COBWEB CORNERS: The telephone office

By Mel McFarland

       Quite some time ago, I talked about the telephone office on 23rd Street. Three lady operators worked in shifts on the old switchboard. The original telephone office's location was in a store on Colorado Avenue, but more room was needed. In 1920, the offices and switchboard were installed in an ordinary-looking brick building behind what was then the Safeway store at 23rd and Colorado. It would fit well into the community, without any disturbance. Once the new equipment was ready, the old equipment was removed. The back room was the site of the manual switchboard where the operators guided calls to their destinations. In the front was a wall with what looked like a bank teller, where people could pay their bills.
       Here is a short description of the early telephones. The receiver was at the end of a wire that hung on a hook on the side of a box. There was a place on the front of the box that you talked into. There was often another box that held a set of batteries, usually big dry cells, that powered the phone. Picking up the receiver turned the phone on, and you could talk into it.
       In the building, women (and sometimes young girls) sat at a switchboard to make the connections. When you raised the receiver at your phone, a light on the switchboard came on. The operator saw the light and switched you on, then asked, "Number, please?" You gave the number you wanted, and she connected your phone by connecting a wire from your plug to the number you asked for. She had a switch that could make that phone ring. The ringer was one of the needs for the batteries. Once the person you were calling answered, their light came on at the switchboard. When the call was finished and you'd both hung up, the lights went out and the operator would unplug the connection.
       There was also the entertainment of the "party line" where the same trunk line served many families. Everyone on the line's phone rang when a call was made. Depending upon who the call was for, the rings were different. Everyone recognized their personal ring. One thing to be sure, often there was someone on the line who would pick up on the wrong ring, purposely or by accident, and listen in. As more phones came in, the system had to be updated. Thankfully, most of the party lines are long gone, but not always forgotten.