Tap, tap, tap.
The Massie Wireless Station (PJ) — the PJ stands for Point Judith — was built in 1907. It once sat at the east end of Roger Wheeler State Beach, also known as Sand Hill Cove Beach. In the early 1980s, I raised my family a few hundred yards from the old, weathered building. To avoid demolition, in 1982, it was moved to its current location in East Greenwich and is now part of a museum complex. For about 80 years, any person riding the Block Island ferries would see this familiar landmark while leaving or approaching Galilee.
Taking my kids on little exploration trips to the old wireless station were common. I’d roust them after school, and we’d hike over to the dunes, and hack around the weathered station and a few other deserted beach shacks, which were nestled in the dunes. The place had an eerie feel to it — spooky almost. I told my kids that elves and hobbits lived there. My kids believed me when I said that they were “seasonal hobbits and elves” and that they went south for the winter. When we’d walk up the creaking stairs to get to the telegraph room, their imaginations were dialed in, to whatever dad was selling them. I also worked this old building into some great bedtime stories for my eldest kid, Emily.
Walter Wentworth Massie, a contemporary of Gugliemo Marconi, built the Point Judith station. Marconi is known as the “father of long distance radio transmissions.” Wireless communication began in 1900; subsequently, coastal telegraph stations were needed on shore. The PJ station served passenger steamboats traveling between New York and other New England cities. Massie Wireless Station at Point Judith was one of the earliest ones built on the East Coast. Also, Massie built a station at Block Island’s South East Light, in order to make transmissions to the mainland as well as to passing ships south of the island. Telecommunications that we utilize today: radio, television, cell phones, and all the rest, evolved from wireless stations like the one at Point Judith.
Furthermore, with World War II on the horizon, this new technology evolved quickly; as wars happen, invention accelerates.
From Emily’s bedroom window, we could look out at the old PJ wireless station. In the fading light some nights, I’d tell her long rambling stories about a witch from Block Island, whose name was Dutch Ketern (a character embedded in old Block Island folklore). I convinced my daughter that I was friends with this witch; she was a good witch. Of course, I told my kid that Dutch Ketern could fly, but sometimes she just took the ferry; that’s how I knew her. Moreover, I told Emily that Dutch sometimes stayed at the old PJ station. I remember Emily staring transfixed at the old building as I wove my narrative. To top off this very tall tale, I told her I’d actually been to her old house out on the North end of the island. “Oh daddy, tell me what it was like there at the witch’s house!” she begged. Being a master of cliffhanger suspense, I’d say: “Tomorrow Emily, now go to sleep.” Poor kid.
One day on the way to work at the ferry, I noticed a crane from R.I. Engine and a flatbed truck from Kingston Turf Farm, in the east end of the Sand Hill Cove parking lot, near the dunes. Crews of guys were in the process of cutting the PJ station in three sections to be shipped to Frenchtown Rd., in East Greenwich. It was to become a museum, which also had steam engines. Most of the mechanical contents of the Massie Wireless Station (PJ) had been saved. The hard science behind this technology is beyond this scribbler’s ability to do it any justice in trying to explain it; I’m out of my league. What I can tell you is that the transmitter is still sparking out in East Greenwich. This is one of the nation’s last working wireless stations. You’ll just have to visit the wireless museum.
Marconi and his contemporaries were very sharp math and physics guys; they were men of vision. The audacity of their thoughts became reality. Marconi figured a way to send a radio signal through the ether — tap, tap, tap — and bring communication into the future.
Now, you need to work with me here. In the last 100 years we’ve gone from tapping out Morse Code in places like Massie Wireless Station (PJ) to tapping out emails and sending pictures on the screens of our smartphones. We can Google information and images for our immediate gratification, and we can see what our enemies are up to. This stuff truly is amazing, and I wonder where it will eventually take us.
Perhaps someday a dad will be telling his daughter a bedtime story about a scary character while pointing out her bedroom window — at an eerie place called Planet Earth.