The ‘Telephone entertainment’ event marked the use of the device in Omaha in 1877 | Story
Stu Pospisil Omaha World-Herald
Alexander Graham Bell’s invention arrived in Omaha in April 1877, after Union Pacific Telegraph Superintendent JJ Dickey commissioned the city’s first telephone.
The Omaha Daily Bee reported that he was to give “an exhibition of his powers”. To help him was to be Louis H. Korty, another executive in the telegraph department.
The first report of a telephone call was the week before Christmas in 1877. Army officers and some of Omaha’s elite were treated to three hours of “telephone entertainment” at General George’s home Crook at 18th and Davenport streets. A special wire ran from Dickey’s telephone in Crook’s living room to the station commander’s barracks office. On the program, vocal and instrumental music. The bugle was the clearest, the piano the most confused. Crook and Major Andrew Burt conversed in the Crow language, which the bee said was the first time a Native American language had been spoken over the telephone.
Within a year, seven lines had been installed for business telephones. Connections were two for Union Pacific operations in Omaha and Council Bluffs, two for coal offices, one for Burlington and Missouri Railroad, one for Max Meyer’s cigar and music stores and one for Willow Springs Distillery and owner Peter Iler’s wholesale liquor house. .
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Charles W. Mead was appointed president, Dickey’s vice-president, and Korty’s secretary-treasurer of the state’s first telephone company in May 1879. The Omaha Electric Company would be the 10th telephone exchange in the nation. He threaded 30 miles of yarn before setting off that summer.
A 1935 World-Herald article talks about the first telephone directory, published on July 10, 1879, which was on a single sheet. Among the 124 subscribers were four newspapers and only one hotel, the Withnell house at 15th and Harney Streets. Subscribers called each other by name, not number. The first directory had no numbers. All lines were party lines – multiple subscribers on the same wire – and calling the central office required signaling with a bell hammer.
Korty had ties to American Bell Telephone executive Theodore Vail. Vail granted Korty and Dickey land rights to run telephone lines in the state in 1881. Fremont was the first town in the state with a long-distance line to Omaha in 1881. The Lincoln Connection went into service on Christmas Eve 1882. Other towns near Omaha came online in subsequent years, but until 1896 Grand Island was the western terminus of the Nebraska Telephone Company.
Nebraska Telephone was formed in 1882 with Silas HH Clark, Dickey and Korty as officers. In 1909 it merged management with Iowa Telephone and Northwestern Telephone (Minnesota and the Dakotas) and from 1921 the alliance became Northwestern Bell. Subsequent mergers left the former Omaha Telephone Company known as US West, Qwest, and CenturyLink.
In 1885, Omaha had 716 telephone subscribers, or about one for every 90 people. Then came rapid growth. A new standard was needed just two years later, as the number of customers had more than doubled. South Omaha’s first switchboard was established in 1888, two years after the village was incorporated.
In 1897, AT&T connected Omaha to eastern long-distance lines, and Cudahy Packing installed the first private branch switchboard west of Chicago. For the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in 1898, Nebraska Telephone installed payphone stations—perhaps the first in the city—on the grounds. He also brought the public telephone booth to South Omaha that year, placing one in the rotunda of the first cattle exchange building.
Several city standards were needed by 1907, and central offices in Harney and Webster opened to serve the western and northern parts of the city. The downtown office had the Atlantic and Jackson exchanges. The introduction of the dialing service began in 1921. Telephone numbers originally consisted of two letters (the first two of an exchange name) and four digits.
In 1960, Northwestern Bell converted the city to seven-digit numbers before direct dialing long distance calls. Downtown, ATlantic became 341, JAckson 342, EXpress 344, HARney 345, WEbster 346 and YEllowstone 347. North, PLeasant became 451, PRospect 453 and KEnwood 455. West Central, WAlnut became 551, GLendale 553, REgent 556 and CAPital 558. West, TErrance became 391. South, MArket became 731 and ORchard 733. In the suburbs, BEllevue became 291. Papillion phones were given the prefix 339, Millard 334.
Area codes were instituted in 1961 to facilitate long distance calls. Nebraska received two, 402 and 308. Fifty years later, the 402 area—including Omaha—got a second area code, 531, and 2011 was the first time 10-digit dialing was required.
Before this column hangs up, here’s a little more about the Kenwood exchange that was the last in town with a manual switchboard. The area around 30th and Ames was not called until 1958.
Hazel Jones had been a Kenwood operator for 40 years. During her final days at the switchboard, she recalls broadcasting the news of the Missouri River floods and the VE and VJ days.
She recounted lighter moments, like the hungover gentleman one New Year’s Day who asked for the time and, not satisfied with “8 o’clock,” asked “am or pm?” And of the afternoon, when an elderly lady asked to make a toll-free call and was told to deposit 10 cents. She did it. Then another coin fell into the slot as she giggled, “And here’s a penny for you.”
Now she should have a smartphone for the Venmo.
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