The Birth of Island Traffic

by: John Stanton

photography by: courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association

By the time Henry Ford rolled his first Model T off the assembly line, in Detroit, Mich., in 1908, Nantucket was already trying to stay auto-free. There was a fear that the automobile would be dangerous on narrow

island roads, a certainty that it would frighten horses into accidents, a feeling that it would put liverymen out of business, and mostly a sneaking suspicion that automobiles would change the island in ways that, once done, could never be undone.

In August 1903, the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to do something about automobiles by setting the speed limit on town streets at four miles per hour and outside the town at eight miles per hour. Setting purposely ridiculously-slow speed limits was the first gambit by the Selectmen. The state had already set speed limits at 10 mph in towns and 15 mph outside of towns.

Just like many town decisions today, the move led to a long series of legal battles, mostly fought on the state level, in this case at the highway commission.

“The well-laid plans of the Nantucket Selectmen and the hopes of villagers to be left in their motorless isolation have been set at naught by the state highway commission,” read a story from The New Bedford Mercury, reprinted in The Inquirer and Mirror that same year. “This is saying in effect that four and eight miles an hour are too low.”

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