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

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