Baxter Neck

BAXTER NECK

Baxter Neck is the southernmost tip of Marstons Mills. It is surrounded by salt water on three sides: Prince Cove on the west, Marstons Mills River Narrows on the east, and North Bay on the south. Called Heman’s Neck from its owner Heman Thomas, whose house was on the old Falmouth Road, now Route 28, until 1872 it was bought for $500 by the Boston restauranteurs Russell and Howard Marston. In 1883 they sold its 60 acres for $1000 to Capt. Samuel Sidney Baxter of Marstons Mills.

Capt. Baxter was born in Osterville in 1828, son of Capt. Shubael Baxter, who had been captured during the War of 1812. The son went to sea on a coasting vessel when he was eleven, probably in the usual boys’ job of cook. He learned sailing skills in the Caribbean and the coast of Carolina. When he was 25 he married a Marstons Mills girl, Mary Marston Hinckley, daughter of Luther Hinckley, Esq. whose estate was on South County Road. By 1858 they had a house opposite her father’s, on the west side of the road.

Meanwhile, Sidney, as he was called, had graduated from sailing ships to steamboats. In 1853 he became first mate of the huge paddle wheel steamer, the 2100 ton SS “Illinois” of the U.S. Mail Steamship Line. The California Gold Rush had created a big demand for passage to Panama, avoiding the hazards and delay of the trip around Cape Horn. The line ran from New Orleans to Chagres on the Atlantic side of Panama, where gold hunters crossed to the Pacific for the voyage to California. The line was so important that the Navy assigned top naval officers to command the “Illinois”. Baxter was mate under Commander Charles S. Boggs, an admiral in the Civil War, and Capt. Henry J. Hartstene, the Arctic explorer who returned the Resolute to Queen Victoria in 1858, had a state of Washington island named for him while on the Wilkes Expedition in 1838, and became a Confederate naval officer at Fort Sumter. On one of Boggs’s trips in 1856 the Illinois brought over $1,700,000 in California gold from Panama to New York.

By 1860 Captain Baxter had been given command of his own steamship, SS “Empire City”. Smaller than the “Illinois”, but said to be the first ocean-going ship whose top deck was enclosed for the whole length of the ship. The “palatial” interior was described as the most ornate on the Atlantic Ocean, with Corinthian pillars, rosewood furniture covered with purple and gold damask, stateroom doors painted with Hudson River scenery. Eleven years old, the paddle-wheeler was given a new deck and double copper bottom before Baxter took her from New York to New Orleans via Havana, and back.

On the eve of the Civil War in March 1861 when Texas seceded from the union the government sent Baxter to evacuate army troops there. On the day the war began with the shelling of Ft. Sumter, Baxter loaded 400 troops of the Third Infantry and the Third Cavalry divisions, plus officers’ wives and 47 “camp women”, and took off from Indianola, TX. Texas Rangers regretted his escape, and captured the Empire City’s sister ship and imprisoned the remaining soldiers. On the Empire City’s stop in Havana for coal and water they couldn’t believe the news of the war, until it was confirmed by the pilot who met the ship off New York.

The Union then chartered Baxter’s ship to carry troops and supplies south, paying as much as $1000 a day rent. Baxter applied to the Navy for commission as Acting Master with strong recommendations of his former masters Boggs and Hartstene, and captained the Empire City during the war. He brought home the masters of the famous “Stone Fleet” ships that had been sunk to block Charleston harbor. The Empire City was a key transport of the expedition to capture Port Royal SC in Oct. 1861, and Fernandina FL in March 1862. In May 1862 he towed the Cuban steamer “Nuestra Señora de Regla” from Charleston to New York, which the US army had illegally seized, as settled in two court cases before the Supreme Court, finally costing $300,000.

In April 1863 Empire City was sent up the Mississippi where Grant ordered her to load troops to run the gantlet of rebel guns at Vicksburg, a move that Gen. Sherman called “a desperate and terrible thing”. Baxter was probably not in command, for Grant found “volunteers”. The ship was completely disabled by a shot thru the steam chest, and two thru the pilot house, which killed the pilot. Admiral Porter repaired her quickly, and she was soon back in service, transporting from Virginia to South Carolina (August 1863) the 40th Mass. Infantry which included four Marstons Mills soldiers. Capt. Baxter turned his own cabin over to General George Gordon, a Boston lawyer whose published war diary lauds his host “a good fellow and an admirable seaman” who was “down on all lawyers”, but sent his guest off to battle with the gift of “a box of ice, chickens, hams, ducks and mutton.”

After the war, now 37, Capt. Baxter retired to his farm on South County Road in Marstons Mills. He had Cotuit captains bring boatloads of seed oysters from New Haven to raise oysters in the Narrows. The town elected him a pound keeper and fire warden, and he served many years as judge of poultry and trees at the county fair. But his pride was strawberries, which he produced almost a pint in the first week of November 1897, a triumph of late bloomers, since the berry usually ripens in June.

Baxter Neck remained unsettled until 1921 when the Whittiers built the first house. An old sandy road through the scrub pines was popular with local residents who drove down to the shore to dig clams.

Many older Marstons Mills residents could tell you stories of suspected illegal activity during Prohibition, but they will not reveal the names of those involved.

What’s In A Name?

The editor of the Barnstable Enterprise, Laura Reckford, asked how to spell Baxter Neck, and printed this in a box below the history on page 3, 13 May 2011: Spellings of historic roads can be tricky, especially ones named after individuals, like Baxter Neck. Columnist James Gould uses USGS topographical data in choosing to call it Baxter Neck, rather than using the plural or the possessive. A number of residents on the street also use the singular version on their mailboxes. But a couple of neighbors use the plural version: Baxters Neck. The town street list and official Road Status Map also use the plural with no apostrophe. The street sign for the road, at the corner of Old Post Road, also uses Baxters Neck. But some residents seem to prefer an apostrophe when referring to the road.

Prince Cove, the subject of our next article, according to USGS should be singular. But Wilbur Cushing, who lived here most of his 88 years, called his establishment “Prince’s Cove Marina”, so we’ll stick to that.

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