Mention the word Cuttyhunk to even a lifelong New Englander and the predictable response is: “Huh?” Though easily accessible to the public, the island just offshore of New Bedford, Massachusetts, is far less known than its mainland neighbors—except to serious anglers. They understand what the quiet island hides along its rocky shoreline.
Cuttyhunk is the outermost of the Elizabeth Islands, the chain of 16 islands extending from Cape Cod along the edge of Buzzards Bay, and is one of the two Elizabeth Islands not privately owned by the Forbes family. The mile-long scraggle of land has only 150 houses, never occupied all at the same time, and roughly 150 residents during the summer. In wintertime, the population can dip below 10. The island boasts no urban sphere or any semblance of nightlife. Old-fashioned fishermen, though, crowd here to chase the striped bass that thrive in the rocky reefs near the island’s shore. Cuttyhunk has been a sort of secret haven for anglers since a group of wealthy businessmen founded the Cuttyhunk Fishing Club in 1864, after discovering the impressive yield of striped bass (or rockfish) along the shoreline. Among the club members were some of the country’s most influential citizens: Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Cleveland and Taft, alongside oil barons and railroad tycoons. In 1913, club member Charles B. Church set a world record with his 73-pound bass caught just offshore.
The club dissipated around 1921 as war efforts took precedence, but its meeting place was restored recently as a bed and breakfast by Bonnie Veeder, a lifelong resident of the island. Veeder’s family has lived on Cuttyhunk for six generations, working as fishermen and developing its infrastructure and businesses. When the late Muriel Ponzecchi bought the club to protect it from being demolished, she charged Veeder with its care. Veeder has now been running the Fishing Club for 22 years, and she has kept the island’s history alive. “We’ve got the original furnishings in it and artifacts that date back to 1864, when all the fishermen were here,” Veeder says. “We try to preserve the building and that era as much as we possibly can.”
Cuttyhunk itself is also a step back in time. Cellphone reception is spotty at best, and the total number of cars could be counted on one hand. People instead traverse the island by foot or golf cart. Children travel in packs, running barefoot through the streets. During the off-season, the island’s one-room schoolhouse educates the kids who stay year round (the class size was one this year).
Fishing is still the glue that holds this society together. The fishing dock is Cuttyhunk’s most bustling social scene. Fishermen congregate over their fresh catches outside the line of shops, out of which chowder and lobsters are sold, and fishing charters operate. The island’s only ice cream shop, owned by Veeder, is there as well. Kids sit on the edge of the dock, eating ice cream next to fishermen as they sort through live bait and toss the dead ones back into the harbor.
More seasoned fishermen welcome visitors aboard their boats for a look at the fishing grounds. “If you’re new to the area, I’d say go out with George Isabel,” Veeder says. “He’s one of the oldest fishermen out there right now.” Isabel can accommodate four people on his boat (the 25-foot Linesider), and as he also serves as the island’s only police officer and harbormaster, he is not difficult to track down. “Everybody wears many hats down here because there are not a lot of people,” Veeder says.
Cuttyhunk Marina has 50 transient slips for visiting boaters, and there are 50 moorings in the well-protected harbor. Onshore, offerings are limited. There is exactly one of everything: one marketplace, one sit-down restaurant, one raw bar. Cuttyhunk’s two main beaches are also uniquely quiet, even at the peak of summer. Barges Beach is a rocky stretch for walking and cooking out, and Church’s Beach is a sandy front with calm water for swimming. Great sunsets can be viewed from Lookout Park, which is built over an old bunker and provides a complete view of Buzzards Bay, Vineyard Sound, surrounding islands and the ocean.
Once a year, on the first weekend of August, the island comes to life for a fireworks display. “It brings everyone in town,” Veeder says. “Everywhere you can walk there are people.” For that one night a year, businesses are filled and lines wrap around the walls. There are cookouts on the beach and stands along the roads.
“Living here was just a normal way of life for us,” Veeder says of her upbringing on the island. “You don’t think anything different of it until you see that things are done a bit differently on the mainland. You always get people who go, ‘What is there to do?’ and I say to them, ‘Nothing—that’s the best part.’
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.