South Wellfleet Stagecoaches, Packet Boats and Early Telegraph

As I started to gather my notes about the railroad’s arrival in South Wellfleet, I realized that I should travel back in time a bit further and write about two earlier forms of travel: stagecoaches and packet boats. When the railroad came along, the telegraph was an important part of its operation. However, the telegraph came to the Cape well before the railroad, so I wondered if it existed in South Wellfleet and where it was located.

We already know that South Wellfleet had “Aunt Lydia’s Tavern” which served stagecoach travelers on the King’s Highway as it traversed South Wellfleet. Some reports locate the tavern in Fresh Brook Village, and others place it closer to the later site of the Second Congregational Church. Lydia was the first wife of the first Reuben Arey, and she may have had her tavern in an Arey home she shared with her second husband, John Taylor. That would have placed it closer to the site of the church, which came later.

Stages were initially organized around 1790 along a route from Plymouth to Sandwich, and then extended along the Cape. Trips to and from Boston could take two days, due to the road conditions I’ve written about in an earlier post. The sandy, unpaved roads made for uncomfortable travel, and the boats were a better choice, especially in the fair-weather months.  Thoreau writes amusingly about the stage he had to use after “the cars” ended at Sandwich. “This coach was an exceedingly narrow one, but as there was a slight spherical excess over two on a seat, the driver waited until nine passengers had got in …”

Stages were linked to mail service.  Thoreau writes of this operation too, with his stage stopping regularly so that “a wheelwright or shoemaker in his shirt sleeves …holding up Uncle Sam’s bag, as if it were a slice of homemade cake…” When the railroads came along, mail service became an integral part of the train service. Prior to the scheduled stage, there was some regular service dependent on a man with a horse, and even earlier, mail transport was dependent on knowing a person who might be traveling to where your letter needed to go.

Packet boats from Wellfleet to Boston began a regular schedule after the War of 1812. Twenty passengers could be accommodated on a boat, and it became a matter of local pride to see how fast a sloop could make the trip across Cape Cod Bay. One writer, comparing the train service to the packet boats, found that the boats allowed for more socializing during the trip, an interesting comment! Of course the packets were also necessary for carrying cargo to Boston, one of the products being salt that the salt works were churning out. In Wellfleet, Benjamin Freeman, Joseph Higgins and Joseph Harding were the first packet captains, and many others followed. South Wellfleet’s South Wharf was the berth of The Herald, captained by Robert Paine. I do not know how long this packet boat operated from South Wellfleet.  Of course, the boats could be unsafe; in one accident in 1819, the Wellfleet packet ran aground on Minot Ledge near Boston in the fog, and two Methodist clergymen who were aboard were drowned.

The telegraph’s invention and application was another 19thCentury improvement. This one appears to have passed by South Wellfleet and Wellfleet initially, so far as I can discern. I’ve concluded that the Cape Cod developers of the magnetic telegraph service originally viewed the device as replacing and improving the communication put in place by earlier Semaphore Telegraph Company with offices in Boston on its Central Wharf. This service developed in 1819, based on services already operating in England, France and elsewhere, by placing a flag “telegraph” or semaphore system on hilltop signal masts in various locations between Edgartown and Boston. Telegraph hills were in Edgartown, Woods Hole, Sandwich, Plymouth/Manomet, Duxbury, Hull, and South Boston/Dorchester Heights – and on the Cape in Provincetown on their Telegraph Hill (now a gated condo community). While some hills had towers, I could not find such a structure in

Provincetown, but of course there were no trees to block a view there.

Telegraph Hill in Hull, Mass.

The signals could carry messages across 75 miles in ten minutes — the signals being sent to the ships returning to New England with valuable cargoes that could be re-deployed by their Boston or Salem owners to more southerly Atlantic ports, without a hazardous voyage around Cape Cod to Boston. One source credits Jonathan Grout for developing this Martha’s Vineyard-to-Boston optical telegraph. Grout also served in the first U.S. Congress, representing a portion of Bristol County. I don’t know if the system used semaphore flags or mirror-directed sunlight reflections, and I have not found much material on the operation on Provincetown’s Telegraph Hill.  Perhaps a reader might share additional such information.

Of course, many Cape towns appeared to have a “pole hill” used to signal the arrival of ships. Thoreau writes of this Cape tradition, “Every higher eminence had a pole set up on it, with an old storm coat or sail tied to it, for a signal, that those on the south side of the Cape, for instance, might know when the Boston packets had arrived on the north. “ He wondered if this use of old clothes left anything but a few rags for peddlers!

With the formal hill-based telegraph system in place, it makes sense that new telegraph service on the outer Cape would be used to replace it. The Barnstable Patriot reported in May 1855 that a charter had been granted to the Boston and Cape Cod Marine Telegraph Company to develop marine reports by telegraph for the Boston merchants. It would extend out to the Cape from a line already in place between Boston and Nantasket. The signal stations were to be at Woods Hole, at the highlands of Chatham, and at Truro, at Cape Cod/Highland Light.  An improved code of marine signals was to be used, the one recently invented by Henry J. Rogers, Esq., of Baltimore and adopted by the navy.

By June 1855, the work of bringing the line to the Cape was under the auspices of developers “Brewer and Baldwin.” The line reached Hyannis by September. I have not found a description of where the poles were placed as they traversed South Wellfleet — but perhaps they followed the new County Road that was built through the town in the mid-1850s. South Wellfleet’s citizens would have experienced this change as a difference in the landscape, but in these early days of reporting the movement of ships coming from afar, there was no role for Wellfleet. Newspaper reports in 1856 reported that vessels were able to “display their numbers” as they passed the Cape stations, and have their whereabouts telegraphed to Boston.

Soon, the Barnstable Patriot was also reporting human stories from the “Provincetown telegraph” and citizens must have seen the possibilities of communication beyond marine tracking.  Provincetown reported the death of a citizen in a house fire and the death of a seven year old who “fell from a sail” hitting his head on the wharf. Soon, other news stories reported on the wonders of the use of the telegraph, helping a young woman escape her father who had arranged her marriage, and helping a patient contact his far-away doctor for treatment. This is not unlike our recent adaption of the Internet as initially a telephone call replacement and later as way to pay for our coffee.

French Cable Station, Orleans

Meanwhile, the “sub marine” cables were laid between Nantucket and the Cape mainland in the summer of 1856, followed by a “Telegraph Ball” to celebrate the occasion. Newspaper reports chronicled the development of the Atlantic Cable, along with the development of a line to the north side of Prince Edward Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to stay in touch with the Massachusetts fishermen who traveled there.

Finally, the Atlantic Cable, a transatlantic cable, was laid in 1858, although it took until 1865 to get it working correctly. This reduced communication time across the Atlantic from the ten days of ship travel to just a few minutes.  Perhaps of more direct interest to the citizens of South Wellfleet was the French Transatlantic Cable. It stretched across the Atlantic to St. Pierre, and then down to the Cape, terminating in North Eastham where a cable station was set up near Nauset Light in 1879. The station did not last long here, and was moved to Orleans in 1891.

The Highland Light site is a whole separate story — off my topic of South Wellfleet, but an interesting sidelight.  The lighthouse keeper, Isaac Small, was appointed light keeper

Highland Light late 1800s

shortly after 1845. He regularly farmed by day and kept the light lit at night. If he had reporting duties using the telegraph, these did not appear to be a major task. His son, also Isaac Small, was put in charge of the telegraph office in 1863, serving as Marine Reporting Agent for more than 60 years. He described the job:

The station was equipped with signal flags, books and a powerful telescope, and an operator placed in charge whose duty it was to watch the sea from daybreak to sunset, and, so far as possible, to obtain the name of or description of every passing ship. This information was immediately transmitted over the wires to the rooms of the Chamber of Commerce in Boston where it was at once spread upon their books for the information of subscribers… Every half hour of every day of the year we stand ready to answer the call of the Boston Office …with our telescope we can, in clear weather, make out the names of vessels when four miles away. When a shipwreck occurs, either at night or during the day, we are expected to forward promptly to the city office every detail of the disaster.

Small wrote up some of his Cape and marine observations in small booklets and set up his hotel – Highland House — to accommodate summer visitors, and a place to sell his booklets and photographs.


Deyo, Simon. History of Barnstable County, New York, 1898.   Chapter VIII by Charles F. Swift covers these topics.

Barnstable Patriot  online  archive:

Thoreau, Henry David Cape Cod. Quotes used here from Putnam’s Monthly Magazine Issue 30, June 1855.

Newspaper account on line at

Description of the Highland Light operation:

Lenney. Christopher  Sightseeing Clues to Landscape History New England, 2005


Family history researcher living in New York City.
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