The Widow’s Walk

It was DEFINITELY NOT intended to be creepy.

And I have no idea what makes my mind go to the dark side of things when I hear them being spoken of.

But ever since I heard the term ‘Widow’s Walk’ years ago, my thoughts always have traveled to this vision of a ghostly figure of a woman (a Widow), dressed in black garb from the 1800s, alone, and pacing back and forth on this thing called a ‘Widow’s Walk’, until she is ultimately called home to the afterlife and reunited with her long-departed husband.

I have no idea why I think this way.

Maybe it is my moderate interest in the paranormal intertwined with my good fortune of being involved with tons of historical architectural projects, stirred together with whatever connotation the concoction of these realities mixed with the subconscious triggers of the sound of those words when they hit my brain all have with each other.

Who knows?

Reviewing how Widow’s Walks came to be known however, it seems that I am not TOO far off when I think this way…

A widow’s walk is a special kind of platform, often found on the roofs of old houses near the sea (though I have also seen them deep in the woods!). It looks like a little balcony that sticks out from the roof. People used it a long time ago to watch ships coming in from the ocean.

So then, just why is it called a ‘Widow’s Walk’? Well, back in the olden days, many people relied on the sea for their jobs. Husbands, fathers, and sons would go out on ships to catch fish, trade goods, or explore new lands. But the sea could be dangerous, and sometimes the ships didn’t come back when they were supposed to.

When families were waiting for their loved ones to return, the wives or mothers would often go up to the Widow’s Walk and look out at the horizon. They would scan the waters with binoculars or telescopes, hoping to see the familiar sails of their family’s ship. They would wait and watch, hoping and praying that their loved ones would come back safely.

Sometimes, though, the ships didn’t return. They might have been caught in storms or lost at sea. When this happened, the families would be very sad. The wives would become ‘Widows’ (meaning that their husbands had passed away). The Widow’s Walk got its name because it was a place where these women would stand, looking out to sea, waiting for their husbands to come back. Sadly, sometimes they never did.

Today, Widow’s Walks are not used in the same way as before. We obviously have much better ways to communicate with ships – like radios and phones – so we have a much clearer understanding of where they may be at any given time. But these old platforms are still there on many homes, reminding us of the past. They provide a glimpse into the history of coastal towns and the brave people who faced the challenges of the sea.

The next time you see a house with a little balcony on its roof, remember that it might have been a place where someone stood, looking out at the sea with hope and worry in their heart. It’s a connection to the past and a reminder of the strength of families who waited and watched, even when times were tough.

One of my favorite Widow’s Walks is on a building we worked on a while back in New Bedford, MA, right across from the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Although my particular thoughts that are conjured up upon hearing the mention of the term ‘Widow’s Walk’ are more imaginary in nature, this particular Widow’s Walk is as much in-line with what they were truly utilized for as one can think and its positioning along the sea gels entirely with that.

Though my mind may always go to the place it does when hearing the phrase, it is also cool to recognize the true significance of this particular portion of many homes and think about how truly appreciative those that used them back in the day must have been (even if only subconsciously) as they anxiously awaited the return home of their loved ones from a long trip at sea.

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