Sitting atop Fort Hill in Eastham is the Second Empire style home of Captain Edward Penniman. Built in 1868 the two-and-one-half story house features a central hall plan with two rooms on each side. Rising from the center of the roof is an octagonal cupola with arched windows on all sides. The house holds the Penniman family’s written records and artifact collection, both of which provide a glimpse of the places visited on the family’s whaling voyages.
Born in 1831 in Eastham, Edward Penniman set sail for the first time at age 11. The voyage was to the dangerous and unpredictable waters of the Grand Banks, a rich fishing ground off the coast of Canada’s Newfoundland. For the next several years, Penniman would confine his maritime activities to local waters.
However, whaling with its high profits was an attractive, albeit risky, business for New Englanders. Nantucket had a flourishing whaling industry as early as the late 1600s, but it was New Bedford with its deep water harbor and railway system that would become New England’s whaling capital. In 1852 at the age of 21, Penniman would journey to New Bedford and sign on to his first whaling expedition. Later when Penniman became a captain he would select New Bedford as his home port setting sail seven times to hunt whale.
With whale over-harvested in the Atlantic along the shores of New England, whalers were forced to go further and further from home to hunt. Whaling expeditions often spanned three or four years, and it was not uncommon for wives and families of ship captains to go along on the trip. Penniman’s wife, Betsy Augusta Penniman, called “Gustie” by her husband, went on three such voyages often assisting with navigation and other shipboard matters. In addition, each of the three Penniman children accompanied their parents on various journeys with eldest son Eugene eventually becoming a whaling captain himself.
Captain Penniman became one of the most successful whaling captains in New England. After his fourth voyage, he returned home to Eastham to build a home for his family on 12 acres purchased from his father. The plans and drawings for the house are of high quality and indicate that it was most likely designed by a practicing but unidentified. Both the exterior and interior exhibit high quality workmanship.
The clapboard exterior is decorated with millwork trim and painted in a colorful scheme: yellow clapboards, white trim, black window sashes, green window blinds, and brown and red roof shingles. It was the first house to have indoor plumbing in Eastham. The roof held a water collection system that led to a large tank in the attic; a gravity flow system piped water from the tank to the kitchen and bathroom. Also on the property is a barn which reflects the overall style of the house, an ornate wooden fence and an entrance gate constructed from a whale’s jawbone. In 1884, at the age of 53, Penniman was able to retire permanently to his grand home, where he would live until his death in 1913.
The house remained in the family until 1963 when Penniman’s youngest granddaughter sold the property to the National Park Service for $28,000. Within the boundaries of the Cape Cod National Seashore, the Penniman House serves as a museum telling the story of the Penniman family and whaling in New England.
The Edward Penniman House is located at the intersection of Fort Hill and Governor Prence rds. in Eastham within the National Park Service’s Cape Cod National Seashore. It is open to the public on a seasonal basis.
Contact the park at 508-487-1256 for further information.