This Week in Block Island's history, July 9, 1903: Block Island's only daily newspaper ends publication

Tue, 07/10/2012 - 2:30pm
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On this day in Block Island’s history, July 9, 1903, the island’s only daily newspaper, the Block Island Wireless, published its first issue.

That summer set another local record, being the only time that three newspapers were published here simultaneously — the others were the summertime Mid-Ocean, whose life spanned 20 years, and the weekly Block Island Press, which lasted less than a year.

As the island’s first and only daily, the Wireless was a well-funded summer paper published by the Providence Journal Company. Its sole reason for existence was as a high-spirited experiment in the new technology of radio.

Although not quite setting a world record for being “first,” the masthead of the Wireless nevertheless boasted of being second:

“One of Two Daily Newspapers in the World Whose News Dispatches Come by Wireless Telegraph.”

The first such endeavor, on Catalina Island off the California coast, was launched just a few months earlier.

Depicted on either side of the Block Island Wireless’s masthead were the giant antennae that the Journal built at Pt. Judith on the mainland, and near the Southeast Lighthouse on Block Island.

The Wireless published 45 issues between July 9 and August 29, creating considerable news comment in the parent paper, the Providence Journal, and attracting a constant stream of visitors to its press building located just east of the Southeast Lighthouse.

The humble stump of its giant 200-foot antenna mast can still be seen next to the small building that was the newspaper’s headquarters. The wooden mast was the highest structure ever erected on Block Island until the radio transmission tower next to the power plant was extended upwards a dozen years ago.

The old cottage still exists, more famous now as the summer home — from the 1940s to the 1990s — of artist John Hapgood.

Besides reporting local happenings and names of guests at the hotels, the Wireless, as did all the early Block Island papers, reported world news. That summer the Pope’s illness and subsequent death, and the third attempt of tea baron and yachtsman Sir Thomas Lipton to win the America’s Cup, provided instant news suitable for the wireless operation.

When lightning rendered the radio system inoperable for two days, the Wireless dutifully admitted that its news from the mainland was received by the island’s underwater telegraph cable, which had been in operation for the previous 21 years. The telegraph was slower by only a few seconds, but not at all as intriguing as the “wireless.”

After the Mid-Ocean ceased publishing at the end of the 1906 summer, Block Island was without a local paper until 1913 and the Block Island Topics.

After the short-lived Topics ceased, islanders had no local paper for more than 50 years, not until The Block Island Times appeared as a summer paper in 1970 — and each year since.

But as late as the 1970s old copies of the Wireless still could be found at the island’s popular “dump” on Corn Neck Road — not a “transfer station” but a real old-fashioned dump where things were genuinely recycled — which is how several original issues came my way.