Who was William Flagg, and what did he have to do with the ‘Sconset Footpath?

Photograph of a footpath along north bluff to the Sankaty lighthouse
View on footpath along north bluff to the Sankaty lighthouse. by Henry S. Wyer

In 1873, William Flagg, a summer resident of Nantucket, obtained title to a large section of land between the village of  ‘Sconset and Sankaty Head known as Plainfield. The original title gave Flagg ownership to the foot of the bluff, while the Proprietors of the Common and Undivided Land reserved for themselves the beach from the foot of the bluff to the high-water mark.

Flagg soon acquired more land and made plans for a subdivision into house lots. In this subdivision he ran the easterly boundary of the lots to what “he no doubt considered a safe distance from the edge of the bluff.”

Ten years later Flagg petitioned the Proprietors for a set-off of even more land in the area. On December 8, 1883, the Proprietors agreed to this set-off, valued at ten sheep commons, requiring Flagg to “secure to said Proprietors a roadway” on the beach at the base of the bluff “notwithstanding any changes that may hereafter take place on the beach affecting the position of said line of high water mark.” In other words, the Proprietors’ possession of the beach at the foot of the bluff was erosion-proof.

When Flagg sold some of his lots in 1892, it was recorded that the easterly line of these lots was separated from the edge of the bluff by “a footpath along the top of the bank.” In August of that year, Flagg petitioned the Proprietors to accept a tract of land “for residents and visitors to Nantucket to be used as a footpath or foot promenade.” Moreover, the land conveyed at this time by Flagg to the Proprietors was not only the footpath along the edge of the bluff, but the face of the bluff as well, connecting with the beach below that the Proprietors had already reserved for themselves. The Proprietors voted to accept this, and Flagg conveyed the land to them on September 21, 1892.

In 1924 the Town of Nantucket voted to seek title to the footpath through the Land Court, with the Proprietors resigning as trustee and the Town of Nantucket appointed trustee in their place. On May 1, the Proprietors voted to give the Town of Nantucket “a deed of release to not only the Path, but to all the land between the top and bottom of the bluff along the path.”

Historian Edouard A. Stackpole wrote in 1973, “Undoubtedly the most unusual feature of the path is that it is public (being owned by the town) and yet that it leads directly across the front yards of all those owning property fronting the bluff.”

In 2011, with much input from property owners along the bluff and many assurances from the town, the Roads and Right of Way Committee succeeded in establishing legal access to the footpath from Baxter Road, which runs parallel to the footpath. Four ways between Baxter Road and the footpath were taken, and one of them was made a public way. A Public Way marker was also placed at the beginning of the path in ‘Sconset, along with informational signage about hours when the public is welcome and rules of common courtesy to homeowners along the way.

The footpath used to lead all the way to Sankaty Head, but erosion in recent years has taken part of the north end of the footpath. Nonetheless, the remaining public footpath is of considerable length and offers spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean. For this the public has William Flagg to thank.

For more about the ‘Sconset footpath, see Frances Karttunen’s report Ways Off Shore: A History of Roads and Ways in Nantucket County.

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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