After the Civil War, sports in the United States proliferated and many became organized. There were more people with disposable income and the time to take vacations. One of these sports was swimming.
Even though they lived on an island, most early Nantucketers did not know how to swim and fishermen often drowned.
As Nantucket began to cater to tourism in the mid-1870s, the island’s beaches were promoted for the new sport of swimming.
In 1875, Captain Matthew Webb of England became a celebrity as the first person to swim the English Channel and his fame helped to spread the sport’s popularity. In 1882, Webb visited Nantucket and gave a well-attended swimming exhibition at Surfside Beach.
Swimming was accessible to women which helped to popularize it. The Inquirer and Mirror advised island girls in 1870, “It is quite time you began to swim,” promoting swimming as a “powerful and hygienic agent” and “exhilarating exercise.”
At a special town meeting in 1904, the town voted unanimously to lease what is now called Jetties Beach to Clifford Folger. Although Folger was from Framingham, he reminded voters of his Nantucket roots. He told the meeting that he did not like the idea of the beach falling into the control of “parties who were not Nantucketers or interested in Nantucket.” He pitched that, if the beach were to end up in the hands of unscrupulous off-islanders, it could be “made into a class of resort which the people of Nantucket did not want on the island.” He was given a fifteen-year lease for $350 per year. It was called “Cliff Bathing Beach.”
Folger build a multipurpose pavilion the first year where food was served and bathrooms provided. People could change into their swimming costumes in several rows of bathhouses.
The beach began to be called “Jetties” in 1937 because of its location by the jetties that form the entrance to Nantucket Harbor. (The jetties were built between 1889 and 1911 and recently refurbished.)
Today, Jetties is a public beach supervised by lifeguards and a bus is available to transport beachgoers from town. It is a popular beach especially for families with young children because the shallow beach on Nantucket Sound is protected from the heavy surf of the island’s southern beaches.
The original pavilion is still in use, housing a restaurant, changing rooms and a store. In addition to beach activities such as beach volleyball, sailboat and kayak rentals, there are public tennis courts and a playground.