On the corner of... 19th Century directions to Block Island
In the early 19th Century the country was still young. The west was being explored and mapped by Lewis and Clark, from the newly-acquired Territory of Louisiana to the Pacific Northwest. In the east, existing maps and measurements were being codified. Among the hidden treasures on the corner of past and present, tucked away for safe keeping, is a fragile volume, leather-bound and further protected by a cover of hand-stitched sailcloth. It is Uriah B. Dodge's “The American Coast Pilot,” published in 1804, the fourth, and most complete, edition of the work.
In 1804, Block Island had no real harbor and the mentions of this place are asides or points of reference:
“Directions for those who fall in with Block Island when they are bound for Rhode-Island harbour” — which has to it an air of roguery — or “Directions from Block Island to Gardner's Bay” which read:
“Montock Point, the easternmost part of Long Island, which has a light-house on it, erected in 1796, is 7 leagues W. by S. from the S.W. Point of Block Island; between the island and the point there are 16 and 18 fathoms water.”
The book is replete with such detailed information, and includes manifest forms, and oaths, and “Duties payable by law on goods, wares and merchandize, Imported into the United States of America, after the last day of June, 1800,” a list ranging from “Artificial flowers, feathers, and other ornaments for women's head dresses” to “Yarn, untarred.”
Almost buried in the preface to 400 pages of text and maps is a passage which speaks to the importance of mapping the coastal waters for trade and the fishing industry on the Grand Banks, beyond the reach of local fishermen but likely known and of interest to them.
The work “embraces a part of the coast which has of late years become frequented by a great portion of the American shipping in the fishing trade; and will form an important accession to the work, in its utility to this branch of our commerce. The coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, from which individuals derive so much of their wealth, and the United States so much revenue, are described with the most elaborate precision; and the bearing, distance, and directions for navigating every part of it, including all the bays, harbors, streights and passages, which the adventurous mariner may have the occasion to visit in any voyage will be found noticed with accuracy.”
Like the lighthouses on Block Island and Montock, these tomes of water depths and coastal features have been largely displaced by electronics. We keep the lighthouses blinking and cherish old charts and volumes, reminders of the time when sailors put to sea guided by the stars, ancient wisdom and mappings which could be shoaled into obsolescence before the ink on them was dry.