Their hardscrabble life over the centuries included fires, blockades, blizzards, and near-starvation, but the early Nantucketers came from hardy stock; the families that formed the first Quaker meeting on Nantucket in 1708 did better than survive. They prospered, going on to dominate the global whaling industry until the mid-19th century, when a massive fire destroyed much of Nantucket Town, including its wharves and part of its fleet. Seven years later, in 1853, kerosene was extracted from petroleum for the first time, promising light that, unlike whale oil, did not require a years-long, extremely dangerous, rarely-profitable (for the crew, anyway) endeavor to produce, and dooming Nantucket’s declining whaling empire to obsolescence.
The island that had once been home to a rigid Quaker Meeting that disowned most of its own members for marrying out, nonattendance, or associating with the “world’s people” before fracturing and eventually disbanding became, of all things, a tourist destination. It still attracts beachgoers by the thousands in the summer. It is a place as steeped in its own peculiar history as any I’ve encountered. Each time I visit, its shingles and shoreline, winding paths and wide skies, enchant me anew.