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A rabbit hole trip to an earlier Cape Cod

Public Domain / Wikipedia

The next time you’re fighting traffic at the Cape Cod bridges, imagine if your journey could “put you in a mood thoroughly to enjoy the delights that await.”

That’s how the 1909 New York Sun described the journey on the $2 million steamship that ferried passengers from New York City to Fall River, where they could hop a train to Cape Cod and other destinations. The steamer, part of the Fall River Line, was renowned for its electric lights, its interior design, and its safety features such as fire-suppression sprinklers.

I know all this because I’ve recently fallen down a new rabbit hole – the newspapers on Chronicling America, a website created by the Library of Congress. The site has digitized local newspapers from 1770 to 1963 and is searchable.

It’s also ridiculously habit-forming.

Look! There in the September 20, 1922, rotogravure of the New York Herald is the writer Eugene O’Neill on a Cape beach with his “wife and son Shane.” Agnes Bolton, his wife, isn’t even identified by name. We are to assume she is just Mrs. Eugene O’Neill, or at least was for about seven more years.

And here’s a Cape Cod windmill on the photo page of the October 14, 1923, Washington Evening Star, right next to the newly appointed representative from the Bulgarian legation. And check out the Star’s 1947 photo layout about cranberries, featuring, of course, a pretty girl in a Cape Cod bog.

Cape Cod is all over these old papers. Sometimes it’s cultural, as in ads for Cape Cod-style houses and ruffled Cape Cod curtains. I had never heard of a Cape Cod fire lighter – a long-handled rod holding a non flammable substance soaked in a small pot of kerosene or lamp oil. You use it to light your firewood. In 1947, you could buy the firelighter and pot for $6.50 at Woodward and Lothrop, the fancy Washington, D.C., department store, according to their ad in the Star.

But Cape Cod itself repeatedly makes news, particularly shipwrecks. On December 23, 1799, Jenks’s Portland Gazette reported on the fate of the schooner Farmer, believed to have been lost in a gale with all onboard. But no! It turns out the schooner had drifted into Barnstable Bay and all were saved.

The October 15, 1904, Daily Kennebec Journal reported on the schooner Wentworth, lost on Chatham Bars with 10 souls. The San Francisco Call devoted most of its front page on November 30, 1898, to the sinking of the Portland steamer and the bodies that washed up on the outer Cape. Even the 1913 Ogden Utah Standard carried the story of the Monomoy Point lifesavers who rescued the crew of a lumber-laden three-masted schooner gone aground in a nor’easter.

Some descriptions are not so heroic. Cape Codders seem to have had a reputation for being sly skinflints or aging captains who loved to tell a good tale. However, by 1909, the steamship and rail companies were promoting vacations here in advance of the 1910 dedication of the Pilgrim Monument and the visit of President William Howard Taft. Hence, the article in the New York Sun touting the comforts of the railroad and steamers and featuring a town-by-town list of Cape sights.

There’s so much here to make me nostalgic not only for the old-time Cape but for the local newspapers that brought the world to our door and really did chronicle our lives. Sadly, neither the New Bedford or Cape Cod Standard Times or local weeklies are included in the collection; I hope they are eventually – some are already digitized in local library collections.

In the meantime, there’s plenty to keep you busy on the Chronicling America website. But, be warned, like any rabbit hole, it can turn into a time-eater or send you daydreaming of a journey on the Commonwealth steamer.