Oak Bluffs Harbor is a small town on the island of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. It is about 24 nautical miles (43 kilometers or 27 miles by air) northwest of Nantucket Harbor on the neighboring island. Oak Bluffs Harbor is also about 17 nautical miles (30 kilometer or 19 miles by air) southwest of Hyannis Harbor on Massachusetts' southern Cape Cod shores.
One of two ferry ports on Martha's Vineyard, the Oak Bluffs Harbor steamship ferries operated only during the summer. Oak Bluffs Harbor is both a resort and the home of a religious summer revival. The busy Oak Bluffs Harbor downtown area has many great restaurants, galleries, shops, entertainment spots, and charming places to stay overnight. In 2008, the population of Oak Bluffs Harbor was more than 3.7 thousand people.
The indigenous people of the Wampanoag Nation inhabited the area that would become Oak Bluffs Harbor. The Wampanoag were the famous native people who welcomed and helped the Plymouth Pilgrims in the early 17th Century.
There were three reservations for the indigenous people on Martha's Vineyard during the 18th and 19th Centuries. They were Chappaquiddick, Gay Head, and Christiantown. These reservations were located on the poorer soils of the island. White settlers leased the more fertile lands at low rates. In 1763, the Wampanoag on neighboring Nantucket Island were almost made extinct by plague. In 1855, the last Nantucket Wampanoag died.
Europeans first settled Oak Bluffs Harbor in 1642, when it was part of Edgartown. In 1880, it was incorporated under the name Cottage City. Oak Bluffs Harbor was re-incorporated under its current name in 1907.
Unlike other towns on the island, Oak Bluffs Harbor began as a tourism center. By the late 19th Century, visitors from all over the world were coming to Oak Bluffs Harbor. It also was a center for the Methodist movement.
Every summer, Methodists gathered in Oak Bluffs Harbor at what is now called "The Campground," or Martha's Vineyard Campground Meeting Association, to pitch tents and join in open-air meetings. Over time, bigger crowds gathered, and the tents were replaced with the now-famous Oak Bluffs Harbor Gingerbread cottages.
Expanding in a circular pattern with the meeting area at the center, hundreds of cottages appeared in Oak Bluffs Harbor. Finally, the open-air meeting spot was replaced with a permanent structure, the Tabernacle. The Gingerbread cottages are now treasured (and expensive) historical landmarks. Many have passed from generation to generation.
Oak Bluffs Harbor is home to the oldest operating platform carousel. The Flying Horses Carousel was brought to Oak Bluffs Harbor in 1884 from Coney Island. Oak Bluffs Harbor is also home to an annual event, "The Grand Illumination."
On an undetermined date, residents of the Oak Bluffs Harbor's Campground circle the Gingerbread cottages with Chinese lanterns and light them around dusk. The people then meet at the Tabernacle for a community sing-along. After the Oak Bluffs Harbor community gathering, city lights go out and the Chinese lanterns illuminate the area. The Campground has been a National Historic Landmark since early 2005.