Losing Nantucket: How Massachusetts’ Iconic Whaling Port is Being Slowly Hunted to Extinction
Nantucket is under threat. Like a humpback whale pursued by a skillful harpooner, the charming 18th century seaport is under siege from the modern world at every turn. Even the ferries that carry 1,600 visitors a day to the island each summer have been a target. In June of 2021, the Steamship Authority, which runs the ferries, was the victim of a cyberattack that took down the company’s reservation system for two weeks.
Nantucket, a crescent-shaped island with a permanent year-round population of just 11,000, lies thirty miles out to sea. At just fourteen miles in length it is small and inoffensive. That it should be the target of such an attack is worrying. But then Nantucket has plenty to worry about these days. The 21st century is coming for it with knives out, ready to take it down.
Rendered and Transformed
It is believed Native Americans resided on Nantucket for 10,000 years before the first European settlers showed up. Innkeeper Tristram Coffin and nine other investors bought the island from an absentee land speculator for the price of thirty pounds and two beaver hats in 1659. A house built for his grandson in 1686 is the oldest standing building on the island.
Along with Tristram Coffin, a family of Quakers led by Thomas Macy settled there, and to this day a number of residents can trace their lineage to Coffin and Macy.
Sometime before 1672 a gray whale entered the harbor at Nantucket. It was pursued and killed by the settlers. Working diligently under the guidance of the Native Americans, the settlers rendered the clean burning oil that comes from whale blubber. They sold it to the mainland for illumination. The oil was a big hit, and in due course Nantucket was transformed into the western hemisphere’s foremost whaling port.
By the mid-1700’s Nantucket oil was so prized that the island was permitted to remain neutral during the Revolutionary War in order to serve both America and Great Britain. Afterwards, it became part of the state of Massachusetts.
The whaling industry flourished on Nantucket for 150 years until the mid-19th century when whale populations plunged and advancements in the refinement of crude oil made whale oil uncompetitive. Yet even as the whaling industry went into decline, its legend grew. In 1851 a thirty-one-year-old school teacher by the name of Herman Melville published a novel called Moby Dick.
Set in Nantucket and at sea, the book tells the epic story of an obsessed sea captain bent on revenge against a ferocious white whale that took his leg. At the time of its release the book was not well received. Melville died unheralded and deeply in debt. Only in the early 20th century was his masterwork rediscovered and his genius recognized. In time Moby Dick became a staple of American literature, and Nantucket was forever associated with its colorful characters: Ahab, Ishmael, Starbuck and QueeQueeg the lavishly tattooed cannibal from the south seas who befriends Ishmael in Nantucket at the start of the novel.
As early as the 1920’s tourists began showing up on the island to catch a bit of the flavor of Moby Dick. It was good thing. The late 19th-century had not been so kind to Nantucket. A couple of devastating fires combined with the decline of its core industry had driven it to the brink of ruin. People were moving off the island. Things looked bleak. Then the tourists began showing up.
They took home stories of Nantucket’s quaint 18th-century charm and remote natural setting. Before long, wealthy city dwellers took notice. The island’s fortunes experienced a turnaround. By the mid-20th century deep-pocketed urbanites in search of a pristine seaside getaway began building summer cottages on the island. By the 1980’s property values were on the rise. By the late 2000’s they had skyrocketed into the stratosphere.
Today the tension between wealthy landowners and the island’s longtime residents has become another one of the threats to Nantucket’s future. The cost of living on the island has spiked so dramatically that the only way some longtime residents can afford to pay their property taxes is by renting out their properties during the busy summer season. This has brought an influx of summer party people who have threatened the quiet, out-of-the-way charm of the island, much to the chagrin of wealthy property owners who want it curtailed.
This year Article 90 was introduced, proposing to reduce the number and duration of short-term rentals. Many longtime residents have bristled, seeing the article as an attempt to make the island the exclusive enclave of the rich at the expense of the longtime residents.
At first blush, neither alternative seems particularly desirable. Either Nantucket will become a gated community for the well-to-do, or it will become a trashy and congested party town ala the Jersey Shore. To the extent that these are the the possible outcomes, Nantucket is facing the same dilemma confronting many seaside towns and cities.
Again, the 21st century is closing in. For now, the community has fended off its fate as a five-star private resort by decisively voting down Article 90, but if the character of the place continues to erode behind the influx of rowdies and undesirables, the issue may be visited again. Either that or Nantucket will become a different kind of place, one virtually unrecognizable from the sleepy seaside whaling village it once was.
The Looming Sea
But that’s not the worst of the threats facing Nantucket. If cyber warfare and short-term rentals don’t destroy it, sea level rise almost certainly will.
Rising sea waters are nothing new to the island. Over the last two centuries gradual sea level rise has submerged a barrier beach, shrunk one barrier island and submerged another. But now it’s accelerating.
Tidal flooding of nearly four feet, something that used to happen once every 100 years, has hit the island twice in the last seven years. At least 3,438 structures on Nantucket are at risk of coastal flooding or erosion by 2070, which would result in an estimated $1.2 billion in damages. Nantucket’s historic downtown is at considerable risk for inundation in the decades ahead, as are roads, beaches, and key infrastructure such as two wastewater treatment plants, the airport and the ferry terminal.
The options for dealing with the threat are grim. One option is to pick up and remove assets inland. In the case of Nantucket’s historic downtown this would almost certainly take the form of lifting up and removing the charming 18th century cedar shake buildings and brick paved streets, rebuilding the town on higher ground. The cost would be astronomical, and the damage to the town’s authenticity irreparable, but the town would be saved.
Another option is to lift the town up, to elevate it above the incoming sea. The downtown structures would remain where they are but exist on a false floor, much in the way urban gardens are built on rooftops. Given Nantucket’s mostly small, wooden frame buildings, this option is feasible, but elevating the whole town will create hard to manage areas below street level and will be breathtakingly expensive.
The cheapest option is also the least desirable if the character of the town is to be retained. Concrete floodwalls would keep the sea at bay but destroy the aspect of the town, effectively encasing the town in a concrete box of between four and eight feet. If the idea is to preserve the character of the town, floodwalls would be a non-starter.
Nantucket is Under Threat
Nantucket is facing few good options as it looks to the 21st century. The very things that made it so attractive in the past, its quiet remoteness and historic charm, are under threat, and the proposed solutions only seem to raise more questions. Like the mighty whale hunted to near extinction, the island that was once the center of the whaling industry is trapped and desperate, looking for a way to survive. Hopefully it will be more successful than its former quarry. If not, we are in danger of losing Nantucket.
Previous Stop on the Odyssey: Ledyard, CT
Next Stop on the Odyssey: Plymouth, MA
My American Odyssey Route Map
Hill, Jessica. “Steamship Authority’s ticketing still delayed after ransomware attack,” Cape Cod Times, 8 June 2021. Website
Balling, Johua. “Town developing new guidelines for sea level rise resiliency”, The Inquirer and Mirror, 13 May 2021. Website
Taylor, Candace. “Nantucket’ Short Term Rental War is ‘Pitting Neighbor Against Neighbor’”, The Wall Street Journal, 10 June 2021. Website
“Town of Nantucket Costal Risk Assessment and Resiliency Strategies”, Prepared by Milone and MacBroom, January 2020. Website
All images by Malcolm Logan
Images of paintings courtesy of the Nantucket Whaling Museum