Along the east coast of Massachusetts stretching from Boston to Martha’s Vineyard lies a series of Telegraph Hills. So named around 1801, they once belonged to a communication system likened to a mechanical internet.
Starting in 1801, a semaphore system carried messages 75 miles in 10 minutes between Edgartown and Boston. Operators were stationed in towers on top of the telegraph hills so signals could be transmitted. Their purpose: to communicate news and instructions between ship owners and ship captains.
Today, telegraph hills stand in Edgartown, Woods Hole, Sandwich, Plymouth, Duxbury, Hull and South Boston, all in Massachusetts. The only other telegraph hills in New England are in Provincetown, Mass., and East Pittston, Maine.
Today, practically no evidence – written or physical — exists of the mechanical internet on top of Massachusetts’ telegraph hills. Except, of course, for the name.
In 1792, a French inventor named Claude Chappe invented a semaphore system to relay messages faster than post riders could. It included a tower within sight of another tower. On top of the tower were movable shutters – also called blades or paddles. An operator could move them into different positions to represent different letters of the alphabet.
When an operator in the tower saw the semaphore move on the neighboring hill, he would pick up the message and then send it to the next relay tower. The French used the system along the coast to warn of the approach of British warships.
The system spread from France, and in 1801 Jonathan Grout built an optical telegraph system on the telegraph hills between Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard and Dorchester Heights in Boston. Grout was the son of a Revolutionary veteran who had served in the first U.S. Congress from Bristol County, Massachusetts.
He used the system to transmit shipping news. For example, if a ship owner knew that cargo from the East Indies would fetch a higher price in Philadelphia than Boston, he could tell his captain via semaphore to head south. That way, the ship would avoid the dangerous and time-consuming voyage around Cape Cod.
The system had drawbacks. For example, it didn’t work at night. Grout attracted few customers, and shut the operation down in 1807. The telegraph hills remain, however.
The idea wasn’t horrible. In 1822, John Rowe set up a similar system in Boston Harbor. It worked for about 30 years. By the 1850s, however, Samuel Morse had patented his electric telegraph, which overtook the mechanical internet.
Telegraph Hills Today
Since Grout closed his semaphore business, people have used telegraph hills for other purposes. Plymouth, for example, built a fire tower on its Telegraph Hill in the 1940s, but later moved it. Sandwich still has a fire tower on its Telegraph Hill, now part of the Discovery Hill conservation land. The Town of Hull built a real telegraph tower in the 19th century, and then a concrete water storage tank in the 20th.
And in Dorchester Heights, Telegraph Hill is the site of Thomas Park. In the center of the park stands the Dorchester Heights Monument. It commemorates the fortification of the hill during the Revolutionary War, which drove the British from Boston.
Images: Telegraph Hill in Hull, Mass., By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9916565. Dorchester Heights Monument By Jameslwoodward – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8371073. Napoleonic semaphore line By The drawing is signed "Keith Thomas" in lower right corner – Retrieved June 11, 2014 from Radio News magazine, Ziff-Davis Publishing Co., Inc., New York, Vol. 32, No. 5, November 1944, p. 71 archived on http://www.americanradiohistory.com/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39352497.
With thanks to Sightseeking: Clues to the Landscape History of New England By Christopher J. Lenney. This story was updated in 2021.