Roofwalks: A View of Nantucket History

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Nantucket, the beautiful and wind-weathered island 30 miles south of Cape Cod, was a surprising center of activity in the 18th and 19th centuries. With fortunes made from whaling and a progressive mindset, Nantucketers weren’t just part of 18th- and 19th-century American society but leaders of it (Phebe Coffin Hanaford, for one, was the first female Universalist minister in New England and wrote the first biography of Lincoln to be published following his death).

With fortunes came buildings and the architecture of Nantucket today is iconic. The entire island is a National Historic Landmark, noteworthy as the finest surviving example of a late 18th- and early 19th-century New England seaport town.

Similar to other coastal towns of its day, Nantucket developed a system of roof decks. These roof decks provided easy access to the chimney in case of fire and were also used by residents to observe activity on the waterfront, including incoming and outgoing vessels. These decks are often referred to as “widow’s walks” in the United States but in Nantucket they are known simply as “roofwalks.” And they are plentiful! They are found on houses of all shapes and sizes. Later versions were enclosed, becoming cupolas or belvederes. Here, a collection of some of the roofwalks I spotted on my visit to the island. Have you ever heard them called anything besides widow’s walks?

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Sources and Further Reading:

Read about the Nantucket Historic District on the National Park Service website.

You can read more about Reverend Phebe Coffin Hanaford on the Nantucket Historical Association website. They have a lot of great materials on their website and if you’re on Nantucket I highly recommend the Whaling Museum.

Credit also goes to the Whaling Museum, which has its own roofwalk and the informative details that inspired this post. (I cannot recommend the museum enough!)

Check out some of my previous New England blogs:

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9 thoughts on “Roofwalks: A View of Nantucket History

  1. Informative, fun, and beautifully illustrated as usual! No, I’ve never heard any term other than “widows’ walk”, and I grew up in coastal New England.

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  2. I’m with Pat: Informative, engaging, and beautiful, as usual! I didn’t realize the widow’s walks were as common as your photos suggest — nor had I ever heard them called anything different. But I suppose it makes sense that the residents of a seafaring community would have a less “evocative” name since so many were lost to the sea back in those days. Thank you for the wonderful read!

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    1. Thanks, Heide! I was amazed at how many roofwalks there were in Nantucket–the more I looked, the more I saw. You’re right about the term widow’s walk maybe making residents uncomfortable… I have been wondering when that term was adopted!

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