NOTES FROM A CAPE CODDER
BOSTON ’S FINEST
In 1877, my great-grandfather William
Howard Quinn, a crewman on a Nova
Scotian schooner, was shipwrecked off
the coast of Eastham, Massachusetts.
The man who hauled him ashore was
Orion Higgins, a descendent of Richard
Higgins, who was from one of seven or so
families that settled there in the 1650s.
Like many “wash-ashores,” William
Howard never left, marrying Higgins’s
daughter Lizzie a year later.
They moved to Orleans and had five
children. My father inherited the
homestead on Main Street, where I grew
up. A typical Cape Cod-style house, it’s
actually two houses. At some point the
buildings were attached, connected by a
funky passage barely 5 feet high.
Over the years, my family has updated
the house. The kitchen floor was sinking.
We discovered that when plumbing was
introduced, workers merely ran the pipes
on top of the sandy earth (no basement
here, only a root cellar) and laid a new
floor. A Boston Globe found under the
floorboards dates to the late 1800s.
Intrigued by what was hidden beneath
the horsehair-and-clamshell plaster lath,
I contacted William P. Quinn, William
Howard’s grandson, a local historian, and
the author of several books about
shipwrecks in the area.
“There were so many shipwrecks that
[townspeople] would take the ships
apart,” says Quinn, who estimates that
there were 5,000 such incidents in the
region over the last 300 years. (Cargo was
often looted by locals.) “The [ships’] decks
were built with convex-style beams to
shed water, and people would use them
for the roof of the house, so you would get
a bowed roof.”
The beams in my home might be from
a ship or salvaged from another building.
In true Yankee fashion, when asked if we
wanted to stain the new random-width
pine floor in the kitchen to match the
darker, wide-plank King’s pine in the rest
of the house, we passed — why try to
make something new look old? But, after
years of slamming our heads against that
5-foot-high passage, we raised the ceiling.
—molly jane quinn
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