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Memories of Southeast History this month takes us into the transformative effect of telephone service


COURTESY OF GARRY WILSON  - In the early 1900s, telephone service was expanding - and workers were installing telephone and power poles across Americas open land at a time when few roads were paved or passable in the winter. This team or gang of linesmen was stringing wires beside the Columbia River, barehanded. Garry Wilsons grandfather, Franklin Wilson, who once lived in Sellwood, was one of the men in this picture. If you were living in Southeast Portland in 1893, you didn’t own an electronic device because they still hadn’t been invented yet. Automobiles and radios weren’t yet available, and television was far into the future. You stored your perishables in an ice box, kept cool by an actual block of ice, and you cooked on a wood stove, because electricity was just starting to be introduced in the home.

Life was pretty primitive back then by today’s standards – but if you had enough money, you could purchase a telephone.

Phones are a luxury we now take for granted, but in the 1900’s they were very complex. The Northwest basically relied on the telegraph to communicate with other cities, and learn about news and events from our nation and around the world. There was mail, but it was not fast. For the news of the day, the alternative was waiting patiently for distant newspapers to arrive by ship, which sometimes took weeks from the East Coast – and when they got here, the top news items in them were hastily rewritten by local editors for use in their own newspapers.

In the business world, young men called “messenger boys” raced about the streets of Portland on foot or via bicycle, delivering messages to doctors, lawyers, bankers, and merchants to keep them abreast of the latest news about stocks, mergers, and current events in other major cities that arrived by telegraph.

Housewives, workingmen, and small shop owners – mostly on the east side of the Willamette River – mainly sent important messages by telegram, at the local Western Union office. If an immediate response was required, you had to wait hours or days for a reply.

The newly-invented telephones offered the simplicity of calling clients, customers, and relatives from the comfort of your own home, office, and store. Nonetheless, people were slow in signing up for this expensive luxury service – because, whom could you call, if the people you wanted to talk to didn’t have one too?

When phones first became available, there were over three hundred makers and distributers of the devices – and it would take another twenty years before phones were more affordable and telephone manufacturers began a major push to market them to consumers.

The most recognizable phone of that era, the one that you may since have seen in an antique store, was the “magneto phone”. It was a largely wooden wall-mounted telephone with a hard plastic mouthpiece fixed on the front for speaking, and a tubular hand-held receiver for the ear attached with a fabric-covered wire, and hung on the side. The receiver was too short to allow anyone to sit in a chair, so you had to stand in one place when talking, making calls brief.

For placing a call, a hand crank was available, usually on the right side of the phone, to ring the distant operator and ask to be connected to your desired party.

To meet competition and increase adoption of the device, local telephone companies began renting telephones to their customers for $2.50 per month. What an exciting day for the family, when a telephone company employee arrived and their new phone was installed on a wall where nothing was before. A ringer for incoming calls only cost an additional $2.50 per month.

COURTESY OF DANA BECK COLLECTION - Installers for the Pacific Telegraph and Telephone Company connected phone lines in a residential neighborhood dressed in suits! Les Anderson, who is 94 years old and worked for the Western Electric Company as an installer, explains that everyone in that era was expected to come to work in a shirt, tie, and a nice-looking jacket. You might even see workers in vests, hats, and hard leather shoes! With their new phone, homebodies could share gossip with neighbors, and the residents could order food and staples for the home from local stores, or make appointments. It was exciting for the youngsters to have their first opportunity to listen to and talk with distant relatives that they previously only received letters from. Telephones were also helpful in warning residents about a fire or local emergency in a fast and efficient way.

Originally, only party lines were offered by the phone companies, and it wasn’t unusual to have as many as twenty families sharing the same line, which was another incentive to keep calls short. This was implemented by the companies so they didn’t have to run a dedicated line to each individual house. Each home or business had their own distinctive ring for incoming calls – such as three short rings followed by a long ring. Each subscriber’s ring was different.

These selective rings were intended to prevent other people on the same line from accidently picking up their phone and listening in on your personal conversation. But there was little entertainment in the home well into the 1920’s, so some with phones found it hard to resist gently picking up the receiver and listening in on their neighbors’ calls.

There were 33 first-time Portland subscribers who signed up for a phone from the American Telephone and District Telegraph Company in 1878. These mostly constituted doctors, hotels, and large businesses, but also included a few rich residents who enjoyed the novelty of owning the first telephone on their block. Some familiar names listed among the first phone adopters were the Meier and Frank department store, The Oregonian Publishing Company, and the Oregon and California Railroad Company.

Demand for phone service increased so much in the early 1900’s that Portland’s two competing companies – the Portland Home Telephone and Telegraph Company, and the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Telephone Company – scrambled to install more lines and wires around parts of the city. Gangs of burly, rugged men were hired as linesmen to haul and install 50-foot round wooden poles into the ground, and string wires atop them, to connect to individual homes and businesses. All of the work was done barehanded, along with a team of horses. Large groups of men struggled to balance the transmission poles upright and bury them into the hard-packed ground securely.

Problems arose for these telephone installers when they met installers from the “Portland Railway, Light, and Power Company” and the “Oregon Water and Power Railway” on the same block installing their own power poles. After heated arguments between them, a compromise was reached by company higher-ups. To save cost, and the time of erecting three or four different 50-foot poles at each intersection, it was agreed to share the same poles. Rental fees were assessed, payable to the owner who installed the utility pole.

Chuck Irwin, a lineman who worked for the “Pacific Northwest Company” for 36 years, stated that company was charged $1.25 per pole it used that was owned by another power or railway company as late as the 1950’s.

“Telephone exchanges” – large two and three story buildings made of hard concrete – were built in residential districts, in which thousands of switches and relays were wired along frames of metal, festooned like grapevines in a vineyard. Men with a particular interest and talent in electricity and its components were trained to maintain the lines in these telephone exchanges.

In 1906, the “Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company” established what was named the Sellwood Exchange at 15th and S.E. Holgate, in a concrete building which still stands today (and in which movie star Clark Gable is reported to have gotten his professional start – as a telephone employee). The Sellwood Exchange was located near the Eastside Streetcar that ran along Milwaukie Avenue. Many more telephone exchanges were built around the city during the 1920’s and 30’s, as the number of subscribers increased. Those who lived in Portland from 1940 to 1960 can still remember some of these exchanges – such as Garfield, Belmont, Tabor, Atwater, Arleta, and Woodlawn.

On my recent visit to the Telecommunications Museum in Seattle, Washington, volunteer switchmen pointed out that an office like the Sellwood Exchange could only offer telephone service for up to 10,000 subscribers within a radius of 36 miles. That would explain why phone subscribers of Westmoreland were assigned to the Belmont office instead of the Sellwood Exchange.

The office on Holgate Boulevard had twenty operators handling the calls, and probably up to twenty-five switchmen and technicians working on the remaining floors. The Museum workers explained that twenty men were needed during the day shift, five during the late evening hours, and three workers to handle any problems during the “graveyard hours”. Museum Board member Peter Amstein explained that the switchmen were specifically trained in the installation and maintenance of the switching system, while technicians repaired phones, worked out in the field, and basically troubleshot all phases of the phone company. Many Technicians and switchmen were needed during the 1920’s and 30’s to keep a telephone exchange running efficiently during the 1920’s and 30’s until new automated technology arrived.

And before the automation equipment was installed, allowing direct-dialing, switchboard operators were an essential part of a phone company’s success. Young women with acute hearing, and who excelled in eye and hand coordination, were sought out for this position. Management expected female operators to log close to twelve hours during their stressful work day. Hiring on as an operator allowed women a unique opportunity, in a time when women had few employment options in the 1920’s and 30’s.

Together, operators and technicians worked as a team at the telephone exchange, but on different floors. It was the young ladies who answered calls that were the first to notify the technicians of any problems that needed to be fixed on the lines.

Chuck Irwin pointed out that one in ten women who graduated from school in 1940 would begin working for the phone company, and by that time close to 400 Portland operators were stationed at the Southwest Oak and Park telephone Building. “The ladies were required to work four hour shifts, so they might start at 12 noon and work until 4 p.m., and the next shift would be from 4 to 8, and the one after that 8 to midnight,” explained Chuck.

Unable to keep up the costly demands in the telephone industry, the “Portland Home Telephone Company” sold its inventory and offices to “Pacific Telegraph and Telephone Company” (PT&T). By 1921 the American Telegraph and Telephone Company (AT&T) had acquired all of the stock and permits of many smaller companies, creating one of the largest monopolies in America. “Pacific Tel” as it was often called, continued operations under the same company name, as did the Sellwood Exchange at the Holgate office well into the 1940’s. In 1961, all telecommunications in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, were known nationwide as the Pacific Northwest Bell Company as a subsidiary of AT&T.

The by-then obsolete Sellwood Exchange on Holgate Boulevard was abandoned for half a decade, until the Arts Product Display Advertising Company began operations there in 1962. After that, for the next 30 years, Carpet City sold carpeting and remnants to furnished many homes in Westmoreland and Brooklyn. The current occupant, since 2003, is the Blaze Cone Co., which manufactures and sells traffic safety cones.

While we no longer call through the telephone exchange buildings that stood in our neighborhoods or use the assistance of friendly operators to connect our calls, a few of these old buildings remain. In addition the former Sellwood Exchange building on Holgate, you can still spot The Belmont Exchange structure at 17 S.E. Belmont Street, and the Mt. Tabor Exchange at 55th S.E. Belmont, as you wander through the city.

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