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Nantucket's Master Mason: Christopher Capen

By James L. Dunlap

She was at her zenith of prosperity in the 1830s. Nantucket's "golden age of whaling" had resulted in unprecedented wealth. The austere values of Quakerism no longer controlled the life and culture of the island as they had over the previous hundred years. This new freedom was no more vividly expressed than through the changing architecture of the town of Nantucket. Whaling merchants and captains were in a building mode, providing lucrative employment for "mechanics," as building tradesmen were called, including brick masons, carpenters, and plasterers. The fruits of their labor arose in grandeur along Main, Union, Pleasant, Orange, Broad, and many other prominent streets of the island.

This is the story of one Nantucket building craftsman. His story, like the history of the whaling industry itself, is inseparable from the pedigree of the island's great brick structures. Like a tradesman's personal journey to and from the island, so came the island's wealth before it departed, not to return again for over a hundred years. But while people and wealth have flowed in and out of Nantucket with the predictability of a slow-moving tide, the island's brick structures have remained, stalwart and immobile, like beacons for better times, past and future.

Christopher Capen was born in 1810 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. He was descended from Bernard Capen, who came from England in 1630 and settled Dorchester. Christopher, like his four brothers, was prepared for life through apprenticeship. He was contracted out to his uncle, William, who was a master mason, and so began his life-long trade at age thirteen. Seven years later, in 1830, opportunity drew him from the continent to the island. He came the common way in those days: stage to New Bedford and steamer to Nantucket.

Settling down at a boarding house on Hussey Street with a few clothes and his mason tools, Capen likely sought work immediately, since he came with no resources other than his integrity and his trade. He must have made an early and strong impression on the leaders of his newly adopted town, for by 1831 he was under contract with Henry and Charles G. Coffin to build their brick houses at 75 and 78 Main Street. The houses still stand, majestically gracing each side of the street a short distance from the Pacific Bank, a structure built of brick in 1818.

At the time Capen began work on the Coffin houses, brick structures were few. Not a single residence of brick existed except for a home under construction by Jared Coffin at 19 Pleasant Street, known as Moors End. The only other brick buildings at the time were the Old Town Building on Union Street and the Rotch Market at the lower end of Main Street facing the Pacific Bank. William Rotch, Nantucket's most famous whaling merchant and international statesman, built the market as his counting house in 1775. By 1818, Main Street was framed by two beautiful brick structures three blocks apart, with wooden stores lining each side of the street between the two.

Christopher Capen's role as a Nantucket mason might have involved working simultaneously amidst competing sets of client ambitions, both within and between families. Capen first began construction on Charles G. Coffin's house at 78 Main in 1831. It was a two-and-a-half story, all-brick structure on a granite foundation. Designed in a simplified Greek Revival style, the house had four chimneys. Henry Coffin's house at 75 Main was started a year later. It was similar in size but more elaborate in its late Federal style. We are fortunate that Henry Coffin was a prodigious record keeper; the Nantucket Historical Association now holds documentation of many of his investments and expenses. Christopher Capen was paid $503.63 for his masonry work at 75 Main Street on June 1, 1835.

Having that sum of money, along with Charles G. Coffin's probable payment of a similar amount, Christopher Capen married Lydia Coffin on August 2, 1835. She was the daughter of Christopher Coffin and Nancy Bridger, and therefore a seventh-generation descendent of Tristram Coffin, one of the original proprietors of Nantucket in 1659.

Lydia's parents lived at 59 Centre Street, where she was born. Her father ran a small neighborhood store connected to the house, as was customary in those days. Lydia's mother had borne seven children but died in childbirth with the eighth. Three weeks later her father died, some said, of grief. The seven orphaned children lived together with a guardian looking in occasionally. It was said to be a happy home with the older children caring for the younger. Lydia's situation would improve later in her life: she and Christopher remained married and lived together for the next forty-two years, a rarity in a community known for many "whaling widows."

In 1836, Joseph Starbuck hired (now master) mason Capen to build three brick homes for his three sons, William, Matthew, and George. Starbuck was one of Nantucket's most prominent nineteenth-century whale-oil merchants and shipowners, counting among his seafaring assets President, Hero, Omega, Three Brothers, Loper, and Young Hero. These ships made over fifty voyages, bringing back more than 80,000 barrels of oil valued at an estimated $2,500,000. An oil baron of his day, Starbuck could easily lavish his wealth on his three sons; he did so by building them three identical and elaborate houses on Main Street.

From his home on New Dollar Lane, Starbuck could walk out and see the large brick house being built by Jared Coffin on Pleasant Street. Directing Capen to begin the foundations in early 1837, Starbuck refused to be outdone by his competitors in the Coffin clan. The first of the Three Bricks was up by the autumn of 1837 and the other two were roofed out in 1838. Joseph Starbuck closed out his real estate journal in November of 1840, having paid master mason Capen $3,248. Today, the Three Bricks are described as transitional Federal-Greek Revival style. The large two-and-a-half story residences were bigger and more stylish than Henry and George Coffin's houses just seven doors down Main Street.

While elaborate houses arose in newly developing areas, community prosperity translated to a number of municipal improvements to the town. Main Street was paved with cobblestones from the wharf to the Pacific Bank. Three large cisterns were built on Main Street after a disastrous fire broke out in 1836. Another fire broke out on the east side of town, resulting in the establishment of the first Nantucket Fire Department in 1838.

Driving the economic engine of the community was, of course, whaling. In 1832, a large fleet of whaleships sailed from Nantucket. Of the thirty-seven vessels that left that year, Joseph Starbuck owned two. He built the last whaleship constructed on the island in 1838 on Brant Point and named it, unabashedly, the Joseph Starbuck.

Meanwhile, Christopher and Lydia Capen, settled down in rented quarters at the corner of Centre and Quince Streets, had their first child, Mary Hatch, in 1836. The next year they moved to rented rooms in Captain James Barker's house on Centre Street just across from the Congregational Church, a few doors down from where Lydia grew up. There, Lydia bore their first son in 1837, a child who died in 1840. Around 1839 Capen built a wood-framed house on Hussey Street, three blocks away, where they remained only a year or two. Perhaps it was a slowing demand for masonry work and the increasing cost of a growing family that pressured Capen to sell the house, as it ended up, to his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Coffin, and her whaling captain husband, Uriah Russell. The Capens then bought an existing house at the corner of Pearl, now known as India Street, where they had four more children.

Little is known of Capen's work as a master mason after completion of the Three Bricks. In 1845, at 29 Broad Street, Jared Coffin, who had built the first brick house in 1829 on Pleasant Street, commissioned Nantucket's last brick home of the century. It was said that Jared Coffin's wife insisted they move away from Moors End because of the smell of Joseph Starbuck's try- works behind them on New Dollar Lane. Whether Capen worked on the "new" Jared Coffin house is not known for certain. Lacking his mason's imprint on every structure he built, it is nonetheless quite a testament to his skill that he is known to have built at least five of the twelve brick houses on Nantucket still standing today.

Compounding the malaise left by the decline of the whaling industry, disaster struck the island again on July 13, 1846, when Nantucketers heard the desperate cries of "fire, fire" late that evening. Capen had business downtown that night and was very near the fire when it broke out. He, like many islanders, helped fight the inferno in whatever way he could. Volunteers worked the fire carts, threw wet blankets on exposed buildings, and carried out children, furniture, and valuables. The flames stopped at Pearl Street, before reaching the Capens' home. The Great Fire, as history has renamed it, had destroyed one third of the community, or over four hundred buildings. Everything between the Rotch Market and the Pacific Bank on Main Street was destroyed, leveling the economic center of town. The Jared Coffin House withstood the flames, but the Episcopal Church next door burned to the ground. The differing fates of the buildings provided another standing testament to the enduring value of brick construction.

With a renewed sense of pride and Yankee industriousness, citizens banded together and rebuilt the town within a few months. Town fathers gave renewed priority to fire protection. Most of the new stores in the central business district were rebuilt of brick, including fourteen new commercial buildings. Every available brick mason, including Christopher Capen, was drafted for the effort. Thomas Macy built a new brick warehouse on Straight Wharf and the Mitchells built a new candle factory in 1847 at 11 Broad Street. We enjoy that building today as the Nantucket Historical Association's Whaling Museum.

By 1848, Nantucket's golden age of whaling had come to an end. The whale fisheries had been depleted and Nantucket could not compete with its old rival, New Bedford. That year, seventy-four whaleships set out from New Bedford but only eighteen sailed from Nantucket. The dismal economic scenario was compounded by the enormous toll taken by the Great Fire. Jobs became scarce as rebuilding-related jobs came to a close. Records show Capen was still doing work for Charles G. Coffin as late as May of 1849, but fortune called the master mason elsewhere.

The cry of gold from California rang across the nation and reached Nantucket in the weekly Mirror on December 9, 1848. The rush was on from all over America, nowhere more so than from Nantucket. By the end of 1849 more than 500 Nantucketers had sailed for the West Coast.

The Hope Mining Company was established on May 31, 1849. Twenty-two original Nantucket incorporators unanimously elected master mason Christopher Capen treasurer of the company. Directors also agreed that Uriah Russell, Capen's brother-in-law, and Capen would form a committee to purchase a vessel for the voyage to San Francisco. They found their ship, the Fanny, in Sag Harbor, New York, and sailed to Holmes Hole (now Woods Hole) and prepared to sail to California. By August everything was ready. As an agent for the company, Capen was paid one hundred dollars for his travel and incidental expenses over the previous several months. On August 22, 1849, the directors approved a promissory note payable to C. Capen in twelve months with interest as follows:

$ 409.16
150.00
559.16
22.36 (4.5% interest)
581.52

The minutes of the Hope Mining Company state that on the evening of August 22, 1849, following dinner, the Fanny's crew boarded the vessel with Uriah Russell as their captain. The anchor was lifted and they sailed out of Holmes Hole under a light wind. Friends aboard the Nantucket steamboat cheered as the Fanny's company departed, sailing south around Cape Horn at the tip of South America and then north to California.

One member of the ship's company, John Bridger Coffin, Lydia's brother, became ill and died on board ship October 24, 1849, and was buried at sea on the equator. Records show that Christmas Day of that year marked their 126th day out, and placed them off of Valparaiso, Chile. By the 184th day on the high seas, they dropped anchor in San Francisco Bay. It was February 21, 1850. The ship's company spent the afternoon on shore and saw a great many young men from Nantucket already there. Their journals reflect disappointment in the business and appearance of the place, with money scarce and all kinds of goods in short supply. At a February 23 directors meeting they considered sending the ship to Panama, and appointed C. Capen and Thomas S. Sayer a committee to sell their cargo of lumber. On April 14, at A. Swain's storehouse, by mutual consent the directors dissolved the company. Their last official act was declaring a final dividend of $900. A previous dividend had been paid in the amount of $138.50, making each share (1/48) worth $21.16. It was not much of a gold strike for the shareholders after 184 days at sea.

While there are no clear records, Christopher Capen may have gone to Panama on the Fanny and then crossed the Isthmus of Panama and taken passage back to Nantucket. His wife and children surely called him back when he observed the drinking and debauchery of San Francisco, since he was a teetotaler and no-nonsense man. Upon his return, at age forty, he learned that his baby, Walter, had died while he was away. His last child, another Walter, was born on Nantucket July 22, 1856. Lydia was forty-four and Christopher was forty-six years old.

The 1850s must have been very difficult for islanders, including the Capen family. Of brick construction during that period, only the Coffin School was built, in 1852. It was the last brick structure built in the nineteenth century. But the difficulty of the 1850s yielded to the greater struggles of the Civil War. The island was in a depression even before the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter. The population had fallen to about 6,000 in 1860, down from 9,000 in 1840. Six whaleships set sail for the Pacific in 1860. One of the six was Hero, owned by the Starbuck brothers still living in the Three Bricks. The last whaler to leave Nantucket, Oak, departed the harbor in 1869. It was sold in Panama in 1872, never to return home, meeting the same fate as the Fanny twenty-two years earlier. By 1870, the island's population had fallen to around 4,000.

Islanders overwhelmingly voted for Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and undoubtedly Christopher Capen was among them. Capen was 51 when the War Between the States broke out, too old to march with the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Over the course of the war more than 500 volunteers from Nantucket joined Union forces. Seventy-three lost their lives. Many young men might have become the mechanics of the future, but work was scarce at home. Many stayed in uniform, signing up for the lucrative bonus offered by the Union government.

Capen could no longer support his family and decided in 1863 to leave the island. During the war, New England cities were booming economically, producing the materials needed by the Northern forces. Bridgeport was such a city. Christopher, Lydia, and the children moved to the industrial Connecticut city in search of masonry work It must have been emotionally difficult leaving behind such a large extended family on the Coffin side.

Never one to face defeat, Capen made one last shrewd deal before leaving the island. He advertised for the sale of their home on Pearl Street and sold the house to a man from Rye, New York. The house was taken down piece-by-piece and shipped by schooner to Rye where it was rebuilt. Certainly this was unusual, but the payment was even more so. The purchase price was one case of New York Mills muslin. Since the start of the war, the South had withheld its cotton from the North, thus grossly inflating the price. At the time of the sale, cotton sold for ninety cents a yard. While the exact value of the house is not known, a comparable one was sold at auction in 1865 for $450. At least this was a start to help resettle his family in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He worked on and died on March 22, 1877. Lydia survived him and lived until 1897. Christopher Capen was one of the last great master mechanics or master masons of his era. His work still stands today for our admiration 170 years later.


James Dunlap is the great-great-grandson of Christopher Capen.


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