Story of the Week

Posted: 08.20.2007
Cars Traditionally Unwelcome on Nantucket Island

The idyllic island of Nantucket, off the coast of Massachusetts, has had a long, cantankerous relationship with the automobile. Today, the island is accessible only by air or car ferry. While the car ferries deliver much-needed visitors to the island (its economy relies heavily on tourism), they also bring their cars, causing mindboggling traffic congestion to the small island, only 14 miles long and 3.5 miles wide.

A century ago, however, cars were more than just discouraged, they were banned.

At the dawn of the 20th century, in May 1900, the first automobile came to Nantucket. Arthur A. Folger and his son, Dr. George A. Folger, brought a Stanley Steamer to the island.

Over the summer a few more vehicles appeared, mostly owned by vacationers.

Reports of horses getting spooked by the noisy, fast automobiles and causing injury to themselves or their owners spurred the Nantucket Selectmen to issue an order in 1904 restricting the speed of automobiles to four miles an hour within town limits and eight miles an hour outside of towns.

They attempted to reissue the limits in 1905. However, the Massachusetts Automobile Association, led by Boston lawyer William Thibodeau, filed a formal protest with the state highway commission. The highway commission declared the speed limits null and void on Constitutional grounds.

The selectmen then promptly reissued the ban, raising the limits to five miles an hour in town and 10 miles an hour outside town limits.

Complicating matters, in 1906 the railroad, which ran between Steamboat Wharf and Siasconset on the end of Nantucket, ceased operation during the during the summer months, creating the need for an efficient way to get summer tourists across the island. A company was formed to operate a motorized bus to do just that, drawing howls of protests from residents who believed the bus would be the first step down the slippery slope to allowing automobiles unfettered access to the island.

The Selectmen held a special meeting on May 23 of that year and issued an order stating: "Notice is hereby given that the Selectmen of the town of Nantucket, acting under Charter 366, Section 1 Acts of 1905, will hereafter exclude all automobiles and motorcycles from all the highways of Nantucket."

And the car ban was born.

Automobilists were furious.

On the battle went, with cardriving visitors defying the ban and the Massachusetts Automobile Association defending their cases when arrested.

One of those defiant automobilists was the president of the Maxwell-Briscoe automobile company of Tarrytown, N.Y,, Frank J. Tyler.

Maxwell-Briscoe would later prove important in Detroit. It was reorganized as the Maxwell Motor Company in 1913 and its headquarters moved to Detroit. Near-bankrupt in 1920, the company called in Walter P. Chrysler, who by 1925 would incorporate Maxwell into the Chrysler Motor Car Company.

In late August of 1907, Tyler brought three Maxwell cars to the island. He was issued a ticket and proceeded to spend the two days prior to the trial driving through town demonstrating the cars.

The trial was interrupted by the dramatic spectacle of the judge receiving a summons from the Supreme Court of Massachusetts; some speculate that the summons was arranged by Thibodeau to keep the judge from ruling. The Supreme Court, however, ruled weeks later that the judge could not be prevented from ruling on the Tyler case.

Tyler was found guilty of violating the auto ban, but the Supreme Court of Massachusetts later struck down the sentence on the grounds that the car ban went too far and that automobiles could not be excluded from every location on the island.

Within less than a year, however, at the request of a committee of islanders, the state legislature passed a law once again allowing Nantucket's government to exclude automobiles from its roads.

The final battle over the automobile ban was spurred in 1916, when Clinton Folger, who had the contract to deliver mail to the town of Siasconset, brought his Overland to the island and frequently challenged the ban. He engaged in a piece of political theater by hitching his car to horses which pulled the car within town limits, and then unhitching them at the town line, where cars were legal on the state highway.

Through a series of votes over the next several years, a majority of residents reliably voted to continue the ban.

In January of 1918, state legislators submitted a bill to repeal the auto ban once and for all. The state sent the question back to the islanders in April, and for the first time, a majority of islanders voted to repeal the automobile exclusion - 336 to 296.

Efforts have continued through the years to limit the number of cars on the island, even as the number of tourists and year-round residents using them has grown. Tourist materials now ask that visitors not bring cars to Nantucket and offer other modes of transportation such as bikes or buses. Still, complaints about gridlock in town are as perennial as summer ocean breezes.

For information about other moments in motoring history, visit the MotorCities National Heritage Area Web site at

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