Monhegan Island, Maine — "I'm sorry," says the faint recorded male voice on the telephone, "the number you have reached is not in service at this time, due to cable trouble on Monhegan Island."
It's not easy these days to reach out and touch someone on this squat little island 10 or 12 miles out to sea. When Hurricane Emily toured the area in early September, at the tail end of Monhegan's busy tourist season, it paid a special visit to the underwater telephone cable that connected island voices with the mainland and split it in two. And that's how the telephone company intends to leave it.
And so, reported telephone coordinator Dr. Alta Ashley in a mimeographed notice to the island's 114 year-round residents, "that day, which had been dreaded for more than three years, had arrived," the day when Monhegan's 13 telephones crackled, popped, and faded into silence.
After a huge blizzard in 1978 washed away the cable, New England Telephone told the island residents that it would no longer repair it. The next time the cable broke, that was the end of telephone service. Since then, islanders have been struggling to change the telephone company's mind.
The phone company maintained that it had no responsibility to continue to provide service to the people on Monhegan, but an appeal by the islanders to the Maine Public Utilities Commission resulted in the company being ordered to provide service. The tussle going on now is what kind of service.
The islanders would like to see a microwave radio system that would allow 48 telephones. They say there is that much demand on the island. The telephone company wants to install a VHF radio system that would allow for eight telephones, fewer than the island has now.
"Wouldn't that be dandy?" Dr. Ashley says. "Ten isn't enough."
In late September the utilities commission examiner determined that New England Telephone cannot provide less service to Monhegan than it has in the past, and that the company must meet the demand for service on the island. The commission will make a final decision in mid-October.
Until then -- and probably for months to come, whatever the utilities commission decides -- the islanders are making do with one telephone company-provided mobile telephone, the kind designed to go in a luxury car. It hangs forlornly in the back room of the island's one store, useful for emergencies and grocery ordering, but not much else. Its one feeble ring is impossible to hear unless someone is standing next to it, making it just about useless for incoming calls. And the line is shared with several dozen other mobile phones in this area of Maine.
Dr. Ashley's notice hangs on the semi-official town bulletin board in the store, which stands just about smack in the middle of the gray-shingled buildings huddling near the harbor. Two inns and a guest house, two gift shops, a coffee shop (all of which close for the winter), the post office, library, schoolhouse, and church are scattered among the private homes.
Tucked behind the coffee shop is a shack made of metal siding, shaking with noise. It houses the propane-powered generator that produces the electricity to run several of the businesses. In a blend of old and new somehow suited to Monhegan, electricity on the island comes from generators like these or is produced by photovoltaic cells; 11 homes on Monhegan have "gone solar."
Only a few rattly old trucks bump along the dirt roads that struggle toward the woods just beyond the last house. Most of the island is given over to thick bristles of pine, contained sternly by the cliffs that ring the island. Just up the hill from Dr. Ashley's house is the lighthouse, now a museum with an automated light.
It's because of that lighthouse that the island has had any telephones at all. The Coast Guard ran the cable out to the island in 1919 so it could communicate with the lighthouse keeper and the person who ran the fog signal station on Manana Island, a barren mountaintop jutting out of the water scarcely a dinghy ride across Monhegan Harbor. The cable contained more lines than the Coast Guard needed, so it offered to lease the rest to New England Telephone for served the island until the 1950s, when the Coast Guard laid a new cable, which doubled the phone company's rent and quintupled Monhegan's phones to 10. Over the years, the cable has been repaired numerous times, until it is "old, brittle , and porous," in the words of the phone company spokesman.
When the Coast Guard finally automated the facilities on Monhegan and abandoned the cable, the company claimed its obligations to the islanders ended, that it had never been present on Monhegan as a public utility, a position overruled by the Public Utilities Commission.
"This thing here, this pole says NET," says William Boynton, Monhegan's first assessor (as close as the island comes under its plantation government to a mayor). He scrambles over some underbrush to push aside the climbing weeds clinging to a pole. "They're here," he says, reading the plate affixed to the pole. "NET Pole 51." That pole proved to the utilities commission that NET was indeed serving the island, that and the bills islanders were receiving asking for money.
This pole is perched on the corner of Dr. Ashley's property, a few feet from the corner of her rambling solar-powered house, which looks like parts of it were tacked on as afterthoughts over the years. The walk is lined with pea plants still in bloom in late September, and the variety of birds in the yard shows why the island is popular with birders.
She wangled a telephone from the company because of that pole on the corner of her land.Her phone is like every other phone on the island, and unlike any phone anywhere else in the United States: It is a wall model, a black pay phone with no dial. To make a call, whether it be down to the store or over to Indiana, island residents must deal with an operator and depositing coins (which they can empty from the phone and reuse), or, in another of Monhegan's blend of rusticity and modernity, they can use their telephone charge cards.
No phone on the island is a private line; Dr. Ashley shares hers with another household too far away to yell to, so they've worked out signals to distinguish their calls from each other.
But that's an easy situation, compared with most of the people on the island, who must stand in line for one of the "public" phones, in the store or on the front porch of the Monhegan House, or in the kitchen on the Island Inn.
"You wouldn't believe it here in the summertime," says Bud Murdock, who owns the Monhegan Store. "We have to set a five-minute limit on calls." And sometimes he interrupts people so he can do his ordering, since the phone is his business phone also. He keeps another bulletin board toward the back of the store, where he posts messages he's taken for islanders.
The sign over the telephone in the kitchen of the Island Inn, Monhegan's swankiest accommodations (electricity in every room!), comes right to the point: "If you can't say it in five minutes DON'T. This is a party line." Like the phone in the store, this phone serves both owner and customer, a few feet from where the evening dishes are washed.
Owner Bob Burton says, "Our phone just about drives us crazy in May, June, July --"
"Oh, August!" finishes his wife, Mary.
She putters around the huge empty kitchen -- their season ended two weeks after the phones went out -- while her husband tries to shake off the chill of the rainy afternoon.
They, like nearly every other business owner on the island, are concerned about the lack of telephones on the island.
"The telephone company has done a good job selling its product," Bob says. "The way to do business is to pick up the phone." They take nearly all of their reservations and do all of their ordering over the telephone. In the two weeks this season they were without telephones, they estimate they lost an average of two rooms for two people each night.
They worry that they won't have a telephone by New Year's Day, which is when all of the inns on the island start accepting reservations for the next season.
But they worry just as much about what type of telephone they might end up with.
Groping for the right words, Bob explains that their clientele is "not blue collar," and wouldn't want their conversations "broadcast over the coast of Maine," which would be possible with the VHF radio system the phone company wants to install, a system many of the islanders consider a step backward.
"If they can't maintain what we've already got, they shouldn't take it away and give us less," Mary Burton says.
If they could, Bob says, they'd have four phone lines coming in to the inn, four of the 40 phones already spoken for if the 48-line system is installed.
One of the guest houses on the island has survived 55 years without a phone.
"We're tops on the list to get one, though," says Josephine Davis Day, who opened the Trailing Yew in 1925 and supervises each meal. Over the years, she and her staff have become expert at ordering food and supplies via mail or by trekking down to the phone at the Monhegan House. But sometimes things go awry:
"I need a ham for tomorrow night. If I had a phone, I could get one."
All of their room reservations are handled by mail, but even that is getting harder, she says, because people expect them to have a telephone, "especially the younger ones."
When the phones went out, she says, "several of our guests panicked and left -- they needed the phone for one reason or another."
The system the islanders propose would use existing buildings to house the microwave equipment, and even suggest using wind or solar power to run it.
But it all comes down to economics for New England Telephone. The utility balks at installing a 48-line system because of its cost.
"We'd never receive sufficient revenues to pay for it," spokesman John McCatherin says.
"To attempt to provide to an island 12 miles out in the Atlantic the same service we might provide in downtown Portland just wouldn't be responsible to the rest of our customers."
The islanders say the 48-line system would cost $400,000. The phone company says it would cost much more, but even the $400,000 estimate is much too high for the company. Mr. McCatherin says the phone company invests less than $1,000 per customer in equipment statewide.
He acknowledges that there are some exchanges where the investment is significantly higher, and that the more profitable exchanges do subsidize the less profitable ones, but he can give no examples; the bookkeeping is done "on a statewide basis."
"But none are as unprofitable as Monhegan would be," he says.
New England Telephone's responsibility to Monhegan, he says, is to "assure continuing good telephone service that is not a heavy cost burden to the rest of the rate payers in the state."
The amount of revenue Monhegan does generate is also not known. Outgoing calls produce about $30,000 a year, but there has not been any attempt to gauge the revenues from incoming calls, mostly people calling long-distance to make reservations on the island. Nor has NET made any studies of how much revenues would increase if there were full service on the island.
"The sooner they give us a decent system the more they're going to make," Dr. Ashley says. "They're losing it now, certainly."
"I don't know what their problem is, why they're fighting us so much," First Assessor Billy Boynton says. He is convinced that if a full-service system is established, the demand will increase even more. He says that residents have voted unanimously to appropriate $8,000 over the last two years to deal with NET , and that more money has been raised through private donations.
"It's going to be a long winter," he says, heading up the rocky dirt road to his house. In a few weeks, all of the summer businesses will close and the mail boat will cut is schedule to three trips to Monhegan each week.
On this island, meeting the mailboat is more often than not the biggest event of the day. Not only does it bring the mail, but visitors, groceries, building supplies, and anything else the islanders might need. And now that the telephones are out, the crew members also deliver messages from friends and relatives on the mainland who called the mailboat office.
The ancient trucks from the guest houses and the store queue up along the dock, waiting to load up. Everyone in town, it seems, is there, saying hello or goodbye to someone, or just observing. Losterman Craig Sproul stands off to one side with his family watching the mailboat unload.
"What we've spent and what they've spent -- we could have telephones," he says.
Claiming he can jury-rig anything, he says he could put a winch on his boat, haul up the cable and have it fixed, if they'd give him a bit of cable to splice in. "For one day's legal fee, they could repair the cable," he says.
"It's so discouraging," Dr. Ashley says, arriving at the boat a bit late but with a sheaf of telephone situation-related papers under her arm. "It's like the Vietnam war. If you just send a few more troops it will be settled. We've spent $10,000. If we quit now, it's down the drain."