ORLEANS – Sitting on a tree-lined stretch of South Orleans Road near downtown, the French Cable Station Museum blends in with its quaint, small town surroundings...almost too well.
The museum's unassuming look disguises its unique historical significance. The station, built in 1891, served as the end point for a telegraph cable that allowed communication between the United States and France. The existing building operated as a station for close to 70 years until 1959, when, according to the museum's website, it was closed for security reasons. In 1972, a group of Orleans residents raised money to purchase the station from France, and it was repurposed as a museum that July.
"I think it should put the town on the map, really," said Barbara Crosson, a member of the museum's board of directors. "Actually, I was born and raised here, and I never even knew about the museum until the 1980s. It had already been in existence for about 10 years."
On July 2, the 50th anniversary of the museum's founding, residents and members of the museum's board of directors held a brief ceremony honoring the milestone. Speakers included Ron Petersen, chair of the Orleans Historical Commission; Lisa Simundson, executive director of the Orleans Chamber of Commerce; and Joseph Manas, the museum's current president.
"This station, it tied the world together," Manas said Saturday afternoon in between answering questions for visitors.
The cable was originally installed in 1869 and landed in Duxbury. Ten years later, a new cable was laid connecting to Nauset Light in North Eastham, where a two-story station was built. But the site proved to be too isolated, and the station's staff and equipment were later relocated to the current building in Orleans.
Inside, visitors wandered through the small museum's rooms, exploring the various equipment original to the station. On the walls, photographs, newspaper clippings and other items further document the station's history.
In the superintendent's office sits an early model copy machine that was used to copy all written correspondence. The testing room contains tools and materials that were used to fix breaks in the cable. It's also home to a Heurtley Magnifer, a device made before the invention of vacuum tubes that help amplify the cable's signal to France. Only three such devices in the world still exist, according to the museum.
What's more, many of the items in the museum are still functional and can be used by visitors.
"Some of our equipment does actually still work and can be demonstrated," Crosson said. "You can spell your name out in morse code and things like that."
The museum is a must-see for history buffs, Crosson said. More specifically, she said, the museum holds special appeal to engineers and people in related fields. Count Manas among them. A retired engineer, he became involved with the museum as a volunteer about 15 years ago when a friend, a guide at the museum, gave him a tour.
"Then I made the mistake of fixing some of the equipment here, and they put me on the board," Manas, who has been president for about 10 years, said with a laugh.
The museum is self-funded through memberships, donations and grants, and is largely run day-to-day by a crew of dedicated local volunteers who give tours and perform other work as needed. Manas recalled how volunteers took it upon themselves to help keep up the property when the museum was closed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Volunteers cut the lawn, picked up all the leaves, painted wherever we needed it," he said. "I was in tears. That probably saved us $1,500 in maintenance."
The museum is open through September Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. Visitors must be masked and vaccinated to enter the building.
Admission is free to the public, while donations are welcomed. Manas said donations have gone up since the pandemic, and many visitors have expressed their appreciation for the museum's continued operation.
On average, about 1,000 people visit the museum each year. That's double the visitation from 10 years ago, Manas said. Beyond being a significant piece of local and global history, the museum also allows a space for lovers of history to gather, talk and share stories of their own.
"I bet I could tell you some stories you never heard," one visitor told Manas Saturday afternoon.
But you don't have to be a history guru to appreciate the museum, which attracts visitors young and old every year, Crosson said.
"I like to say that it's the beginning of texting," she said. "A lot of kids hear that and say 'Oh, wow.'"
Email Ryan Bray at firstname.lastname@example.org