Going Ashore

The foundation of the town we see now dates to the 1870s, when a group of Boston Spiritualists purchased much of the village. They laid out both parks and individual house lots to create a summer resort. Summer vacationers, Spiritualist and otherwise, came to enjoy Onset's beaches and salt air. Today's Victorian streetscapes are their legacy.

In many ways, Onset's development mirrors that of Oak Bluffs on the Vineyard, where a nearly contemporaneous Methodist summer camp grew into a seaside resort town with enduring architectural appeal. The underpinning religions are somewhat different, though. The International Spiritualist Federation explains "Spiritualism is founded on the facts of (a) personal survival of bodily death, and (b) communion between this world and the Spirit world." A handful of Spiritualist churches and groups remain active in the Boston area, including Onset.

Bypassed by the 20th century highways delivering tourists to "Olde Cape Cod", Onset fell out of favor. And while the town's reputation may have suffered in the years after WWII, its buildings enjoyed the essential preservative of that era - benign neglect. Mostly fixed up now (realtors would call it a rennaissance), and without the frenzied commercialism of more notable summer towns, Onset's parks, beaches and streets are pleasingly both new and old fashioned.

Geoff Rand
The bathhouse behind Onset Beach takes a design cue from the Wigwam.
Geoff Rand
Extensive legal action by the Onset Protective League established public access to the beach in 1915.

One Hour Ashore

Depending on your interest, walk the waterfront streets or the beach. Kenny's Saltwater Taffy, by the town wharf, has been a beachside institution since the 1890s.

Off the Beaten Path

The On-i-set Wigwam (on the northern edge of the village, about a half mile from the town wharf) is a strange relic from the waning days of Spiritualism in the 1890s. Its architecture anticipates the kitschy roadside vernacular of the early automobile era, while its plaque solemnly declares it is "Erected to the Memory of the Redman -- Liberty Throughout the World and Freedom To All Races." Local inn owner Alice Touchette suggests its builders hoped to "retain... the natural holistic spirituality" of the natives.

Wigwam Spiritualist Camp


  • Launch
  • Dinghy
  • Showers
  • Restrooms
  • Trash

The yacht club and marina have launch service for their moorings. There is a large dinghy dock at the town wharf.

Showers and restrooms at the yacht club and marina. There are no showers at the town wharf. Restrooms and dumpster at the wharf are open during business hours.