The Town of Oak Bluffs, incorporated in 1907, was once part of Edgartown. Its development as a seasonal community began in 1835 when an Edgartown man, Jeremiah Pease, selected the area of Oak Bluffs to hold a Methodist camp meeting. The idea caught on, and each summer the “Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association” grounds were visited by religious adherents who pitched tents to spend time worshiping and relaxing beneath the oaks. Very soon, the tents were replaced by cottages and, when Oak Bluffs broke away from the town of Edgartown in 1880, it was initially named Cottage Town (until 1907 when it was renamed Oak Bluffs). Residents decorated these cottages with ornate woodwork (often known as Campground Gothic Revival) and, subsequently, they became referred to as the “Gingerbread Cottages.”
Tourists traveling by steamer from the mainland to Oak Bluffs in the early 1900’s could choose from a wide range of attractions, including retail shops, restaurants, ice cream parlors, dance halls, band concerts, walks along the seaside promenade, or swimming in the waters of Nantucket Sound. Resort hotels, of which the Wesley House is the sole surviving example, lined the waterfront and the bluffs. For a time, a narrow-gauge railway carried curious travelers from the steamship wharf in Oak Bluffs to Edgartown, running along tracks laid on what is now Joseph Sylvia State Beach. In 1884, the Flying Horses Carousel was brought to Oak Bluffs from Coney Island and was installed a few blocks inland from the ocean, where it remains in operation today. Built in 1876, it is the oldest platform carousel still in operation in the US. The grounds and buildings of the Campmeeting Association, as well as the Flying Horses Carousel, have been designated National Historic Landmarks by the US Secretary of the Interior.
Today, Oak Bluffs and Tisbury are the two towns where ferries dock on Martha’s Vineyard. Ferries arrive from Woods Hole, Falmouth, New Bedford, and Hyannis Massachusetts, as well as from New York City. Oak Bluffs is a town known for its laid back attitude and diverse community, welcoming visitors from across New England and around the world.
During the summer months the Campgrounds and Ocean Park, in particular, host a multitude of activities and summer events, including the annual fireworks display, weekly band concerts, the jazz fest, Tivoli Day, and the penultimate summertime celebration called “The Grand Illumination”, held in late August at the Tabernacle in the Campgrounds. On Illumination Night, which was originally a celebration of the end of the “camp meeting,” residents of the Campgrounds hang ornate lighted Chinese lanterns (mostly electric, but some still lit by candle) from the porch eaves of their cottages. The lanterns remain dark until around 9:00 p.m., at which time the citizenry gather at the Tabernacle for a sing-along and speeches and proclamations by local officials. At the appointed moment the street lights go dark and hundreds of Chinese lanterns illuminate en masse in a brilliant explosion of colorful light throughout the Campgrounds, accompanied by the thunderous cheers of those in attendance. Visitors wander through the labyrinth of small lanes and footpaths of the Campgrounds, enjoying the sights and festivity of this truly one of a kind celebration.