The Old Gaol
15R Vestal Street
The NHA’s Old Gaol (old English spelling, pronounced ‘Jail’) on Vestal Street, one of the oldest extant jails in America, and the oldest remaining intact jailhouse on Nantucket, is an iconic historic landmark in need of key repairs. The NHA’s restoration of the Old Gaol has been funded in part by a recent $10,000 competitive grant award from the Johanna Favrot Fund for Historic Preservation of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This grant will support hiring a preservation architect, and an historic structural engineer to consult with Mark Avery, NHA Director of Historic Properties, and assist with the restoration project.
The NHA’s restoration of the Old Gaol, listed in the State Register of Historic Places, is also supported with a $62,425 grant from the Nantucket Community Preservation Committee, and a $50,000 matching grant from the Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund through the Massachusetts Historical Commission, Secretary of the Commonwealth William Francis Galvin, Chairman. Together, these grants provide the funding needed to restore the building’s interior and exterior, to install lighting, critical fire and security systems, as well as to reconstruct historic elements lost over time – including rebuilding the exterior stairs to the second floor, reconstructing the east chimney and fireplaces, and restoring the operability of the historic door locks. Completion of this work will result in a structurally sound, weather-tight, secure building, which, as a result, will provide the NHA with an opportunity to interpret the history of crime and punishment on Nantucket for year-round and seasonal residents and visitors.
This restoration project will begin in the fall of 2013, with completion scheduled for June 2014.History
Nantucket built its first jail in 1696 on Vestal Street in response to its emerging status as an international seaport, which brought with it an increase in the number of transient visitors.
In 1805 taxpayers decided to spend $2,090 (roughly the cost of building a whaleship at the time) to build a new, sturdier penal facility also on Vestal Street. Opened in 1806 and dubbed the "New Gaol," the wooden structure represents colonial architecture with exceptional reinforcements.
The New Gaol was constructed using massive oak timbers with iron bolts running the length of the walls, iron rods across the windows and heavy wooden doors reinforced with iron.
The solidly built jail forced prisoners to come up with creative escape plans. Archival material held at the NHA Research Library contain many accounts of successful and unsuccessful prison-breaks, including one of a 15 year-old boy who crawled out the chimney flue, and of a prisoner who had a key delivered to his second floor window by a woman using a block and tackle pulley system constructed for the purpose.
1933 saw the last prisoner housed in what is now known as the "Old Gaol." The town closed the property and deeded it to the Nantucket Historical Association in 1946.