by Amy Jenness
Nantucket had access to local telephone service beginning in 1887, but the ability to make long distance calls didn’t occur until 1916 after the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company laid down 550 miles of doublearmored steel—the longest submarine cable in the country—between Wood’s Hole, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The cable came ashore in Madaket where it connected to the island’s existing telephone wire infrastructure.
“With the opening of the cable to the mainland Nantucket people really become a part of the great Bell system with its 9,000,000 stations in over 70,000 places. Millions of miles of toll lines will be available for use and practically every village and hamlet in the country will be accessible. Business on the island will be greatly facilitated and the use of the toll lines will prove a great convenience and of much value to the public,” a telephone company representative told the Inquirer & Mirror in early August of 1916.
The expansion and improvements also included replacing the telephone wires to ‘Sconset. The old wires, which had followed the railroad tracks, were removed and new ones were installed along the Milestone Road. The system also included a new Fair Street office with a switchboard that could accommodate six operators able to manage 5,000 calls per day. At the time, there were about 500 telephone customers on Nantucket.
For decades the US Government had recognized the importance of keeping Nantucket in communication with the mainland. The government paid to install a telegraph cable in 1885. Located in the midst of the country’s busiest shipping lanes, islanders were called upon to submit daily weather reports and communicate information concerning ship wrecks.
In an 1885 report to Congress, the U.S. Secretary of War said,” A contract has been made for the manufacture and laying of the cable authorized by Congress to connect Nantucket with the mainland and it is believed that telegraphic communication will be established with this island during the present year thus adding to this service a most valuable (life saving) station for the display of storm signals.”
At the turn of the century, the New York Herald had installed one of the nation’s first wireless Marconi radio stations in Sconset in 1901. Manned 24 hours a day, the ‘Sconset station’s original intent was to provide shipping news more quickly. But several high profile shipwrecks, including the Titanic, demonstrated that the new wireless technology was effective at saving lives during a maritime disaster.
Long distance telephone service would drastically change both telegraphic and wireless radio service on Nantucket. But that was not yet clear in 1916 as the island waited with excitement for the new telephone cable to become available.
For months the newspapers had offered detailed accounts about the engineering feats and boat captain skills required to lay the history-making cable in tricky waters and in challenging weather conditions. Finally, New England Telephone invited the community to participate in the historic first long distance telephone call from the island to the mainland at the Nantucket Atheneum on August 29.
The Atheneum’s hall was decorated with purple and white bunting and American flags. Every seat in the room was wired and equipped with small telephone receivers.
After a speech, telephone company 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.
Next, the group heard the national anthem sung over the phone from Boston and the group of 600 gathered on Nantucket spontaneously rose and also sang. Later telephone company representatives demonstrated how to use the long distance lines and islanders made calls to friends throughout Massachusetts.
The new technology included four circuits, which permitted up to four long distance calls to be made simultaneously. Telephone company representatives estimated that the Nantucket office would facilitate an average of 12 long distance calls a day and projected that by 1925 the office would be handling more than 200 long distance calls per day and concluded, “These estimates were made after careful and exhaustive studies and it is believed that the present cable will take care of the growing business for some years without replacement.”
Yet, the telephone company did replace its 1916 system, which it deemed outdated, in 1929. On June 22, the telephone company “cut over” the old system on Fair Street to the new one located at its Union Street facility. 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.” Nantucket made telecommunications history again in 1946 when AT&T installed the country’s second ultrahigh frequency microwave system and began transmitting telephone calls to the island through the air.
Amy Jenness is the author of On This Day in Nantucket History.