About the Old Village
The Old Village is the earliest foundational neighborhood of the town of Chatham.
The town as a whole is located at the southeast corner of the Cape Cod peninsula. Often referred to as the “elbow” of the Cape, this unique and enviable position provides Chatham with an unusually extensive coastline along both the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Nantucket Sound to the south. The Old Village nestles comfortably in the embrace of Chatham Harbor to the east and Mill Pond/Little Mill Pond to the west. Between the two is an upland neck that has served as the primary stage for the enactment of village history by successive generations. It is now the residential component of the town’s principal village, and is characterized by a densely developed web of streets that came into being in the 19th century. The varied and picturesque shoreline in this area produced conditions that were unusually attractive to successive maritime, commercial and summer resort interests.
The fortunes of the Old Village received a major boost in 1808 when the new federal government erected twin lighthouses at James Head, a 50′ bluff that defines the southern tip of the Old Village. A pair of brick towers located 400′ further back from the shore in 1841 replaced those original lights. Continued erosion following a major break in North Beach in 1870 led to construction of a third and final set of lights and a new keeper’s house in 1877. The 1877 North Tower was then moved to Nauset Beach in nearby Eastham in 1923, leaving the present single light in Chatham. The lighthouse area has served as a primary focus for the Village for two centuries.
North Beach, a narrow barrier beach to the east of Chatham creates a safe harbor for the fishing fleet and protects the eastern shoreline from the ravages of the Atlantic Ocean. Cyclical breaks in the beach and subsequent erosion of the harbor coast have strongly influenced the history of the Old Village. In addition to causing shifts in the mouth of Chatham harbor and forcing two relocations and rebuilding of the Chatham Lighthouse, coastal erosion occurred in 1832, 1851, 1870, and 1987. After the 1987 breakthrough, the beach along the shoreline at Andrew Harding’s Lane eroded to the point that seven houses either fell into the sea or had to be demolished. Since then the beach area between Holway Street and Andrew Harding’s Lane has been exceedingly fragile. In the summer of 2004, with the help of Old Village Association members, the town worked to purchase a good part of the beach from a private owner in order to preserve it as a public beach. Part of the conservation easement given to the Old Village Association included a statement of intent by the town to replenish the beach with sand if needed.
Success of Maritime Industries
Numerous maritime industries were attracted to the Old Village area in the first half of the 19th century including shipping/trading, fishing, shell fishing and salt making as well as ancillary activities like boat building and sail making. In addition, wreckers, salvagers and anchor draggers along with ships chandlers, were sited along the narroways and paths below the Twin Lights. These enterprises led the Old Village to a sustained period of economic prosperity and population growth that produced the dense street network and development pattern we know today. Most 19tth century district residents were involved in some type of maritime venture.
Part of Chatham’s success in fishing was based on the richness of the clam beds, which were harvested for bait. As early as 1768 a law was passed to prevent non-residents from taking clams, and in 1771 clamming was restricted to those involved in the curing of fish.
The dangers of the outer cape coast in general and the Chatham coast in particular are well known. Statistics about these dangers prompted the Massachusetts Humane Society to establish a series of life saving stations along the Cape Cod coast in 1808. Halfway houses, so-called, were built along isolated sections of the coastline, where rescuers and watchers could take shelter during patrols, leave messages, and stack provisions for shipwrecked sailors. One of the last remaining examples remained in the Old Village for many years at the foot of Andrew Harding’s Lane. After the 1987 North Beach breakthrough eroded its site, it was moved to the end of Forest Beach Road where it remains today.
A concentration of small stores on Water and Main Streets reinforced the position of the Old Village as Chatham’s primary commercial center until the late19th century. In the late 19th century commercial uses gradually migrated westward on Main Street to the current business district. Several of the stores that made the Old Village a self-sufficient, multi-use entity remain today, but most have been converted to residential use.
In the mid-1800’s there were three small district schoolhouses located in the Old Village. All were gradually replaced after being sold or moved. The Old Village Elementary School on School Street combined the classes and served grades 1 through 8 from 1869 until 1925.
An Historic Neighborhood
The Old Village encompasses the town’s greatest concentration of residential buildings from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, providing a nearly complete review of Chatham’s architectural history. While the various styles have different characteristics and each building represents an individual interpretation, many common characteristics create a harmonious ensemble. Predominant characteristics include wood-frame construction, wood shingle or clapboard siding, 1½ to 2 story height, rectangular volumes contained beneath gable roofs, small scale, and general simplicity of design.
Today the Old Village is an exceptionally complete and well-preserved representation of a traditional Cape Cod village that has developed over the course of three centuries. Its many historic buildings, along with its natural and man-made setting, create an ensemble that clearly transmits the area’s long and varied history to both present and future generations.
The Old Village has continued to develop as a desirable residential neighborhood in proximity to the commercial and institutional services of Main Street, as well as the beaches and other amenities offered by Chatham Harbor and Mill Pond/Stage Harbor. The density of development that exited by the early 20th century has limited that growth however, and helped to maintain the historic character of the area.
Step By Step provides an enjoyable and informative walking guide highlighting some of the historic structures in our neighborhood.