also Faced The Sea.”
Without VHF radios or cell phones, the wives of mariners wouldn’t have had any idea what day to gaze out to sea with any home of her husband’s ship coming into port. The women had work to do, running the home while their husbands were away, and didn’t have a whole lot of free time to linger on the rooftops. While the wives of seafarers certainly could have used these platforms to watch the harbors from time to time, their origins are of a less romantic and much more practical purpose.
Many of the early examples of the walks are built around the house’s chimney. Cooking was done on fires and hearths below the chimneys. The grease and creosote from the constant use would build up and could cause devastating chimney fires. In the depth of winter, it might be challenging to get a ladder set up to reach the chimney, so having a platform ready was well worth the expense in building.
To stop a blaze before it got out of hand, homeowners would keep buckets of sand and water on hand, and in the case of a chimney fire would climb up the trap door to pour the sand and water down the chimney, dousing the fire.
The widow’s walks and their trap doors were also a great help in cooling homes in the heat of summer, as the trap door could be propped open to vent the hot air out of the house.
Weathervanes on Cape Cod and the Islands
From whales, codfish, mermaids, ships, and maps, there are lots of creative weathervanes on the Cape and Islands. Weathervanes have a long history and have served a purpose on the Cape for many years.
Weathervanes sit atop a roof and can spin to point to the direction the wind is coming from. Knowing the wind direction was and remains important for those living and working on the sea.
For bonus points see if you can spot a weathervane, widow’s walk, and white chimney on Cape Cod, all on the same rooftop!
What cool weathervanes, widow’s walks or white chimneys have you seen on Cape Cod and the Islands?