Sections

9.1.07

A Road Less Traveled

No longer a commercial thoroughfare, the Dr. Fisher Road still spans the Island’s midsection – despite being overgrown in places and downright difficult to find.

What should be easier to find than a road? After all, the Dr. Fisher Road was created by one of the most influential figures in Island history, and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission gave it a prominent new conservation designation. Open your Vineyard map and there it is, front and center: a bold if somewhat jagged arc tracing from West Tisbury to Edgartown across the State Forest.

So, full of confidence, I set out with my family for a morning walk. And immediately got lost. We started from a different point and backtracked. Along the way we found the road, lost it, and found it again. Parts are clear, others overgrown. Stretches I assumed must be the road didn’t match the map. What I thought would be a leisurely ramble ended up being a sort of treasure hunt, and finding the Dr. Fisher Road became a quest during which losing the path (and finding it again) was half the fun. Of course, my reasons for being lost had more to do with an obsession with old maps rather than any inherent difficulty of following the trail.

From a treasure hunt on the road, I proceeded to an analogous experience with historical records. The road is prominent in old maps but incidental in historical accounts at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Dr. Fisher the man looms large, but his road is a footnote.

Dr. Daniel Fisher

To make sense of the road, we must start with the story behind it. Born in 1799 in Sharon, Massachusetts, Daniel Fisher grew up in Dedham, and took degrees at Brown University and Harvard Medical School, followed by an internship at Massachusetts General Hospital. According to a Vineyard Gazette biography from September 27, 1940, Dr. Fisher learned of an available position as Vineyard port physician from a Harvard classmate and Vineyard Haven native. His duties allowed him the time to develop an Island practice. He married Grace Cousens Coffin in 1829 and lived for a while in the historic John Coffin House in Edgartown, which still stands today at 12 North Water Street. (Later he built the opulent Federal-style house on Main Street, which today is owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust – called the Dr. Daniel Fisher House – and is open to the public.) As a wedding gift, Dr. Fisher’s new father-in-law supposedly gave Grace her weight in Spanish silver dollars – the first wedding gift I’ve ever heard of with an incentive to gain weight.

So far Dr. Fisher’s story is consistent with a distinguished medical career. But while his practice paid the bills, the young doctor found other opportunities as an entrepreneur. He became part owner of several whaling vessels and owned what is now Edgartown’s town dock. He established a thriving whale oil refinery in Edgartown. His spermaceti candle business supplied lighthouses across the nation and became one of the largest employers on the Island. In 1856, he founded the Martha’s Vineyard National Bank in Edgartown, an institution that survives to this day (as part of Sovereign Bank). And amid these larger ventures, he started a bakery in Edgartown that supplied hardtack (an infamously dense biscuit that would last indefinitely) to sailing vessels. For its time, this was a remarkable commercial empire created by one individual. As Herbert Whitman, in his book Exploring Old Martha’s Vineyard (Chatham Press, 1985), noted, “One wonders how the doctor found time to practice medicine.”

The business behind the road

My pre-research image was admittedly fanciful. Hypothetical image 1.0: Island doctor, bag in hand, hat on head, hurriedly walks between patients. Then I realized a seriously ill patient would have entered the next world by the time the doctor could traverse the Island on foot. Image 2.0: He’s on horseback, albeit still hurrying between patients. By 3.0, I had the benefit of actual knowledge and understood this road had nothing to do with medicine, and everything to do with supply chain management.

Most of Dr. Fisher’s business took place in Edgartown, including supplying whaling ships with hardtack from his Edgartown bakery. While this bakery is mentioned in multiple accounts of Dr. Fisher’s business operations, the exact location is not specified, although one might assume that it would be on the harbor. A hardtack bakery that might have been the one in question once operated on Osborn’s Wharf (where the Edgartown Yacht Club is today).

The bakery needed flour, and while the doctor could have simply bought it, he preferred to control the process. So in the 1850s, Dr. Fisher bought farmland in what is now West Tisbury (then part of Tisbury) and in 1858 he built a mill there. The mill was initially used for grinding wheat and corn grown on farmland along North Road. In addition to supplying the bakery with flour, Dr. Fisher also exported grain and meal via vessels out of Edgartown harbor. Now, we can visualize the full route from the mill to the bakery and harbor.

The Mill Road (now the Edgartown–West Tisbury Road) already offered a route, so why put in a new road? According to Bill Veno, senior planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, one possible reason was to avoid crossing the several “bottoms” (glacial river valleys) that can be quite steeply sloped. Those bottoms remain today between the airport and the hostel, and one can imagine horses struggling to haul goods up those slopes. Bill also notes that the Dr. Fisher Road passed through a relatively unpopulated area of the Island and by a pond that could supply water for the animals.

Martha’s Vineyard is crisscrossed with a network of ancient ways, most of which are far older than the Dr. Fisher Road. So parts of the route incorporated existing paths. Others were brand new. With the road complete in 1860, one of Dr. Fisher’s wagons traveling from the harbor in Edgartown would have taken the Edgartown–West Tisbury Road to where McIntosh Motors now stands. The new road headed northwest across the center of the Island. The wagon would have wheeled through what is today the State Forest and into West Tisbury, crossing Old County Road. After a final mile on the new road, the wagon would have turned west onto Old Stage Road, then southwest on State Road. Finally, the wagon would have turned onto North Road, arriving a few minutes later at the Fisher Mill, where the horses would have had a chance to drink from the cool mill pond. There, the wagon would have been loaded up for the return trip. Written accounts show the mill in active use starting in 1858. Dr. Fisher died in 1876, so one can estimate that the road’s heyday was in that eighteen-year period.

After 1880, the Fisher Mill does not appear to have been an integral part of commerce that required regular commuting to Edgartown. So while the Dr. Fisher Road appears on most maps from 1880 through today, it has been mostly in quiet deterioration during that time. Some parts have stayed open through use, others have become overgrown. Entropy and accelerating development might have erased all traces, had it not been for two very different twentieth-century conservation efforts.

Preservation

The first conservation effort appears to have been a happy coincidence. At the start of the 1900s, conservationists were increasingly worried about the status of the heath hen, a large bird once common in the Eastern United States. To provide safe haven, more than 5,100 acres of the Great Plain that makes up a good part of Martha’s Vineyard were set aside as the “Heath Hen Reserve.” The effort failed, and the last living heath hen was seen here in 1932 (if you’re curious, somewhat scruffy but much-loved stuffed specimens lurk at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum), but a significant portion of the Dr. Fisher Road lies within, or along the edge of, that reserve – what is now the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. Here the road is part of the forest’s many miles of walking trails and falls under the jurisdiction of John Varkonda, superintendent of the State Forest. John is well aware of the historic nature of the road, and he monitors its use.

“The stretch on the Edgartown side is one of the more popular trails in the park,” he says. “Every couple of years I bring my brush hog down there and keep it open. It’s a nice trail and people like it. On the other side in West Tisbury, though, the road was never maintained. Twenty years ago you could see some of the path, but it was all overgrown even then.”

Outside of the State Forest, the Dr. Fisher Road District received the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s designation as a District of Critical Planning Concern (DCPC) in 1976, precisely a century after Dr. Fisher’s death. Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, says that the DCPC called upon the towns through which the road runs (Edgartown and West Tisbury) to add a special planning overlay district into their zoning bylaws to, among other things, protect the roadway from development and ensure public access.

Brendan notes that much remains to be done. “The goal was just to keep the way from being lost,” he says. “No one has been pressed to take responsibility for ensuring that the resource isn’t deteriorated....Regular use of these flagship ancient ways, where it’s clear that the public has a right to pass, is the best way to keep them open and to identify encroachment and other abuses.”

Today, new initiatives support the preservation mission. In one such effort, William “Boo” Bassett, chair of the Edgartown Byways Committee, has recruited thirty wardens to patrol and maintain Edgartown’s ancient ways, including the Dr. Fisher Road. “We’re having a very bad problem with people dumping on the Island byways,” says William. “The whole thing with our committee is to keep these roads open for the public.”

Walking the road

To shake unwieldy acronyms like DCPC from my mind, I headed back out to walk the section of the road that runs from Barnes Road to Old County Road in West Tisbury. Along the way, I managed to get lost yet again. That was when I first met Granville White. I was standing at the edge of his back yard, scratching my head and holding a tattered map. Somewhat embarrassed, I told him that I’d lost the Dr. Fisher Road. He chuckled. “You’re standing on it,” he said. And indeed, as I looked to where he pointed, a faint depression led straight through the trees and underbrush, almost indistinguishable from the surrounding woodland, and close to impossible to follow. I asked him how many people he encountered like me, traipsing in his back yard looking for the road. “You’re the first,” he said with a grin. So after the pleasure of discovery, I headed back to the State Forest path, where passage is wide and free of deer ticks, brambles, and risk of trespass.

The distance from the West Tisbury mill to the Edgartown bakery and harbor was about ten miles. The unpaved length today is about 6.5 miles, from Old Stage Road in West Tisbury to Edgartown–West Tisbury Road by McIntosh Motors. Of that stretch, about half of the current trail is the road on which Dr. Fisher’s horses traveled; other parts roughly parallel the road site.

Each time I left the roadway, as published in Walking Trails of Martha’s Vineyard (see “Where to start” below), I had an adventure. But the fact remains that sticking to the trail is a worthwhile objective.

Excluding the paved sections of the route, one can walk much of the route of Dr. Fisher’s carriages with Island soil underfoot, through scenery that at least in parts must resemble how it looked in 1870.

Most people I spoke with about the Dr. Fisher Road described usage as key to survival. I asked Bruce McIntosh, whose McIntosh Motors lies at the Edgartown end of the road, what he sees. He expressed sadness that the road does not have more walkers. “I’m nostalgically fond of it being there,” he says. “It should be open, and I encourage people to use it.”

The ability to walk for six miles in a straight shot of relative wilderness is rare on the Island, and it’s part of the magic of the Dr. Fisher Road. Journalist Parker Willis described Dr. Fisher in 1857 as “the tallest, strongest-built, healthiest and handsomest, as well as the wealthiest and most influential inhabitant of Martha’s Vineyard.” His influence remains in the road; the long shadow of a tall man. And while the road was once merely a way to get from point A to point B, today the Dr. Fisher Road can be a destination itself.

Edgartown end
From the two posts at McIntosh Motors to the edge of the State Forest, the road passes to the south of the Vineyard Golf Course and arcs through neighborhoods, crossing several roads and passing the back yards of attractive houses. The journey takes you over glacial moraine of sand and stones, with white pines alongside.

State Forest east
Where the road crosses the wide firebreak and enters the State Forest, it is a broad open path, often worn lower than the surrounding woods. Here one feels a sense of wilderness rare on the Vineyard. As you draw near to the State Forest headquarters, multiple paths join, and at this point careful attention is needed to keep track of the trail. Once past the headquarters building, a dirt road can be seen leading to Barnes Road, beyond Little Pond, and continuing on the western side of Barnes Road. Once you cross, a sign indicates you are on the Dr. Fisher Road.

State Forest west
Once across Barnes Road heading west toward Old County Road, you will pass a Frisbee golf course, and then walk along a bike path with vistas to the south that give a hint of the Great Plain a traveler might have seen a century ago. Here passage is easy along the bike path that approximates the path of the Dr. Fisher Road. The actual road site here is not maintained and veers to one side or the other of the bike path, inspiring a search to find its telltale depressions.
 
West Tisbury end

When you cross over Old County Road, there’s just over half a mile of sandy road with houses – the only place on the road where you can drive a car and have a house with a Dr. Fisher Road address. At the western end, the road bends left, and unceremoniously ends between a mountain of mulch and the town landfill. From here Dr. Fisher’s horses would have continued down Old Stage Road to State Road, then to North Road, where the Fisher Mill stands today – massive and graceful in spite of its size, astride the edge of Crocker Pond, looking as though it might have shut down just yesterday. It is visible from North Road on the left shortly after the Priester’s Pond Reserve, although it is not open to the public.

Where to start
Two parking locations are most convenient: the bike-path parking lot off of Old County Road across from the West Tisbury School and the State Forest headquarters off of Barnes Road. Limited parking is also possible by McIntosh Motors on the Edgartown–West Tisbury Road. If being lost is not your idea of fun, William Flender’s book, Walking Trails of Martha’s Vineyard (Vineyard Conservation Society, 2005) is available around the Island and will guide you. Using this book, one can walk on or near the length of the Dr. Fisher Road all the way from the West Tisbury Road in Edgartown to Old Stage Road by the landfill in West Tisbury. (See page 49, Edgartown Ancient Ways; page 53, State Forest east; page 87, State Forest west; and page 97, West Tisbury Ancient Ways.)

How long does it take to travel the Dr. Fisher Road?
The distance off-limits to motor traffic is about 6.5 miles.

By wagon: Fred Fisher (no relation to the doctor) of Nip ’n Tuck Farm on State Road in West Tisbury estimates it would take a draft team “a strong two hours, possibly three if the wagon is heavily loaded and the roads are not great” to cover the distance. Add another hour, perhaps, for the distance currently under asphalt, and one can imagine a three- to four-hour journey from the mill to the bakery on the waterfront.

Walking: According to William Flender, author of Walking Trails of Martha’s Vineyard, a walker can cover about three miles in an hour, which puts walking time for the unpaved part of the road at a little over two hours, about the same time as that wagon.

Running: With no claim to blazing speed, I jogged the trail in about fifty minutes. It’s a great off-road run – and gives rise to the notion of a Dr. Fisher Road 10K.

Biking: David Whitmon of the Vineyard Off-Road Biking Association (VORBA) said a biker could cover the distance in about half an hour.

You must have Javascript enabled to use this form.