The bank that saved Nantucket

There's only one bank in Bank of America’s heritage that can lay claim to the discovery of a comet, the squelching of a huge fire, the hosting of a great American author and the rise of a fortune on Nantucket Island. The Massachusetts legislature chartered Nantucket Pacific Bank on March 3, 1804.

The bank was named to signify the tie between the island of Nantucket and the Pacific Ocean, the source of its growing economy from the whaling industry. The bank’s first residence was an island house purchased from Josiah Barker. The bank prospered and in 1818, built the stately brick building—with slate roof and fireproof vault—right where it stands today at the head of Main Street on Nantucket. The original cost for building and vault was $7,000.

Wealth continued to grow in Nantucket from the whaling industry. Sea captains built homes, all the industries that provided components to the building of ships grew, and ships returned from afar with all manner of goods for sale. Two ships in particular, the Spartan and the John Adams, made sizable fortunes. The sale of sperm whale oil, known as “greasy luck,” was abundant. Vast wealth was made in oil alone and it has been said that the small island of Nantucket helped illuminate the capital cities of the world. Money was prevalent, and it was deposited at the Nantucket Pacific Bank.

William Mitchell was a cashier at the bank for nearly 25 years. He kept living quarters in an apartment over the bank with his wife Lydia and their many children, including eighteen-year-old Maria. Maria spent most of her time in the rooftop observatory that William Mitchell built above their living quarters. From it, Maria studied the stars with a telescope every night.

The apartment also featured a large dining room where the Mitchells entertained visitors to the island, among them Herman Melville. Melville wrote his classic novel Moby-Dick, whose whaling history and setting were taken from Nantucket, without having ever set foot on the island. When Melville finally visited the island, he met face-to-face with Captain George Pollard Jr., who survived the sinking of the whaling ship Essex, a ship sunk by a whale and the true event that inspired Moby-Dick. During that visit, Melville also attended a dinner party at the Mitchells’.

It was during one such dinner party that Maria Mitchell slipped away to the roof observatory. That evening, when she turned the telescope toward the sky as she did every night, she saw something nobody had ever seen before. She discovered the comet that would make her famous. Because she was the first to discover and chart the orbit of this new comet, which became known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” she was considered the first female professional astronomer in the United States. All from the roof of the Nantucket Pacific Bank.

Around the same time in 1846, a fire began in a hat store on Nantucket’s Main Street and quickly raced through town, destroying everything in its path. Barrels of flammable whale oil stored on the wharves burst into flames and flowed like lava into the water, creating what was described as “a sea of fire.” The fire raged through town for seven hours before the wind changed just as the fire hit the brick and slate structure of the Nantucket Pacific Bank. It’s been said that during the bank’s first half century, it helped the island make its fortune, and then on that night in 1846, the bank helped save part of the town as well.

Visit one of our Heritage Centers for an up close look at this and other stories from our bank’s history. Learn more