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  • Writer's pictureDon Wilding

Marconi's Messenger: Wellfleet's Charley Paine

On Jan. 18, 1903, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi made history on the bluff of South Wellfleet when the first wireless radio transmission was made across the Atlantic Ocean.

The 29-year-old Marconi anxiously awaited the response from King Edward VII of England to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. When the transmission was received, South Wellfleet’s Charley Paine and his horse, “Diamond,” were ready and waiting to deliver the message to the telegraph office at the Wellfleet depot.

“For about four days Charley did nothing else, Diamond standing in harness waiting outside the transmitting building in the center of the four 210-foot masts,” The Cape Codder recalled on the transmission’s 50th anniversary in its Jan. 15, 1953 edition. “The story is that Marconi came running from the station like a mad man waving two envelopes. ‘Go like the wind,’ he is supposed to have yelled at Charley. ‘Don’t spare your horse. I’ll pay for it.’ Charley is reported to have taken off on two wheels, headed for the Wellfleet station where the message could be sent via telegraph to Washington. And with typical Cape Cod independence he is reported to have slowed to a normal trot once out of sight of Marconi.”

The blue-eyed Paine first went to sea at age 12, and at 38, was a member of the Cahoon Hollow U.S. Life-Saving Station which rescued the lone survivor of the Jason off the beach in Truro during December of 1893. In addition to being a handyman and messenger, Paine was part of the crew that built the station on the bluff.

“Marconi was all right with us, but too busy to take notice of what was going on most of the time,” Paine said in a newspaper interview during the 1930s.

Paine came to know Marconi well after the Italian inventor arrived on the Outer Cape in 1901.

“I remember the day he stepped off the train at the South Wellfleet station,” Paine recalled. “All the big boys were lined up on the platform in their Sunday best ready to give him a fitting welcome. He never stopped for the reception, in fact didn’t pay much attention to the reception line, just asked somebody how to get to the station, jumped into the big carriage that was waiting for him and drove off, leaving his crew with nothing but a foolish look and a three-mile walk through the sand ahead of them.”

A transmitter building, cottages, a kerosene engine, and antennae mounted on 20 20-foot masts were constructed in 1902, but a northeaster blew them down, as the locals predicted it would. By January 1903, new towers were ready to go, and so was Paine.

“It was all fixed up to send the message from South Wellfleet when it was received,” he recalled. “I remember when all of a sudden a hubbub broke loose and Marconi came rushing out with an envelope in his hands, yelling at me to take it and drive like the old Harry to the village. I grabbed it and went around the first curve out of sight in thick cloud of dust.”

The station remained in Wellfleet until 1917, when erosion and the onset of World War I led to its move to Chatham. The remains of the station have been lost to the sea, but the memory of both Marconi and Paine have lived over the bluffs of South Wellfleet.

“It is plain that South Wellfleet’s Charley Paine played an important role at this point in history,” according to The Cape Codder. “It was necessary that Charley and his horse, ‘Diamond,’ be the link which, over a couple of miles, brought together great systems of communication — the telegraph and the wireless.”

Originally published in The Cape Codder, May 12, 2017.

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