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10.1.07

The History of the Telephone

It started with an entrepreneurial grocer and a diligent doctor. Today, Verizon and Comcast are battling for your dollars. A look at phone service on the Island says a lot about this place and the people who live here.

Flames broke out at Rudolphus Crocker’s harness factory on Main Street in Vineyard Haven one August night. It was 1883, and although the town had no fire department yet, it did have one – just one – of those new box-with-a-crank devices called the telephone. A companion instrument in Cottage City, as Oak Bluffs was then known, soon rang with an urgent plea from Vineyard Haven for help. Forty-five minutes after the discovery of the fire, Cottage City’s firefighters set out to the scene as fast as horses could carry them.

It would be neat to report that, within five years of its first ring on the Island, the telephone heroically saved the day. To the contrary, the factory flames mushroomed into the biggest town inferno in Vineyard history – the Great Fire of 1883 – destroying every building along Main Street. The point is this: The potential of the telephone as a lifeline immediately became clear, even to Islanders who’d dismissed the thing as another mainland folly.

Like just about everything else on Martha’s Vineyard, telephone service has evolved at the mercy of the Island’s love-hate relationship with change. Standing squarely on the side of love, in the early days, were a handful of telephone pioneers inspired by business opportunity, public service, government intervention, and probably a boyish lust for new toys.

It was a dashing young grocer named Stephen Carey Luce who, in 1881, piggybacked on Western Union’s telegraph lines to set up a two-phone telephone system – the one that didn’t quite rescue Main Street. The gambit empowered his Cottage City customers to phone their grocery orders to Vineyard Haven and have them delivered. Luce is arguably the father of phone service on the Island. “Arguably” because in the summer of 1878, just two years after Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson spoke the first words over a wire, the Vineyard Gazette reported on two phone installations that almost certainly were the first on the Island: One line in Vineyard Haven, amusingly but still rather logically, connected the insurance office of Henry H. Smith with the medical office and pharmacy of a Dr. Leach on Main Street. (Dr. Leach’s office – as well as the original telephone poles and wires that were strung down Main Street – burned in the 1883 fire.) Later that summer, the Gazette reported that telegraph operator Howes Norris Esq. had set up a phone connection between the telegraph offices at the Sea View Hotel in Oak Bluffs and another office in what was then the satellite village of Eastville.

But Stephen Carey Luce was the man who would eventually spread phone service across most of the Island, under contract with Southeastern Bell Telephone.

By 1884, Luce had erected poles, strung lines, and signed up subscribers as far away as Edgartown and West Tisbury. The nerve center of the system was a switchboard less than three feet square in the back office of his new, post-fire grocery building, occupied today by the Main Street shop called Rainy Day. The bookkeeper answered the phone in addition to tending the ledgers.

Two years later, it was clear that demand had outpaced what Luce could offer from this tiny office. In 1886, the U.S. Signal Service set up shop in the Mansion House, another rebuild after the 1883 fire. The telegraph and telephone operations shared space with the Island’s weather bureau until 1891, when the Signal Service moved into roomier quarters at Main and Union streets. The head of the operation was William Washington Neifert, a gregarious newcomer to the Island, fresh out of military service. Neifert had a notion to talk with the mainland. His elaborate experiment involved the attachment of long-distance telephone transmitters to telegraph cables that ran over land and under water via Gay Head (now Aquinnah), the Elizabeth Islands, Woods Hole, Buzzards Bay, and New Bedford. Neifert successfully completed the first Vineyard-to-mainland phone call in February of 1893. On the other end of the line was George A. Hough Sr., city editor of the New Bedford Standard and a summer resident of West Tisbury.

“I can remember the first time I ever listened to a telephone,” former Gazette columnist Gratia Harrington once said in an interview with Chris Baer, who runs the Island history website www.history.vineyard.net. “Oh, I suppose in 1895, something like that.” Harrington would have been ten years old. “In the center of the building…there was a big staircase that led right upstairs….On one side was a man who had charge of the weather. And also this man had a telephone….Someone rang him on the telephone, and I was so interested, he said, ‘Would you like to listen, too?’ And I said ‘Yes!’…It was somebody in New Bedford talking to somebody in Nantucket about some fish. It wasn’t very interesting, but it was still very exciting.”

The march of innovation eventually allowed telegraphy and telephony to go their separate ways, and in 1896, the telephone exchange moved to independent quarters in a newly expanded section of Stephen Carey Luce’s grocery store. Yes, after a ten-year hiatus, Luce was back in the phone business, this time as an agent of the Southern Massachusetts Telephone Company, which had recently been cast off by Southeastern Bell.

Up-Island service

Chilmark residents cheerfully spread the rumor that Southern Massachusetts Telephone planned to extend service up-Island. But which of the main roads would the phone line follow? Residents along North, Middle, and South roads lobbied assiduously for their respective routes. After a federal decree called for phone connections in all the nation’s post offices, the company chose South Road for its direct access to the up-Island town centers.

Among the miffed was Dr. Charles F. Lane, a Vineyard Haven physician with a devoted roster of up-Island patients. The tall, lanky doctor was renowned for the breakneck speeds at which he would drive a horse and buggy in response to a medical emergency – after someone had traveled long distances, often on bad roads, to summon him. A single line on South Road was insufficient, he argued repeatedly to unyielding mainland authorities. So with his own hands and money, Doc Lane wired Middle and North roads, signed up subscribers, and established connections down-Island. (Legend has long ascribed to Lane the honor of introducing the telephone to the Island; it is more accurate to say that he introduced the telephone to up-Island.)

“Here was a group of communities which had always laid widely separated,” wrote Joseph Chase Allen in a 1961 Gazette article on the early days of Island telephones. “The hill pastures were crossed and recrossed by footpaths worn by people on errands important to their daily lives. Now, suddenly, they were all connected with each other and with the doctors, grocers, and all the rest by phone….Did someone arrive by boat or steamer, he no longer thought of walking home from the nearest stage-stop but phoned ahead to have someone meet him….When winter arrived, and a blizzard wrecked a telephone line, a wild cry arose: ‘The phone is out! Can’t get anybody!’…This was the cry of the same people who had hitched up a horse and driven miles in all sorts of weather to buy a plug of chewing tobacco. So men grew wiser, and weaker, because of the phone.”

Lane was a colorful character on many counts, not the least of which was the elegant garb – a silk stovepipe hat, cutaway coat, and spats – in which the Lincoln-esque figure was often seen scurrying up a pole to fix a wire on his way to or from a house call. On some routes, the lines of Lane’s renegade company ran alongside those of Southern Massachusetts Telephone. The switchboard in Lane’s Main Street building – today’s Leslie’s Drug Store – sat smack across the street from the Southern Massachusetts exchange in Luce’s grocery. Inevitably, the competitors engaged in a turf battle or two.

If, say, a Southern Massachusetts customer rang the switchboard, asking to be put through to a Ben Harris, the operator might have said something like, “Ben isn’t one of our customers; he must be one of Doc Lane’s. But I can ring Emily Lewis, who lives across the road, and ask her to fetch him – unless he’s out on his boat, of course.” If the operator didn’t happen to have Lewis’s number etched in her brain, she would have unrolled her subscriber list, printed on a fabric scroll similar to a window shade, and looked it up.

Luce’s son – Stephen Carey Luce Jr. – served as his father’s night operator for a time, and when he wasn’t doing his high-school homework, he did as telephone operators everywhere did: He eavesdropped on private conversations. He slept on a fold-up cot in front of the switchboard. After Dad arranged for the laying of the first submarine telephone cable to the Island, long-distance service debuted on March 1, 1900. Now the teenager enjoyed access to an early equivalent of an Internet chat room. “Late at night, we’d call up all these outlandish places and talk with the operators there,” Luce, who would go on to become president of the Martha’s Vineyard National Bank and Island representative to the Steamship Authority, said in a 1972 interview with Island oral historian Stan Lair. The operators, he said, “had a kind of club, of course they were all doing the same thing. [They] had really quite a little group that used to get together once in a while. That went on for years and years.”

Working the lines

The Island’s first lineman was a bicycle repairman of Azorean descent named Frank Golart. A short fireplug of a man, Golart was Luce Sr.’s one and only helpmate during the early days of wiring the Island. After rescuing sailors shipwrecked and stranded in Vineyard Haven harbor by the great Portland Gale of November 1898 – the Perfect Storm of the nineteenth century – Golart came ashore and helped Luce revive telephone service by digging fallen cables out of snowdrifts along East Chop. The astute Dr. Lane later recruited Golart to his own operation.

There was often a long lag time between hole-digging and pole deliveries, causing the occasional person or cow to stumble unawares into narrow four-foot pits. Lore has it that a boy once discarded an apple core into such a hole on his way home from school. Passing the same hole with his buddies the next morning, he discovered he had inadvertently trapped three muskrats. Muskrat pelts went for a quarter in those days, inspiring the boys to turn serendipity into enterprise. Despite repeated trials, they never trapped a muskrat that way again.

In 1903, New England Telephone Company bought out Southern Massachusetts, and Luce Sr. retired from both the grocery and the phone business – for good, this time – to become Tisbury postmaster. New England Telephone kept the central exchange, which remained in Luce’s store, as well as the switchboard operator: young Thankful Downs of North Tisbury. Thankie, as everyone called her, was nineteen years old when she joined Luce’s staff in 1902. In the beginning, she worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, seated at a kitchen chair before a switchboard crowded among flour barrels, canned goods, and piles of telephone batteries. As the list of subscribers grew, so grew the contingent of operators under her wing. Downs, the chief operator, would witness forty-five years of technology upgrades, management changes, office relocations, service expansions, world war slumps, and subscriber devotion prior to her lavish retirement banquet in 1947.

New England Telephone also employed maintenance man George Golart, while his big brother Frank continued to work for Doc Lane. In the woods and fields beyond the commercial halls of Main Street, the brothers quietly helped each other perform four-handed tasks for one boss or the other. When Lane’s company finally succumbed to a New England Telephone takeover in 1910, Frank Golart went with the sale.

Perhaps George had already moved to New York when, in April of some uncertain year, the president of New England Telephone called the office in Vineyard Haven to say he was coming to the Island in August for a vacation in Scrubby Neck. No phone service existed in that remote area. Still, he figured a telephone might come in handy during his stay. “He was president of the company,” said Bob Chapman, a retired New England Telephone technician, in a 2002 interview with Linsey Lee of the Martha’s Vineyard Oral History Center (part of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum). “He could have sent a damn line crew all the way down here to build him a line, but he didn’t.” So over the next four months, after regular work hours, the intrepid Frank Golart cleared a trail through the scrub oak, carried ninety-four poles into the area on his back, and single-handedly installed the whole line, from the Edgartown–West Tisbury Road to Watcha Pond.

Golart, at the age of sixty, was still on the job in 1932, when the maintenance office got a call from the field. It was Golart, atop a pole in Katama, saying he thought he was having a heart attack. Rushing to his aid, rescuers found him in the cab of his truck, dead.

By 1918, the telephone exchange struggled to serve 744 Vineyard phones, up from 22 or so two decades earlier. Of necessity, New England Telephone was publishing directories, replacing the old-fashioned scrolls. To ease the burden at the Vineyard Haven switchboard, Edgartown got its own exchange in 1921, Chilmark in 1926. The original Edgartown exchange was located in a clapboard building on North Summer Street, where the Once in a Blue Moon gallery is today. Longtime operator Laura Paul was Edgartown’s Thankie. “She knew everything in town,” recalls businessman, realtor, and former selectman Robert J. Carroll, who grew up across the street from her. “She and her mother were very religious, but she was hot [expletive] too. Used to swear a lot.” It’s a sad irony that, years after retirement, Paul would die of throat cancer.

In Vineyard Haven, the phone company built an imposing brick headquarters building at the entrance to Main Street – today’s Educomp – and relocated operations there in June of 1929. The move coincided with the debut of common-battery technology, which, on the practical side, meant that a caller would merely lift a handset, instead of turning a crank, to summon an operator. The Island’s first transatlantic call took place from the new building the following year. The eight-minute call from Vineyard Haven to England cost eighty dollars.

By 1938, more than 2,100 telephones were linked to the Island’s exchanges, and like all else on the Vineyard, system usage fluctuated with the seasons. In winter, Vineyarders placed about 4,000 on-Island and 250 off-Island calls a day. In summer, the numbers jumped to roughly 11,000 and 1,100, respectively. The company employed high-school girls as temporary operators to handle the summertime surge. Some eventually turned summer gigs into lifetime careers.

Dial-up connection

For once, up-Islanders were a step ahead of the down-Island folk when, in April of 1955, the phone company upgraded the Chilmark exchange from a manual to an automated switching station and introduced dial telephones. The phone company gave the modernized exchange a name – Mission – that considerably irked up-Island customers. Elsewhere in America, telephone exchanges had names of local significance. On the Vineyard, “Mission” was meaningless. Complaints, including a letter from a congressman, changed nothing, for the phone company maintained that the corresponding dial-up numbers required for a name such as “Gay Head” or “Chilmark” were in use in other exchanges. And besides, Mission was easy to say and spell.

After the Island’s first microwave tower was erected in 1962, long-distance calls traveled by “radio,” rendering damage-prone submarine cables obsolete. In 1966, when much of America was moving into the touch-tone era, dial service finally rolled out Island-wide. With their new-fangled phones, customers received new numbers, comprising seven digits, instead of two or three. With utmost specificity, a how-to pamphlet explained to customers the process of sticking a finger in a hole, turning clockwise, letting go, and repeating. Many people dreaded the new equipment, and not just for fear of making a mistake. Dial phones would also mean losing contact with their operator friends. What’s more, their operator friends would soon be unemployed. In tribute, the police officers of Oak Bluffs sent a letter to the Gazette: “…We could list scores of incidents where the operators have been of inestimable help to us, and we know that those officers who have served before us have benefited equally….”

On the night of April 16, 1966, a handful of spectators gathered at the old Edgartown exchange to wait for the stroke of midnight, when service would switch over to the new automated station on Pease’s Point Way. A few minutes ahead of time, a technician announced that all systems were go; they could make the switch right then. But no: The Vineyard Haven and Provincetown exchanges were also switching to automated systems that night, and all three locations were vying for the distinction to be the dead-last town to go dial-up in Massachusetts. Edgartown held out until word arrived that Vineyard Haven had done the deed. (It’s unclear whether Provincetown went before or after Edgartown.)

Among the spectators was Vineyard Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough, who was invited to make Edgartown’s first dial call. It dawned on him that he didn’t know the new number of the party he wanted to call. Someone instinctively said, “Ask the operator” – but Ellsworth Fisher, the last of the breed, had just retired minutes earlier and gone home. Fortunately, another observer had one of the new phone directories. Absent that, Hough probably could have guessed, for the formula was quite simple. For example: The old number for Brickman’s store was 47. The new number was 693-0047, and thus it remains.

Almost immediately, dial service was the merry talk of the Island. “The wrong numbers were almost always good natured and often amused,” a Gazette editorial said a week later. “Those with lonely lives found a fresh interest.” People joked about the typo on page nineteen of the new directory: Nat’l. Executive Fright Service, Inc.

While New England Telephone anticipated gradual growth in demand on the Vineyard, the company could not see the coming of the Chappaquiddick incident. Within a week of the event of July 18, 1969, about a hundred media representatives descended on Edgartown to cover the arraignment of Senator Edward M. Kennedy at the Dukes County Courthouse. To file their reports, all the reporters would rely on telephone connections from an exchange that had but ten long-distance circuits. Working sixteen hours a day, Bob Chapman and his colleagues installed 150 telephones in the makeshift press center in the basement of the Old Whaling Church. They installed another seven at the Harbor View Hotel for use by the Kennedy family. They routed television hookups through a spare microwave tower. Most incredibly, they conjured ways of borrowing extra dial tones from Fall River, Hyannis, and Falmouth.

By Chapman’s estimate, the fast ramp-up of infrastructure probably cost the phone company as much as a hundred grand. But since the trial was expected to last a couple of weeks, management believed it would recoup some of the expense through the hefty toll charges that the media would surely rack up. To the surprise of most, Kennedy entered a guilty plea, and the court proceedings were over in seven minutes. “[The phones] got used for one call, one time, and that was it,” said Chapman in his oral history. “What a hosing we took!”

Losing identity

With the breakup of the Bell system in the 1980s, New England Telephone combined with New York Telephone to form NYNEX – a move nearly as off-putting to Islanders as a Red Sox–Yankees merger. The old telephone directories always featured a scenic cover photo from either the Vineyard or Nantucket; the generic, two-tone NYNEX books said “Island” in name only. When phoning in town, callers now had to dial all seven digits, instead of four or five. Area code 508 replaced 617 on-Island, causing some to feel robbed or relegated to second-class status or both. And in a less visible blow to Island identity, new digital-switching systems in all three exchanges operated under the command of a host computer in Falmouth.

In 1990, for the first time in sixty-four years, the Island got a new prefix – 696 – to accommodate up to 9,999 more phones, fax machines, computers, and future telecommunications gizmos. To this day, longtime customers – in Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and West Tisbury – look upon their vintage “693” prefix as a badge of honor.

It’s a new millennium: The number of Vineyard exchanges has remained at three since 1926, but the number of prefixes has swelled to fifteen. Three of those prefixes are affixed to a new area code – 774 – that mainly serves cell phones. NYNEX has morphed into Verizon, and people have to dial a whopping ten digits just to call across the street. Fiber-optic cabling, which has enhanced phone service all over America, is not on the radar screen for the Vineyard; connections to the mainland still run over microwaves, and one can’t combine apples and oranges. Weather patterns tend to disrupt microwave signals, just as dragging anchors once cut underwater cables. And many Vineyarders are beyond the reach of wired broadband Internet access.

Up-Island townspeople have been staunchly defending their turf against the prospect of cell towers, just as some Islanders once complained about telephone poles. Verizon has promised to be kind to the Vineyard aesthetic, but up-Island isn’t buying it. “We’ve been getting a bit of bullying,” acknowledges Verizon Wireless spokesperson Wendy Bulawa. Meantime, cell phone users stand in the middle of intersections, grasslands, or widow’s walks, trying to pick up spotty signals. The cell phone user who succeeds in connecting – and yakking – in a Vineyard store or restaurant might go unserved by an indignant host. It’s a Vineyard thing. Wendy is a self-described Vineyard lover who has family here, and she spent a day riding about the Island this summer with a team of technicians conducting a high-tech version of the can-you-hear-me-now test. In peak season, the company ramps up capacity on the Island’s cell towers – near the airport, at an Oak Bluffs hotel, in a West Tisbury church steeple – attempting to keep pace with demand. Yet the radius of coverage from each site is a mere two miles.

In the newest new thing, an army of Comcast cable company technicians fanned out across the Island last spring, upgrading infrastructure and heralding the introduction of cable telephone service. The encroachment on Verizon’s turf portends the first serious rivalry in Island telephone service since the days of Luce and Lane. And early in 2008, Verizon will finally introduce the Vineyard to a high-speed wireless network that will enable customers to access the Internet on laptops, text messages on cell phones, music on MP3 players, and so on at unprecedented speeds – Island-wide, all the time, and even in motion.

So much for modernity. To this day, when a longtime Edgartonian bumps into another longtime Edgartonian at Morning Glory Farm and gives out her phone number, she might rattle off a mere four digits. The recipient will rightly assume that “508-627” comes ahead of it – even if the Edgartown exchange has two additional prefixes now. In 125 years, much has changed in the ways of Island telephones and their users. And little has changed at all.

The author is indebted in her research to Stan Lair’s oral history interviews, transcribed by Chris Baer at www.history.vineyard.net, and to the Martha’s Vineyard Oral History Center of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

Comments (1)

gilcooke@comcast.net
W Yarmouth
I'm very interested in the history of telecom on the C&I. I'm glad that you added additional content to Chris Baer's great illustrated history. Also details on the telegraph and telephone cables crossing to & from Woods Hole, Pasque, Monomoy, etc. Can you refer me to someone with similar interests? cell - 617-759-4271 Gil Cooke
December 9, 2015 - 12:41pm
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