What is the history of Stone Alley?

Stone Alley is a cobbled passage with a few steps midway as it descends from Orange Street down to Union Street. For many decades, the view up Stone Alley to the tower of the Unitarian Church with the Town Clock and its famous Portuguese bell was just as representative of Nantucket as the Old Mill. The scene was reproduced on souvenir tiles, plates, and silver spoons on offer to summer visitors in the shops that lined Centre Street’s Petticoat Row.

GPN2322, Photo Collection: PH170 – Collection of Glass Plate Negatives

Back in the 1880s Henry C. Platt, William C. Coffin, David Cullen Griggs, and Clara E. Pitman, early photographers on Nantucket, reproduced the scene on postcards. They were joined a bit later by photographers Henry S. Wyer, James F. Barker, Maurice Boyer, John W. Macy, Alanson S. Barney, and H. Marshall Gardiner producing yet more popular postcards.

Gardiner is well known for his hand-colored postcards, but William C. Coffin had produced a hand-colored image of Stone Alley already in the 1890s. Gardiner manipulated his images in other ways as well. One of his Stone Alley postcards features hand-drawn plants flanking the steps in the alley. Soon genuine plants appeared. Beautified by hollyhocks lining its side, Stone Alley had become iconic of Nantucket.

Artists followed the photographers’ lead, with works by, among others, James Walter Folger, J. B, Reed, Ruth Haviland Sutton, W. O. Stevens, Mary Cowees Clark, and Robert Brooks. Purchasers of their works carried them far and wide.  A letter to the editor of the Inquirer and Mirror in 1914 boasted of a watercolor painting of Stone Alley in the possession of the writer in California.

The oldest remaining house on Stone Alley is a double house known as the Solomon and Paul Gardner house.  1 Stone Alley was built on the ridge of Quanaty Bank (or Long Hill) in 1720.  This was a decade before Quanaty Bank was excavated for fill for the wetlands between the bank and the harbor, thereby making room along its steep new face for Union Street.

The correspondent who wrote to the Inquirer and Mirror about his watercolor painting of Stone Alley also related that, “The bluff between Orange and Union Streets, now terraced and built up, was called by the children of past years ‘the jumping hill’ because it was a sandy cliff, just right to slide and jump down.”

In 1750 the house at the top of the bank was expanded. Today the address is 1–3 Stone Alley. Generations of related families have occupied the house. Among them was Clinton Parker (1854–1932), who followed his father into the blacksmith business and whose shop on Straight Wharf passed on at his retirement to fellow blacksmith Aquila Cormie. Clinton Parker was famed for his knowledge of Nantucket’s whaling captains. According to his obituary, “He was never a seafaring man, but he was associated with seafaring men, and his memory was reliable and authentic.”

A widower, Clinton Parker had four daughters. The oldest, Clara Parker (1877–1970), had her own remarkable history. In 1898 she was hired as assistant librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, and in 1906 she became head librarian, a position she occupied for fifty years, serving three generations of Nantucket readers. Upon her retirement she was named Librarian Emerita. She had been only the third librarian of the Atheneum in over a hundred years of its history.

Clinton Parker remarried, and in 1920 his wife Harriet and daughter Clara, both resident at 1 Stone Alley, were listed together in the Inquirer and Mirror as two of sixty-nine Nantucket women registered as “New Voters.”

Clinton and Harriet had three distinguished grandchildren: Nantucket fisherman George Andrews, naturalist and author Clinton Andrews, and Barbara Andrews, yet another Atheneum librarian.

Across the alley from 1–3 Stone Alley is the Upton House, named for George P. Upton, who lived on Nantucket 1821–1846. Yet another Stone Alley house was the James Law house. That house was moved to Hulbert Avenue in 1883 and replaced with a new house built by James H. Gibbs, bell ringer for the nearby Town Clock.

The alley was a subject for nostalgic art well into the mid-twentieth century, but that art was increasingly retrospective. In 1939, the Inquirer and Mirror carried a vintage photo with the caption: “Stone Alley before poles and wires spoiled the picture.” Not only were there utility poles, but a sewer line had been installed under Stone Alley to serve the houses located across the alley from each other just before the steps and even one down on Union Street.

Over time there has been significant degradation of the alley. The cobbles of the section from the steps down to Union Street have suffered from lack of maintenance and become treacherous. There are no hollyhocks, and bushes have grown up to obstruct the view of the Town Clock.

In 1954 plans by the town to somehow modernize Stone Alley inspired an editorial in the Inquirer and Mirror and a letter to the editor from Washington D.C. calling for the alley to be left just as it was.

Twenty years later the Nantucket Garden Club carried out a cleanup of Stone Alley, cutting back overgrown ivy, raking up wet leaves, weeding among the cobbles, and gathering a great deal of broken glass left behind by people who took advantage of the unlighted alley for nighttime drinking.

The call for Stone Alley to be preserved continues to resonate among people who know and cherish the place.  Brush cutting could restore a sight line to the Town Clock. Efforts to plant hollyhocks have yet to meet with success. The cobbles need attention. Yet it is not at all clear who is responsible for Stone Alley, and therein lies a mystery.

In Assessor Isaac Coffin’s 1799 list of streets and ways in the Town of Nantucket, there is no mention of Stone Alley, although many other little lanes, alleys and courts do make the list. According to Merle Turner, writing in 1929, the earlier name of Stone Alley was Gunter’s Alley, but Gunter’s Alley does not appear in the 1799 list either. Nonetheless, by the 1820s the foot of Stone Alley repeatedly appears in Nantucket newspapers as a location on Union Street.

Turner cryptically remarks that the alley was “opened after 1800.” Yet houses built on the alley in the 1700s must have had access from Orange Street. Perhaps Turner meant that the way down from where the old houses are located to Union Street was opened after 1800, and possibly that date follows from the fact that the alley does not appear on the 1799 street list.

Ultimately the 1799 streets were grandfathered as public ways for which the Town of Nantucket is responsible.  Since then additional streets have been laid out, taken, and registered. But Stone Alley, so significant a part of Nantucket’s history and popular culture, remains in limbo and thereby vulnerable.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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