The house that came to be known as Starboard Light was built in Chatham, Massachusetts in 1800. In those years, the concept of a summer home was almost unheard of, and there was no interest in Cape Cod. In fact, by 1860 Cape Cod’s population went into decline. A local map from that era identifies individual dwellings by their owners' names!
Back then Cape Cod was a rough, undeveloped peninsula, but because it was within striking distance of both Boston and New York by train, it soon became an attractive destination for those who wanted to escape the city and experience the simple life by the beach and the sea. Local farmers and seamen were delighted to sell "worthless" coastland for $30 an acre to incoming city slickers. The Forbes family bought Naushon Island in its entirety. Secretary of State Richard Olney bought a place in Falmouth. And in 1890, ex-President Grover Cleveland settled in Wings Neck.
In 1925, my great-grandfather William W. Fitzhugh bought Starboard Light. It was built in 1800 along with two other houses on Stage Harbor by Captain Harding–one of the founding fathers of Chatham–for his three sons. Even by 1925, it was one of just three houses in eyesight.
Today there are over fifteen houses and seventy anchored boats in view, evidence of the sevenfold population increase on Cape Cod over the past century. Tourists cram the towns, the beaches, and the roads. Newcomers love and embrace the old Cape Cod culture, yet the many old Cape families, both blue collar and white, can’t afford to stay. They also can’t bear to leave. The old Cape Cod culture was about simplicity, modesty and stoicism. But with the natural fragmentation of familial wealth, and the growing value of waterfront property, these families are increasingly forced to sell their multi-generational homes. New families with new money erect new homes whose size and cost emphasize a new value for luxury that never before existed on Cape Cod.
Yet by 2010, Starboard Light still stood as one of the few remaining icons of the previous century and its values, and it was still owned by the Fitzhugh family. Particularly when compared to the newer, larger homes popping up around it, Starboard Light seemed suspended in time, enchanting family and guests alike.
Moss-covered sea gray shingles. Impossibly small beds full of bumpy springs. A permanent odor of moth balls. Yellowed and peeling wallpaper. Warped floors speckled by hand with paint. Shelves full of dusty hardcover books. Walls lined with family photographs that look as though they belong in an American History book. A wooden wheelchair. A porcelain wash basin. A workshop crammed with tools for a hundred years of projects. And small, storm-battered windows looking out over the harbor.
Yet the sum of all of these ramshackle parts added up to something much more than a house. Starboard Light was the beacon of the Fitzhugh family, and in 2010 they prepared to say goodbye to five generations of life and love within its walls.