-by Amy Jenness, author of On This Day in Nantucket History, available at Mitchell’s Book Corner–
On July 1, 1880 two hundred excited guests filed into Atlantic Hall at 74 Main Street to witness the dedication of the island’s new roller skating rink. Roller skating was a popular mainland past time and had finally arrived on Nantucket. Mr. C.B. Whitney of New Bedford owned the operation and for 25 cents people were fitted on skates with four wooden wheels and were serenaded by the rink orchestra as they spun around the room.
Atlantic Hall was built in 1831 and had been a Quaker Meeting House and a straw hat factory prior to opening as a hall mid 1860s. It was the site of lectures, meetings and social dances but, for the first three years of the 1880s, roller skating would be its main draw.
In reporting the opening night activities, the Inquirer & Mirror wrote, “At 9 o’clock Messrs Whitney and Tyler of Brockton appeared on the floor, and gave an exhibition of fancy skating which made all others feel ashamed of their feeble efforts…They introduced several steps in time to the music, including the suburban, promenade (a graceful and fascinating movement), the Dutch Roll, waltz and others. Subsequently Mr. Whitney performed several difficult evolutions, showing himself a perfect artist, spinning, skirmishing along the toe of one skate, etc., which drew forth rounds of applause.”
The skating rink opened to the public on July 4 with another demonstration of fancy skating and a bicycle demonstration – another new attraction imported from the mainland – given by members of the Brockton Bicycle Club. For the rest of the summer the skating rink drew many people daily who were eager to give the rollers a try and also hosted parties, most notably a Leap Year Party and Gentlemen’s Skating Party in August and a “Sheet and Pillow” party in September where skaters hid their identity by draping themselves in bed linens until it was time for a grand unveiling.
Skating, parties and merriment at the rink continued seasonally until the summer of 1883. In July The Nantucket Journal announced George F. Hammond had purchased the hall and would move it to Brant Point. Hammond, and his investors, built the massive Nantucket Hotel which opened in 1884. Atlantic Hall formed the center section of the 238 foot wide beach front hotel.
In 1906 Atlantic Hall was liberated from the hotel and floated across the harbor to South Water Street where its new owners, a fraternal organization called the Improved Order of Red Men, used it as a meeting hall and also showed movies there. The building was next owned by four island families who ran it as a movie house. And, in 2007 a nonprofit formed under the name Nantucket Dreamland Theater purchased the property, renovated it and offer films and performing arts events there today.
The removal of Atlantic Hall to Brant Point was not the end of roller skating on Nantucket, however. In the summer of 1884 two men purchased property on the corner of Sea and South Beach Streets and built a new rink.
The Island Roller Skating Rink opened on July 4, 1885 in a new 150 foot by 70 foot building installed with a state-of-the-art floor and Teague’s Orchestra, hired to provide music for the summer season. As part of the opening ceremonies Miss Jessie LaFone provided an exhibit of fancy skating that included a hankerchief trick and her imitation of a locomotive.
Very quickly the new skating rink became the next island gathering spot and it hosted skating and bicycling exhibitions and races into the new century. Along with social and sporting activities, the rink also was the first island building to be wired for electricity.
In September of 1889 islanders experienced electric lighting for the first time when the Nantucket Electric Light Company unveiled a new coal-powered plant at the skating rink. The electric company leased a portion of the space and installed its generator in the western end of the rink. The company also agreed to provide the rink’s heat and electric lights.
Within a month of opening, the new electric company petitioned Nantucket selectmen for permission to conduct street railway service powered by electric cars. The proposed service would transport people and goods through town and out to ‘Sconset. Selectmen put the idea to a vote at town meeting that winter and islanders voted it down. The electric company next submitted a petition to the Massachusetts Legislature asking for state approval to form the Nantucket Electric Street Railway Company.
In May of 1890, 200 people attended a Senate hearing at the skating rink to discuss the streetcar petition. For the next 13 years the electric company struggled to make money and would try various ways to increase revenues (no streetcar service was approved). In1903 the electric company consolidated with the Nantucket Gas Company and moved to Washington Street.
Throughout the 1890s newspapers contain many accounts of public gatherings, bicycle and skating exhibitions and races at the rink. But by the turn of the century the island’s enthusiasm for roller skating seems to have disappeared. In 1905 the Sea Street property was sold at auction for unpaid taxes and the building that had been such a popular island destination for 15 years was torn down.