Where is Nantucket’s Coon Street and how did it get its name?

Coon Street runs between Orange Street and Union Street, parallel to York Street to the north and Beaver Street to the south. Beaver Street, named for a Nantucket ship, is included among the “1799 Streets” listed by the town assessor, but neither Coon Street nor nearby Meader Street (running between Union Street and Washington Street) are. Coon Street does appear on the 1858 Waller Map.

Both Coon Street and Meader Street were named for notable seafaring Nantucket families. Though not as numerous as the Coffins, Gardners, Swains, and others, the Coon and the Meader families sprang from Nantucket roots and produced Nantucket whaling captains.

The surname Coon, widespread in the U.S.A., particularly in New York State, has multiple origins. Some Coons were originally Scots and Irish MacCoons, and Cooneys. A man named Robert Coon had already settled in New England in 1634, and by the mid-1700s, William Coon (the first of several generations of William Coons) arrived on Nantucket and married Nantucketer Phebe Cash.

William and Phebe’s son William Jr. married fellow Nantucketer Catharine Marsh, and they had nine children (six sons and three daughters). Carrying on the family tradition, they named one of their sons William S. Coon. The nine brothers and sisters married other Nantucketers and had substantial families of their own.

Three of the brothers and one of their nephews became whalers.

Captain Roswell Coon (1815–1867) was master of a voyage out of New Bedford to the Pacific in 1851–55 with his younger brother Charles A. Coon as first mate. Roswell Coon died in Edgartown.

Captain James Coon (1817–1870) was master of three whaling voyages out of New Bedford to the Pacific (1848–53, 1854–58, and 1866–68). He moved with his family to Cotuit and died together with his son and a crewmember when his vessel, the schooner J. E. Simmons, went down in a storm. The Inquirer and Mirror wrote: “Capt. Coon was a former citizen of Nantucket, one of the most energetic and successful of whaling captains, widely known and esteemed here, as also at New Bedford, from which port he has made several voyages.”

Charles A. Coon (1820–1897) made three whaling voyages to the Pacific, as third mate in 1843–47, first mate in 1851–55, and in 1867–72. He is not listed as master on any of these voyages, but the Inquirer and Mirror referred to him as Captain Coon. Later in life he served as one of the night wardens keeping watch for fire in the town. He died on Nantucket and is interred in Prospect Hill Cemetery.

William S. Coon III (1833–1897) enlisted from Nantucket in the Union Navy in 1861 and served in the Civil War as a gunner on the ironclad Louisville. He and his Nantucketer wife, Elizabeth (Worth) Coon, moved to New Bedford. His grave in New Bedford is marked with a military headstone.

Charles W. Coon (1850–1886) was a nephew of these brothers. He made three whaling voyages as a seaman to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, being at sea with only brief breaks from 1864 to 1875.

Coon Street—like Coffin Street, Gardner Street, and Meader Street—was named for a family rather than for one individual. There have been no Coons resident on Nantucket for about a century. The connection of the street name with the family has become obscure, and some people perceive the street name as a racial slur somehow connected with the historic New Guinea neighborhood west of Orange Street.

Notable residents of Coon Street more recently have been two generations of the Grant family. In 1889, Jamaican Charles Grant and his wife Rachael, who was born in Maine, bought commercial property on South Beach Street that has come to be known as the site of the Opera House restaurant. Up until Prohibition they operated a saloon there, and with their earnings, they purchased their residence on Coon Street. The Grant house on Coon Street was said to have been the repository for some of the furnishing of the African Meeting House after it was closed as a church in 1912.

During Prohibition, Rachel, who had been widowed, and her son Charles Jr. turned the property on South Beach Street into a bistro-style restaurant providing employment for a half-dozen people.

In 1933 Charles Grant Jr. married Georgia-born Ruth Grant, who had been working on Nantucket in the summers. Ruth took over operation of the restaurant while Charles was employed as Nantucket’s shellfish warden.

In 1944 the Grants offered the premises to the Nantucket Boys Club, but within a year Gwen and Harold Gaillard leased it for their Opera House Restaurant.

Charles Grant Jr. died in 1948, and Ruth Grant carried on until her death in 1985. She did not sell the Opera House property until 1969, when it had been a Black-owned business for a full eighty years.

During her later years, Ruth Grant provided her home and piano to Black mezzo-soprano Josephine White Hall to give lessons and to practice. From 1952 until 1996, Josephine White Hall was a fixture of the summer music scene on Nantucket. She had a long-term connection with Coon Street, was beloved by Nantucketers, and is fondly remembered by many today.

For more about Josephine White Hall, visit here.

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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