by Amy Jenness, author of On This Day in Nantucket History, available at Mitchell’s Book Corner
On June 22, 1929 the telephone company “cut over” from an outdated magnetic telephone system at its Fair Street building to a battery system housed in a new building on Union Street. The new system replaced hand-cranked telephones and alerted operators to an incoming call by turning on a light at the switchboard.
Officials and 100 invited guests gathered on the night of the changeover. The first phone call came from Representative Arthur W. Jones to John Terry. In a conversation heard by all, Jones said, “We would like to have you come down and join us. There is some cooling refreshment in the room down below and some nice-looking girls at the switchboard, so if you feel that you would like to come down, we would all be glad to have you with us.”
Although enterprising Nantucketers had attempted to connect a telegraph cable to Cape Cod twice in the 1850s (the cable broke within days), The United States Signal Service (later known as the Army Signal Corps) first successfully connected Nantucket to the mainland in November of 1885. The corps created the U.S. Weather Bureau in 1870, and the Nantucket cable enabled island volunteers to send weather reports to the service. The submarine cable originated in Woods Hole and ran to Martha’s Vineyard and then to Nantucket. On the island, the cable landed on the north shore and continued over land to town, Sankaty Head, and Great Point.
The signal service, established during the US Civil War and given the task of helping the military communicate with each other using signal flags and telegraphed Morse Code messages, was put in charge of overseeing the use of all telegraphs in 1867. By the time the corps ran the cable to Nantucket, it had 489 weather bureaus and had installed 2,779 miles of wire along the Atlantic coast. The US government sold its Nantucket operation to the privately owned Martha’s Vineyard Telegraph Company in 1908.
The island tolerated marginal telegraph service and local telephone service until 1916. That year the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company installed a new, state-of-the-art cable between Wood’s Hole, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket. It was the longest submarine cable in the United States. Twelve railroad cars carrying 24 miles of cable were delivered to the cable-laying steamer Robert C. Clowry. The installers looped a portion of the cable into a figure eight and floated it into the most treacherous section called “Middle Ground.” The cable ended fifteen feet off of Nantucket and was accessible through a small box.
In total, the project laid down 550 miles of steel wire that weighed three-quarters of a million pounds and cost about $100,000. In its report, Bell Telephone magazine said, “The Nantucket people really became a part of the great continental telephone system with its nine million stations a matter of great rejoicing to the islanders and to the thousands of summer visitors.”
Local Nantucket telephone service first started in the late 1880s, but the new cable connected the island to the national Bell Telephone system and the 800 islanders with telephone service could now make long distance calls for the first time. In late August of 1916 the island celebrated its new long distance service. The Nantucket Atheneum Great Hall was decorated with purple-and-white bunting and American flags, all 424 seats were wired and equipped with watch-case telephone receivers. Mr. Philip Spalding, telephone company president, delivered a speech and general manager William R. Driver Jr. called from Boston. This was followed by a three-way conversation between Joseph Brock, president of the Pacific Club, speaking from the Captains’ Room; William F. Macy, from his home in West Medford; and the Hon. William Crapo from his home in New Bedford.
Following that call, the group heard the national anthem sung over the phone from Boston, and they spontaneously rose and joined in. Later, telephone company representatives demonstrated how to use the long-distance lines, and islanders made calls to friends throughout Massachusetts.
After 1916, both telegraph (which produced telegrams) and telephone services were an important part of island life. In 1926 Western Union, which co-owned the Martha’s Vineyard Telegraph Company, gained full ownership and opened an office on Main Street and in ‘Sconset. The Western Union played a key role in keeping the island up to date on big national occasions like election night and news from Europe during World War II. But by the 1950s demand for the telegraph was declining . In 1951 the ‘Sconset Western Union office closed. The town office was only open during the summer with other island businesses offering telegraph service in the quiet months. In 1968 the Nantucket Western Union office closed for good.
As telegrams faded from favor, telephone technology kept improving and demand for it grew. In 1946 Nantucket made telephone history again when AT&T installed a ultrahigh-frequency microwave system here and began transmitting telephone calls to the island through the air. It was the second microwave telephone system in the country—the first was installed on Catalina Island in California.