A Family Seafaring History Helps Shape Captains' Row

By: William F. Galvin

Duncan Berry talks about his sea captain ancestors who built homes along Captains' Row in West Harwich. The painting of the barque “Jonathan Bourne” provides a seafaring atmosphere in his home. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTOS

WEST HARWICH – Duncan Berry has been one of the skippers of the effort to create the Captains' Row Historic District. There is something inside him driving this initiative: genetics, a linkage like halyards to the history of sail.

Last Friday, a subtropical storm pounded winds and rain like ocean waves against the side of the the Captain James Berry House along Route 28, an 1860 Greek Revival which Berry owns with his brother. The stormy weather provided an appropriate setting for a better understanding of the seafaring history that surrounds the neighborhood that stretches from the Dennis town line east to the Herring River.

Berry, whose father was award-winning cartoonist Jim Berry, has a great understanding of architecture and how it relates to history. He has a Ph.D. in architectural history from Brown University and has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and Roger Williams University. He had an architecture business for 25 years and is researching a book on the 14 sea captains in his family over three generations.

His great, great, great grandfather, James Berry, was a farmer who lived off Telegraph Road in Dennis. In the early days of the Republic times were tough in the agrarian community. Harwich was a desperately poor part of the Cape and it was hard to make a living, he said.

“The ‘hairleggers’ were so poor they couldn’t afford long pants in the winter,” Berry said.

James had four boys between 1825 and 1839 – James, Henry, Horace and Elbridge – and each of them saw the sea and becoming a sea captain as a romantic, ambitious and entrepreneurial move beyond being a farmer or fisherman.

Berry finds the genealogy interesting, citing the spectacular lives his ancestors lived, the ports they visited and the standards they lived by. “Genealogy is a footbridge to cultural history,” Berry said, adding his family history is a laboratory where he wants to study.

Inside his home there are paintings of 150-foot, three- and four-mast barquentines his ancestors once sailed. A painting of the “Jonathan Bourne” sits over the couch in the living room. There is a portrait of Captain James Berry in the stairwell leading to the second floor.

There are so many stories of this family of West Harwich sea captains. There is the one of Captain James Berry and his young son Osmyn, who had the last of his schooling at the age of 10 and began sailing with his father as a teenager. He soon became first mate of his father’s barque. He also proved his manhood at the age of 16.

Berry reaches for the log book for the “Hercules” and turns to the pages where the vessel, under the command of Captain James Berry, left Shanghai in 1881. The vessel had sailed from Cardiff, Wales to Hong Kong, and after leaving Shanghai stopped for cargo in Ilo-Ilo, the industrial capital of the Philippines. In June, it set sail for Boston.

In September, while crossing the Indian Ocean, the first mate noticed the health of his father slipping. Captain Berry had rheumatism in both legs and could hardly walk. The log book states on Oct. 14 that Captain Berry was very sick, the abdomen swelling up. On the following day, the captain died. Osmyn, Duncan Berry's great grandfather, stored his father in a cask of salt so he could be properly interred at home, and the 16-year-old captain navigated the vessel back to Boston.

Listening to Berry tell the stories of the many sea captains who built their homes along that stretch from Herring River to the Dennis line is insightful. He speaks of the quality of life they lived and the standards they set.

He cites the influence on the captains of the Mount Horeb Masonic Lodge that once occupied the former Harwich Junior Theatre building on Division Street; it shaped belief in God and justice and brought men together as equals, he said.

The Bible was ever present on the vessels and also served as place to keep family records. The Bible Captain James Berry kept on the barque Envoy in 1869 served almost as a passport for the captain. The Mason Lodge stamps in Captain Berry's Bible defined the voyages, Berry said. The bible contains a Mason stamp from Durham, England in 1856 and Anvers, France the same year. There was a visit to Valparaiso, Chile and St. John, Perth, West Australia in 1870.

The Berry sea captains were successful, but there were many other captains who settled along that stretch of West Harwich and “built spectacular examples of all the major styles of architecture,” Duncan Berry said.

“It's like an unintentional museum,” he said of the stretch of roadway.

In the 1980s, the Association for Preservation for Historic Harwiches tried to develop a historic district there, and in the 1990s Deirdre Brotherson conducted a historic housing inventory along the stretch.

“It's all right here and we want the town to understand this is an incredibly beautiful nugget,” Berry said of the Captains' Row initiative. “It's a great resource for the town.”

The West Harwich group has been working with the Massachusetts Historical Commission with hopes to file with the Department of Interior for a National Register Historic District designation.

Berry said there may be concerns over what that means for properties in the district. But he added it would provide financial incentives for maintenance of buildings; upkeep can be expensive, but the cost could be cut through tax incentives and rebates on materials, he said. People would still be allowed to bulldoze a house in the district, he added.

MHC has enthusiastically received the documentation on the proposed district, Berry said, and has even recommended enlarging the district area to include Belmont Road and Riverside Drive.

The residents of the area have come together, held social gatherings and raised funds through a Go Fund Me campaign to put more documentation together for a filing on the federal level.

Berry said a project architect has been engaged: Professor Ralph Muldrow, chairman of the Department of Preservation and Community Planning at the School of Architecture at the College of Charleston.

Muldrow spent a week here recently taking photographs and making drawings. The result will be a definition of the Captains' Row stretch from five perspectives. Those will include a birds-eye view of the stretch to orient people and perspective renderings based on images from 1880 to today, “so we know where we've been and to provide an image into the future,” Berry said.

There will be studies of individual buildings looking at how to bring them back to life. There will be a cross-section of the Route 28 roadway with the view of the houses from the road, along with a list of suggestions for the state Department of Transportation and the town when the road is repaved. This will be about how “we can contribute to the beautification of Route 28 – this old stretch,” Berry said.