Thursday, June 25, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Story of the Telephone

     In 2020 the vast majority of people have a pocket-sized smart phone that they use as a one-stop shop for most of their social needs. Cell phones became commonplace over the last 15-20 years. These devices made landlines virtually obsolete in the 21st century, going the way of the VCR and 8-Tracks. As technologically advanced as today’s smart phones are the telephone itself has a rich history going back more than 140 years. From rotary phones, to operators and switchboards, there have been innovations and changes deemed revolutionary at the time that would seem irrelevant today. Every great idea began somewhere. This is story of the dawn of the telephone and its introduction to Cape Cod.

     Alexander Graham Bell is most associated with the invention of the telephone as he received its first patent on February 14, 1876. Several others like Elisha Gray and Antonio Meucci can lay claim to being at the forefront of the telephone’s creation. Legend has it that Bell’s lawyer simply was the first to get to patent office. On March 10, 1876 Bell made the world’s first telephone call from his upstairs laboratory downstairs to his assistant Thomas Watson on the receiving end. The first line spoken was simple: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” This landmark achievement occurred in Boston, Massachusetts.

Alexander Graham Bell c. 1914-1919 (Moffett Studio)

     Thomas Edison added improvements to Bell’s telephone transmitter later in 1876. The first ‘long distance’ telephone call came in February 1877. While the very first telephone line came in April 1877. It was a residential line connected to the home of Charles William Jr. of Somerville. The line connected his home on Arlington Street to his office on Court Street in Boston three miles away. Their telephone numbers were literally 1 and 2.

     It would not take much longer for the telephone to make its way to Cape Cod. Much like the Charles William line the first telephone lines on Cape Cod were ones that connected homes and businesses/offices. The first telephone line mentioned in local newspapers was one that was built in March 1878 in Woods Hole for Azariah F. Crowell. It connected the Crowell Chemical Company factory and office.

     Other business telephone lines followed. These included a pair of telephone lines running from the Wing Brothers store in Sandwich to each of their homes which were built in March 1879. In July 1879 a line was created in Provincetown connecting the Western Union Telegraph office at the train station to the Gifford House, Custom House, and the end of Bowley’s Wharf(later renamed Matheson’s Wharf). This telephone line was for the convenience of those connected to the United States Fish Commission. This government agency began in 1871 and was the precursor to today’s United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

A Charles Williams Three-Boxer Telephone c.1880.  (Tom Adams, Tom's Antique

     Later in 1879 and 1880 telephone lines were created for Old Colony Railroad’s Cape Cod division superintendent Charles Nye’s office in Hyannis to his home on School Street and Thacher T. Baxter’s general store in West Dennis. The increasing number of private telephone lines eventually led to the desire for public lines as well. These were realized when the first public telephone office and lines were constructed beginning in October 1881. The Bell Telephone Company set up lines connecting Barnstable, Hyannis, Hyannis Port, Marstons Mills, Cotuit Port (Cotuit), and Osterville. The telephone station that was built in Martsons Mills was praised for being open day and night.

     In March 1882 the Southern Massachusetts Telephone Company began working to connect Cape Cod to other parts of nearby Massachusetts. The company, founded by Edmund Grinell, had begun operations out of Taunton in 1878 with 151 subscribers. Telephone lines were set up connecting the mid-Cape out to Wareham and eventually New Bedford. The company's plan also included running the lines eventually through Yarmouth and into Chatham. By the end of April 1883 Provincetown had received their telephone lines thus connecting the entirety of the Cape to each other and as far as New Bedford. It did take a few more years for every nook and cranny of Cape Cod to become connected via telephone however. According to their records the Southern Massachusetts Telephone Company had 1,741 subscribers by November 1884 of those 76 were on Cape Cod. From there it was only a matter of time before the telephone was a common household necessity. Though the progress was slow and steady by 1903 8% of American homes had a telephone, 35% by 1920.

A restored sign for the Southern Massachusetts Telephone company. (Collectors

     Cape Cod used the Bell Telephone Company and Southern Massachusetts Telephone Company for the remainder of the 19th century. The latter even brought the first public pay telephone to Cape Cod at the grocery store of Benjamin Sears in West Yarmouth in 1902. In 1913 the Southern Massachusetts Telephone Company had its name changed to New England Telephone & Telegraph, though in reality NET&T had owned the Southern Massachusetts company since 1890. In the decades since, and through many mergers and purchases the former Southern Massachusetts Telephone Company became part of the Verizon banner.

     Now in the third decade of the 21st century the pocket-sized smartphone is an indispensable necessity for most. For many it is hard to imagine a day without it. However to better appreciate what exists today one can only think back to 140 years ago when telephones were a rarity, a luxury. Every story began somewhere and for Cape Cod the story of the telephone began with private lines for Azariah Crowell, the Wing Brothers, Thacher T. Baxter and others.

My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing

View my previous blog posts: In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Albert Crosby and Tawasentha

Photo Prints available here: Smug

Be sure to check out my website: Christopher

Thursday, June 18, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Dr. Higgins and the Cape's First Automobile

     Whether it’s a car or truck, SUV or van, hybrid or electric, automobiles come in all shapes and sizes. They are also common in the 21st century. Several generations of people have grown up taking rides in the family car. In fact in 2019 there were 284.5 million registered vehicles in the United States. Most people have a vehicle, some have two or more. Despite them being ingrained in society for well over a century there was a time when an automobile was novel and rare.

     In 1893 the first American-made gasoline powered automobile was created in Springfield, Massachusetts by Charles and Frank Duryea. It is highly likely that one of those vehicles was the first to ever traverse the roads of Cape Cod. However this will be the history of the first Cape Cod resident to own a gasoline powered automobile. His name was Dr. James Haydn Higgins and here is his story.

     The man who would become a highly decorated physician was born in Marshfield, Missouri on February 2, 1871. His parents were Delia and David Higgins. His father was a Civil War veteran and also a watchmaker. He attended the Boston College of Physicians and Surgeons which ultimately closed in 1948. While in school he interned at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence in 1891 and 1892. Higgins graduated with a degree as a Medical Doctor in 1894.

     Shortly after graduating the newly made Dr. Higgins came to Cape Cod. In 1894 he set up a general practice in medicine and surgery in Marstons Mills. His skill and geniality made him immensely popular as a doctor and a resident of the village. In September 1895 Higgins married Grace Babbitt in Boston. The couple would eventually have five children. Grace received the William Marston House at 71 Cotuit Road as a gift from her father Dr. Henry Babbitt in 1896. The home sat on 4 ½ acres of land abutting Mill Pond. Dr. Higgins eventually set up his office on the property.

The William Marston Homestead c.1910 (Marstons Mills Historical Society)

     Though the internal-combustion engine had been in development as far back as 1860 it was not until the 1890’s and specifically 1897 where it was put to use in a ‘horseless carriage.’ Twin brothers Freelan and Francis Stanley from Kingfield, Maine set out to make a vehicle which would become the ‘Stanley Steamer.’ The brothers had already become wealthy from developing the airbrush and a dry photograph plate coating. The latter invention would make George Eastman a fortune when he founded his Eastman Kodak company in 1892.

A 1912 Stanley Steam Car (Stephen Foskett)

     The Stanley Brothers sold 200 of their steam-powered autos in 1898-1899. It outsold all other makes of vehicles in that period despite the fact that it cost $3,950 ($122,000 in 2020). One of the buyers was Dr. James Haydn Higgins.

     The steam car came full of issues though. It could take up to half an hour to start, had a high water consumption, and worst of all could freeze-up in the winter. Though not the worst place to spend winter in America, Cape Cod provided enough cold for Higgins’ Stanley Steamer to freeze-up. At this time with two young children and a third on the way Dr. Higgins decided to take a look at the new rage, gasoline-powered automobiles.

     Higgins’ automobile arrived on Cape Cod on January 19, 1900. Arriving at the West Barnstable railroad station it was driven to his home. It caused an immediate buzz among the locals. The arrival of the vehicle was big news in the local newspapers. Dr. Higgins drove his automobile from Martsons Mills into Hyannis attracting excited onlookers along the way. Accompanied by Grace he stopped at the Barnstable Patriot offices and brought the editor out for a quick drive. He gave several friends the chance to ride along with him on that day as well.

Dr. Higgins along with his children, 2 nieces and a nephew in his automobile. (Martsons Mills Historical Society)

     Though still a relative novelty Higgins would be joined in the ranks of automobile owners on Cape Cod by people like Dr. Asa Pattee of Falmouth and William Herbolt of Provincetown. By the end of 1900 there were 8,000 registered vehicles in the United States. That number would cross 1 million in 1913. From there the automobile became a necessity more than a novelty in America.

     Dr. James Haydn Higgins would become far more well known on Cape Cod for his work in the medical field rather than being simply the first automobile owner. For twenty years he was a member of the Barnstable Board of Health and was the town and school physician for many years as well.

     On Christmas Day 1913 he and his family left Cape Cod for the island of St. Lucia on account of health problems. His stay would be brief and he was back in Marstons Mills in a year. During World War I Dr. Higgins served as the Food Administrator of Barnstable under Governor Calvin Coolidge. In total Dr. Higgins served as Marstons Mills local physician for 35 years. Higgins’ son Donald would become a doctor himself, serving as Cotuit’s town doctor from 1936-1969.

     After years of failing health Dr. James Haydn Higgins died at Cape Cod Hospital on April 7, 1942 at the age of 71. Fittingly Higgins had been a charter member of the hospital staff upon its opening in 1920. Despite his decades of service to the community as a doctor a hugely important part of his obituary was the fact that he had the first automobile on Cape Cod. However despite the good doctor’s connection with the introduction of the automobile to Cape Cod one must first off remember his contributions to the health and well-being of people young and old that once called this area home. That is his true lasting legacy.

My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing

View my previous blog posts: In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Albert Crosby and Tawasentha
Photo Prints available here: Smug

Be sure to check out my website: Christopher

Thursday, June 11, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Albert Crosby and Tawasentha

     Home is where the heart is. For so many their childhood home is a place of wonder and magic where they grew and learned and became who they were as adults. Most move over time and leave those places behind. Sometimes the call of those cherished memories is so strong people find themselves wishing they could live in those homes once again. For Albert Crosby of Brewster his childhood home was so meaningful to him that even after making millions of dollars in the mid-19th century far away from Cape Cod he never forgot where he came from. So much so that even when he returned home after retiring and had a custom mansion built for him his childhood home needed to remain a part of it. Crosby did so by literally building his new home around the one he grew up in. This is story of the Crosby Mansion also known as ‘Tawasentha’ and the legendary Cape Codder whose life created it.


     Albert Crosby was born on January 14, 1823 in Brewster, the son of sea captain Nathan Crosby and Catherine Nickerson. The home he grew up in was small and white with a beautiful view of Cape Cod Bay to the north. It was built by his father in 1835 upon returning to Brewster from Chatham.

     During his early years Albert tried his hand at work in the Mercantile Marine Service however his fortunes quite literally lay in the western United States. In 1848 Crosby left Cape Cod and headed for Chicago with his wife Margaret whom he had married the previous year. The Crosby name on Cape Cod carried with it such weight that Albert was able to borrow $10,000 of goods from Boston to begin to create his business empire.

     Albert’s beginnings were in that of dry goods such as teas but by 1851 he had created the largest alcohol distribution business in the west. He even persuaded his younger cousin Uranus to leave Cape Cod and come work with him in Chicago. The business, Albert Crosby & Co., became a success. Albert and Uranus increased their profits in the liquor business by hoarding liquor in 1860 ahead of the Civil War which also brought with it a wartime tax on alcohol. In 1862 the business name was changed to Northbranch Distillery Co. Crosby would increase his wealth selling liquor to the Army during the Civil War.

The Crosby Opera House in Chicago (New York Public Library, Public Domain)

     Despite the success in dry goods, liquor, and even real estate, Albert’s wife Margaret longed to return back east. Crosby relented and moved to West Roxbury with her and their four children in 1862. Albert would however find any excuse he could to return to Chicago. Once such excuse was the opening of the Crosby Opera House by Uranus in 1865. Located on Washington Street the building itself cost $600,000 ($9.4 million in 2020) and it was designed for the purpose of enhancing the arts in Chicago.

     The endeavor was doomed from the start with the desire for opera in Chicago not what Uranus had expected it to be. He attempted to sell the opera house and its collection of art in a lottery in January 1867. The lottery was a huge controversy as the ‘winner’ A.H. Lee immediately sold the opera house back to Uranus Crosby at a fraction of the original cost. In April 1867 Albert Crosby bought the opera house and Uranus left Chicago for Cape Cod.

     Also in 1867 Albert Crosby added to his business portfolio, becoming director of the Chicago Railway company, a position he held for seven years. He had become president of the newly formed Downer & Bemis Brewing Co. the previous year which would serve him well in the future. While in Chicago Crosby would frequently appeal to his wife Margaret to come from West Roxbury, she always refused. During his time as opera house owner he developed a relationship with burlesque performer Matilda Garrison more than twenty years his junior.

     From October 8-10, 1871 the Great Chicago Fire destroyed more than 17,000 structures and left an estimated 300 people dead. In this fire the Crosby Opera House and its art was lost. Albert Crosby himself lost $1.5 million ($31.5 million in 2020) in art and property. The only saving grace for Albert was his railway connection and that of the Downer & Bemis Brewing Co. He was able to almost immediately begin amassing a second fortune.

     In January 1872 Albert quickly divorced Margaret and was married to Matilda that June. The couple toured Europe beginning in 1874 living the lavish lifestyle for nearly ten years. They returned to America in 1884 with Albert spending the next three years in further pursuit of wealth. However in 1887 he retired from business and longed for a return home. Despite Matilda’s lack of enthusiasm the couple arrived in Brewster in April 1888.

The original home of Nathan Crosby built into Tawasentha

     After living a life of grandeur for so long a compromise was made. Crosby’s original childhood home would remain untouched, however an impressive mansion would be built all around it. The finished product took just over a year. It was three-stories and included a 60-foot tower with a view of the bay, 35 rooms, 13 fireplaces, a 75x50-foot art gallery, and a long veranda. The mansion was given the name 'Tawasentha' after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Song of Hiawatha.” The Crosbys told guests the mansion was modeled after Versailles and Buckingham Palace among others.

     Tawasentha became the place to be for the social elite from Cape Cod, Boston, and New York. Even legends such as Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and the Duke of Wales paid it a visit. The high life at times wore on Albert as Matilda loved throwing extravagant parties. Legend has it during these times he would retreat into his childhood home part of the mansion and relax in his favorite rocking chair.

     Albert Crosby died on July 24, 1906 at the age of 83. After his death Matilda opened the art gallery to the public once a week until her death in 1928 with the art inside valued at roughly $100,000 ($2 million in 2020). At this point Tawasentha was passed to the grandnieces of Matilda who in turn sold the home and all of the art in 1929. The former Crosby estate was purchased in March 1939 by former Metropolitan singer Martha Atwood Baker. It became the new home of the Cape Cod Institute of Music. One student who went on to great success was Kirk Douglas. World War II took its toll on the school and it was dissolved in 1943 though the Institute of Music itself ran for several more years.

     Tawasentha sat empty until 1950 when the owners of the Southward Inn of Orleans bought it. It was rechristened the Gold Coast Restaurant and Inn. In 1955 fire destroyed the former art gallery section of the mansion. The tenure as a restaurant was short-lived as in 1959 a group led by Dr. John Spargo purchased it to be used as a weight loss camp for young girls. Spargo bought out his partners in 1978 and had plans in place to turn the former Crosby estate into condominiums. Luckily the plans were not approved by the town and after a few years of battling Spargo sold the mansion and its land to the state in 1986. Tawasentha became a part of Nickerson State Park.

     Over the years the building itself fell into disrepair with the 60-foot tower burned by vandals. The Friends of Crosby Mansion group, founded by Brewster residents Brian Locke and his mother Ginny, has been working to renovate and restore the property for more than 25 years. It is a beautifully impressive site located between historic Rt. 6A and Crosby Landing Beach. It is a mansion built by Albert with love for Matilda while also keeping intact the childhood home built with love for Albert by his father Nathan.

Tawasentha is located at 163 Crosby Lane in Brewster

For more information visit


My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing

View my previous blog posts: In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Pacific Guano Company

Photo Prints available here: Smug

Be sure to check out my website: Christopher

Thursday, June 4, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Journey of the Three Sisters of Nauset

    Lighthouses are as much a part of Cape Cod’s history and allure as its miles of beaches, quaint villages, and fabulous shops. There are eighteen lighthouses on Cape Cod. Some of them are more universally known, such as Chatham Light, Nauset Light, Race Point Light, Highland Light, and Nobska Light. There are a few lesser known like Cleveland Ledge Light, Wings Neck Light, and Point Gammon Light, yet all of the structures have one common thread, they are located on the water. However there are three lighthouses in Eastham that are not even within sight of water. In fact they sit quietly in a field on Cable Road more than 1,800-feet from the ocean. These are the Three Sisters of Nauset and their story is one of the most fascinating in Cape Cod history. It is a story that is still going on to this day.
The Three Sisters at the turn of the 20th century. Eastham Historical Society

     The history of these structures begins nearly 200-years ago when the Town of Eastham petitioned to have a beacon built along the shore to protect passing vessels after there had been so many shipwrecks. The proposal was approved in 1836. However instead of there being one lighthouse it was decided that there would be three. The reason for the three was to help vessels differentiate the Eastham lights from the single Highland Light to the north in Truro, and the twin lights of Chatham to the south. The idea of the three lights was that of Captain ‘Mad Jack’ Percival.
     The fifteen-foot tall brick structures, placed 150-feet apart, were constructed by local builder Winslow Lewis and his team who had put in the lowest bid of $6,549 ($180,500 in 2020) on May 26, 1838. The towers took only 38 days to complete. Legend has it that the construction and layout was rushed and careless with the construction supervisor David Bryant even initially refusing to sign the completion certificate. The three beacons were seen as being too much at the site, even being referred to as ‘shiftless and costly’ by legendary author Henry David Thoreau upon a visit.
     Originally referred to as ‘the line lights’ by passing vessels the three towers soon gained the ‘Three Sisters’ nickname. Legend has it that vessels passing by remarked that they resembled three ladies in white dresses wearing black hats. The lighthouses did their job for decades until shoreline erosion threatened them. Today when a lighthouse is threatened measures are taken to save them by moving them safely away from the eroding cliffs. In the late 1800’s though the three brick towers were simply allowed to succumb to nature and fall into the sea. They were replaced in 1892 by three new ‘Sisters’ standing twenty-two feet tall still 150-feet apart. These new wooden towers with brick foundations were positioned thirty-feet back from where the original towers had fallen. These towers were easier to move back from the cliffs if necessary.
     The relentless hand of nature continued to eat away at the cliffs of present day Nauset Light Beach. It was decided in 1911 that the Three Sisters would be decommissioned as the shoreline had eroded to the point that it was within eight-yards of the north tower. Only the center tower would remain as a solo beacon attached to the lighthouse keeper’s house.
The Towers Eastham Historical Society

     The two discontinued lights, minus their lanterns, were sold to Patrick and Helen Cummings of Attleboro in 1918 for $3.50 each ($59.43 in 2020). The couple had visited Eastham via automobile while the Three Sisters were still hovering above the eroding cliffs. They were approached by a man at the beach and ironically were offered a cabin, stable, and roughly 20 acres of land in exchange for their vehicle.
     After making the deal the pair of lighthouses needed to be removed from the cliffs within ten days. In order to make it work the Cummings’ had them moved via oxen and rollers to a site near the old French Cable Station in Orleans. The Cummings family spent a pair of summers in those towers before finally having them moved to Cable Road in Eastham in 1920 where the 26x28-foot dwelling they had purchased sat. The former Sisters became bedrooms on either side of the home. The summer home became known as the ‘The Towers.’
     The career of the remaining Sister along the shore was short-lived. By 1923 it had also fallen into disrepair. Rather than fixing it up it was decided that it would be decommissioned and replaced. It was sold to Albert Hall of Hyannis at auction in 1924 for $.50 ($7.50 in 2020) and turned into a cottage much like the other two Sisters. His was known as ‘The Beacon.’
The reunited Three Sisters facing north.  Christopher Setterlund

A perfect substitute to take the reins of protecting Eastham’s coastal waters sat thirteen miles to the south in Chatham. It was there at the Coast Guard Station where another recently decommissioned lighthouse, one of the Chatham Twin Lights, resided. The forty-eight foot tall cast iron tower was moved to Eastham and the top third was painted red. Nauset Lighthouse was born.
The Towers summer home began to allow renters after the 1932 season. In time it also had a gift shop and a dance studio. The Cummings family sold the property to James Kingsland who in turn sold it to the National Park Service in 1965. Ten years later, in 1975 the Beacon was sold to the NPS by Albert Hall’s son Harold. A $510,000 restoration of the three lighthouses was completed in 1989. In 1990 the Three Sisters were reunited for the first time in nearly 80 years on Cable Road. They were placed in the same order and spacing as they once were overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
In recent years a ghost of the original Three Sisters reappeared. It was just off of Nauset Light Beach that a circular brick foundation was unearthed by the waves. When the tide is low enough one can walk right out and touch it. The foundation was likely that of the center Sister that became the ‘Beacon.’ It was not the first time though that the foundation has been exposed by the elements as it was also exposed in 1999.
The foundation of the center Sister in 1999. National Parks Service

     Lighthouses are a part of the fabric of Cape Cod and have been for centuries. Some have simple stories, some have complex stories, it is likely though that none have a story as unique as that of the Three Sisters.
My 5th book, Cape Cod Nights, is on sale at and through Arcadia Publishing

View my previous blog posts: In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Pacific Guano Company

Photo Prints available here: Smug

Be sure to check out my website: Christopher