Maps & Tours
A Walking Tour of Oak Bluffs
Oak Bluffs Walking Tour
Initially part of Edgartown, Oak Bluffs in the space of 35 years grew from wilderness to the most famous Methodist camp meeting in the United States. In 1835 a few pilgrims from Edgartown pitched nine tents in a grove of oaks just behind the bluffs overlooking Nantucket Sound and for a week sought a closer and more fundamental communion with God than they could fine in the comfort of the village. By 1870, thousands were coming from all over New England to witness the spectacle of revival meetings - and to vacation in a town that grew in a circuit around the original camp meeting site.
Oak Bluffs is a relatively young town, by Island standards, and since its economy had more to do with recreation than with the time-honored whaling or shipping trades of Edgartown and Vineyard Haven, it evolved with a much more frivolous, lighthearted air.
Instead of serviceable, weather-hardy salt-boxes or dignified captains' houses, Oak Bluffs filled with whimsical, multicolored gingerbread cottages — unwinterized "wooden tents" erected to replace the earlier Methodists' canvas ones.
Oak Bluffs businesses also leaned toward pure entertainment — there were theaters, a giant roller skating rink, hotels and a carousel (still in operation).
Before the turn of the century, townsfolk were feeling their own needs, separate from Edgartown, so community leaders began agitating for separation. In 1880, they broke away and renamed the town Cottage City. In 1907 they renamed it as Oak Bluff
As the Vineyard's first summer resort, Oak Bluffs fostered a vacation economy that soon spread throughout the Island to replace the disappearing whaling economy.
1. Circuit Avenue
Always the business center of town, it was named for the "circuit" many of the Camp Ground's preachers rode. The Oak Bluffs Land & Wharf Company laid out most of the town and named it. Their first commercial building, the Arcade, was built in 1872 and still stands today at 32 Circuit Avenue.
2. Camp Ground
Original owners modeled their cottages after the Victorian styles popular in Newport, but added unique Revival elements — especially filigree trim — the result was the "Carpenter's Gothic" style. Today more than 300 cottages remain on the 36-acre site. These homes are privately owned and not open to the public.
3. Tabernacle at Trinity Park
Originally the site of a prescher's stand, and then a huge sailcloth tent, the Tabernacle, 100 feet high, 130 feet across, and seating more than 3,000, was built with wrought iron in 1879. On Illumination Night, each August, hundreds of Chinese and Japanese lanterns decorate the Tabernacle and the eaves of surrounding cottages in a celebration that traditionally marks the nd of summer. However, the first Illumination Night in 1868 was organized by a real estate developer to attract attention to the new houses hew was building around Ocean Park and was frowned upon by the Methodists. The Tabernacle is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
4. Cottage Museum
A chance to see the inside of one of the gingerbread cottages. The public is invited to see exhibits that show how cottages have been furnished for the past 100 years — with rocking chairs, Bibles, hooked rugs, quilts and historical bric-a-brac. Located at 1 Trinity Park, open Monday-Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm.
5. Wesley Hotel
Built by A.G. Wesley in 1879 for the sum of $18,000, the hotel prospered until a November 1894 fire. Three days later, A.G. confessed to arson. He wanted to build "an even larger, more creditable hotel for the community." The hotel rehired A.G. as a cook after he served three years in jail. This sole survivor of the large hotels so prominent in Cottage City's heyday was remodeled in 1986.
6. Oak Bluffs Harbor
Once a swampy, landlocked pond called Lake Anthony, this harbor was opened up to the ocean at the turn of the century. Now it holds as many as 500 boats at a time snug and safe during the entire summer. The boardwalk continues to bustles with shops and restaurants.
7. Flying Horses
Built in 1876, the oldest operating platform carousel in the country is registered as a National Historical Landmark. There are twenty-two wooden horses with real horse hair—and of course, a brass ring to catch.
8. Ocean Park & Bandstand
Showplace seven-acre park. The annual fireworks and summer band concerts are held here. The houses surrounding the park reflect the more affluent families in their size and style — Queen Anne and Gothic Revival.
9. Union Chapel
Designed by noted architect Samuel F. Pratt, this octagonal, acoustically sound chapel with its three-tiered roof and four doors was the site of secession meetings when the town debated breaking away from Edgartown. Concerts are held here throughout the summer.
10. Arts District
88-99 Dukes County Avenue. Located at the edge of the Camp Ground is a concentration of galleries featuring fine art and photography as well as jewelry and clothing boutiques.