I knew that two characters in Wolfie, my novel in progress, were going to have a heavy conversation while walking on a beach. I thought the beach was going to be Great Rock Bight. Imagine my surprise when they wound up at the Gay Head Cliffs. I don’t get up that way very often (“it’s too far,” she whined), so yesterday Travvy and I headed all the way up-island to see what my characters saw and maybe hear some of what they were saying.
The first thing I saw was the Gay Head Light, which wasn’t where I’d last seen it. Last spring, after more than two years of planning and fundraising, it was moved 129 feet back from the edge of the cliff that was eroding out from under it.
The lighthouse is still encircled with chain-link fencing because the work isn’t entirely done yet, so this is as close as we got.
It being January, the shops and the restaurant were closed up and deserted. Travvy and I had the observation area to ourselves. Trav sniffed at the clumps of grass while I leaned on the post-and-rail fence and looked first down at the cliffs, then out at the water. My characters were standing there too, ignoring me as if I weren’t there. I, however, listened closely to them. Shannon, who’s lived on the Vineyard for decades, pointed out over the water and said, “That’s Devil’s Bridge.” Her sister, who’d never visited the island before, said, “I can’t see anything,” to which Shannon said, “Neither can the ships.”
Devil’s Bridge is a rocky underwater shoal that many a ship has foundered on. Perhaps the most famous wreck was that of the City of Columbus, which hit the rocks in the early morning hours of January 18, 1884.
The City of Columbus was much on my mind because three days earlier I’d read on Facebook this post by June Manning, native islander, member of the Wampanoag tribe, and teller of stories we’d do well to remember:
“It was 132 years ago today the Steamship City of Columbus went down off of Gay Head. Out of 132 passengers and crew, only 29 were saved. None of the women nor children were saved. Men were frozen while clinging to the masts. Heroic men of the United States Lifesaving Service rowed out to rescue the survivors. The USLSS was established in 1878 with boathouses at Dogfish Bar and Squibnocket. The crew had watches and would walk the beaches looking for those in danger. Our great-grandfather Francis Manning served, as did many of his fellow Wampanoag men and those from Chilmark and other Vineyarders.
“In 1895 the station was built atop the cliffs. The United States Coast Guard was formed in 1915 and it became Station Gay Head. Captain Bob Kinnecom is probably one of the few surviving crew as he was stationed there from 1951 to 1952. His father, Harold Kinnecom, had served as the captain. We were proud of their heroic service and can be just as proud of the crew serving at Station Menemsha at the present time as they went out early Friday morning to rescue men aboard a fishing boat heroically saving lives. THANK YOU!”
Yesterday afternoon was sparkling clear, the sky almost unbearably blue, but the bracing wind made it seem colder than it was, and that was cold enough. It wasn’t hard to imagine the City of Columbus going down in dark, frigid waters, pounded by rough seas, or the heroic efforts of the rescuers. For more about the wreck, the rescue, and the salvage operation that took place in 2000, see “Disaster on Devils Bridge.”
The path to the beach is much longer than I remembered, the beach itself much rockier. While I picked my way over the rocks, not wanting to turn my ankle this far from the car, another of my characters dropped in. This guy, Giles, is an artist, and he’s been working on a series of paintings in which Vineyard beaches come alive in ways that are sometimes sensuous, sometimes creepy, and not infrequently both. He hasn’t painted at Gay Head yet. I think that’s going to change.