A Step Back in Time

Five places in Chatham give visitors an inside look into the town’s long and rich history of millwork, architecture and well-known families.

By Shane Dupuy, Caitlyn Fitzpatrick and Lisa leigh connors
Photography by Betty Wiley

Photo: Betty Wiley
Photo: Betty Wiley

Col. Benjamin Godfrey built his grist mill in 1797 and operated it to grind corn into flour whenever the wind was blowing the right speed. The sweet spot was between 20 and 25 miles per hour; any more or any less and the miller had to call it a day. Over the years the mill was passed between many owners and even found itself in the hands of both the Eldredge and Nickerson families at different times. It was damaged in storms and repaired on numerous occasions, but managed to survive long enough until it was given to the town in 1940. Since 1957, it has been open to the public.

 

In 2012, the Old Grist Mill was completely renovated and restored to the beautiful form it exists in today. It is one of the last remaining mills of its type on Cape Cod and stands in stark contrast to the tall, thin wind turbines that are populating the Cape in increasing numbers. Stop by to gain a sense of the difficult process required to create something we take for granted nowadays.—Shane Dupuy


 

Photo: Betty Wiley
Photo: Betty Wiley

The Caleb Nickerson House

The long and rich history of this house is as uncertain as it is fascinating. Built in 1772, presumably by a member of the prolific Eldredge family, it eventually came into the hands of Caleb F. Nickerson, who was married to Priscilla Eldredge. Though it still remains unclear, the house was most likely built by Priscilla’s father, Isaiah Eldredge, who passed it on to her daughter’s husband. Caleb F. Nickerson was the grandson of Chatham founder William Nickerson. The pairing of him and his wife under the roof of the Caleb Nickerson house makes for an epicenter of Chatham history. Though it was originally located at 230 Stage Neck Road, the building was moved by truck in 2003 to its current location when the property was purchased and the new owner donated the house to the Nickerson Family Association. Its interior is an exquisite example of Colonial architecture. Wainscoting, trim detail, and multiple fireplaces are just some of its features that harken back to a much earlier time. The house offers a gateway both into the Nickerson family history and Chatham history — the two of which are inextricably intertwined. Tours of the house are offered every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. or by appointment from June 12 through Sept. 25.—Shane Dupuy   


Photo: Betty Wiley
Photo: Betty Wiley

Chatham Railroad Museum

How much do you really know about the “Elegant Lady” or the Chatham Railroad Museum? The Chatham Railroad Museum was initially constructed in 1887 as a passenger station for the Chatham railroad. As a native of Chatham, Marcellus Eldredge constructed a depot that eventually became a vacation vessel, providing 21,000 travelers a way to enjoy the ocean during the summer of 1891. While extremely useful for vacationers, the railway allowed for more efficient transportation of fish and cranberries to New York, Boston, as well as Chicago. With native resources being freighted out, the Chatham railroad also brought in coal, lumber, granite, steel, grain, and asphalt for use on the Cape. Ironically enough, asphalt was brought in to help pave Cape highways, which led to the discontinuation of passenger service in 1932. Eight years later, the passenger station was auctioned off and used as a scrap drive storage building during World War II. After being purchased and donated to the town of Chatham, the railroad station was converted to a museum and has become a local attraction to tourists, students, railroad enthusiasts, as well as architectural historians. The Chatham Railroad still stands at its original location and remains in its original condition. Despite being built in the Victorian era, the “Railroad Gothic” architecture resembles the Gothic revival. For more information, visit www.chathamrailroadmuseum.com—Caitlyn Fitzpatrick 


Photo: Betty Wiley
Photo: Betty Wiley

Atwood House Museum

When you enter the Atwood House museum, you immediately step back in time. The gambrel-roofed house, built in 1752 by successful businessman and Chatham sea captain Joseph Atwood, features a Cape Cod basement (dirt and rocks), uneven floors and furnishings from the time period. The Cape Cod-style home was occupied by his descendants for about five generations. In 1926, the Chatham Historical Society acquired this home and preserved it as an historical house museum. “This house feels small, but it was a substantial house for the period,” says Dennis McFadden, executive director of the museum. A major expansion in 2005 created eight galleries with permanent exhibits, including 20th-century writer Joseph Lincoln, a mural barn and an installation of fishing in Chatham which features paintings, descriptive panels and a kids exhibition (which fish to keep, which ones to throw back!). The grounds also feature a mid-20th Century Nickerson North Beach Camp and Chatham School Bells display. In the off-season, from mid-October to the end of June, the museum provides a series of lectures related to Chatham history. Through May this year, the museum is offering wilderness lectures to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of Wilderness Act of 1964. Coming this summer: A major exhibit on Chatham textile artist Anne Grey. McFadden recommends setting aside at least an hour and a half to visit the museum and tour the grounds. “People will often wait until the end of the day and they will stop by at 3:30 or so and we close at 4 p.m. You barely get a taste of it.” The museum is open from June through October. In July and August, it is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday – Friday and 1 p.m.-4 p.m. on Saturday. In June, September, and October, the museum is open 1 p.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday – Saturday. — Lisa Leigh Connors


Photo: Betty Wiley
Photo: Betty Wiley

Marconi Maritime Center

The Titanic may have sunk in 1912, before the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center was built in 1914, but it still played a vital role in wireless communication. “The event itself was important for radio because Congress decided ships of a certain size should have radio operators. That really set up the business,” said Charles Bartlett, president of the museum. The station, taken over by RCA in 1920, turns 100 this year. To celebrate its centennial, the museum plans a grand opening in June of the newly renovated former Hotel Nautilus, located next to the museum. The Marconi museum tells the story of the history of wireless communication, while the hotel features expanded exhibits, an education center and meeting space. From 1920 to 1997, the Marconi station in Chatham was the busiest ship-to-shore marine radio station in the country. “It was such a robust technology that it continued to work,” said Bartlett. “But then, of course, satellites came along.” Bartlett suggests visitors start the tour by watching an introductory video narrated by Walter Cronkite. The Hotel Nautilus opening will feature a special shark tracking exhibit emphasizing wireless and satellite technologies. The museum is open six days a week from June 21 until Labor Day. — Lisa Leigh Connors