Nantucket is a beautiful island full of history and lore. Perhaps one its most famous historical attributes is the Nantucket cobblestone streets. The source of the cobblestone to build the street is at the center of the town’s lore.
Rumor has it that the cobblestones were sourced from ships arriving at the port town ‘in ballast,’ but is that truly the case? In this article, we look at where the cobblestone from the famous Nantucket main street came from and other information about the street.
When were the Nantucket Cobblestone Streets Constructed?
Much like the source of the cobblestones, the date of the paving of the main street in Nantucket is not known for certain. Many believe that the street was paved at the beginning of 1836 or 1837; however, records indicate that it may the paving may begin as early as 1834.
Where did the Cobblestone Streets Come From?
One thing is pretty much for certain: the cobblestone used for paving the main street in Nantucket did not come from the island itself. The rocks used to pave the road are oblong and flat. Since there is no source of such rocks on the island, they had to be imported.
Cobblestone From Ships’ Ballasts
One popular theory is that the cobblestone used to pave Nantucket’s main street came from the ballasts of ships. For those not familiar with maritime terms, a ship is typically ‘in ballast’ when it’s traveling without cargo. Historically, a random assortment of rocks was used to help weigh down a ship when it was traveling without cargo so that it would stay afloat.
Nantucket was known as a popular whaling and trading community in the 1800s. Therefore, it’s certainly plausible to think that the rocks from ships in ballast were used to pave the road; however, there are two issues with the theory:
- Vessels rarely arrived or left from Nantucket ‘in ballast’ because they were typically transferring goods to and from the harbor.
- Even if ships did arrive in ballast, the rocks used for ballast would not make good paving as they were not uniform or flat.
Due to these reasons, it’s highly unlikely that the road was paved from the ballast of ships.
Cobblestone From Gloucester
Another popular theory is that the cobblestone used to build the road came from the nearby town of Gloucester, MA. This theory derives from a map that was created in 1954 by R. Newton Mayall. On the map, Mayall claimed that the street was paved with cobblestones in 1837. Additionally, there is evidence that there was a large cache of cobblestone in Gloucester around that time.
While this seems like fairly solid evidence, the map was created over 100 years after the alleged creation of the road. Without further supporting evidence, there’s no way to verify Mayall’s claim that the cobblestones came from Gloucester.
Did the Cobblestones Come from Somewhere Else?
Nantucket was a popular trading community that was well-connected with the entirety of the United States’ east coast in the 1830s. Therefore, it’s perfectly possible that the cobblestone could have come from any number of places or even multiple sources.
Unfortunately, unless additional information is revealed, the source of the cobblestones that make up the Nantucket main street will remain a mystery.
The Introduction of Automobiles
While the cobblestone road is beloved by the residents of Nantucket today, that wasn’t always the case. In the early 1900s, the growth of automobiles led to proposals to pave over the cobblestone roads for smoother driving.
While preservationists fought against paving over the historic roads, the streets lay in disrepair and were unable to be driven on. In addition, no one on the island knew how to repair cobblestone, or so it seemed.
Enter Antone Sylvia from the Azores Islands and Thomas McGrath from Ireland. These two immigrants had grown up with cobbled streets and willingly took up the maintenance and repair of the street. They passed their knowledge on to future generations, which is a big reason why we still have the historic street today.
Nantucket Cobblestone Street Today
Today, the Nantucket cobblestone streets remain at the center of this popular tourist destinations. When traveling on the island, you cannot miss the famous Nantucket cobblestone streets, as they make up the town center.
While strolling along the street on any given day is well worth your time to reflect on the history of these stones. If you’re visiting Nantucket, it’s one of the best places to step in and out of shops while strolling along a beloved piece of the island’s history.