A recent post by my friend and colleague Brent Colley got me to thinking about the history of telephone service in Easton and Redding. The instant communication available on today’s cell phones is a thing of marvel that we all accept and embrace but few of us can even conceptualize how it is accomplished. A hundred and twenty years ago, I am quite certain our ancestors felt the same way about that elongated wooden box attached to the wall that could magically transmit voices through a set of wires that would allow siblings living in different parts of town to converse with each other as if they were in the same room.
While the telephone had been around since March 10, 1876, when Alexander Graham Bell first uttered the words. “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you,” it would take about another twenty-five years for his invention to reach Easton and Redding.
The first commercial telephone exchange was established in New Haven, Connecticut on January 28, 1878; not quite two years after Bell had successfully transmitted his voice to his assistant. In New Haven, there were twenty-one original subscribers who could be connected to a switchboard that was capable of making sixty-four connections, but initially, only two calls could be simultaneously transmitted, each requiring six different connections to complete the call. While progress was relatively fast in coming, it would take a great deal more time and effort to install enough poles and string enough wire to bring the telephone out into the countryside. While cities along the coast of Long Island Sound were mostly connected by the late 1880’s, it would be until just after the turn of the twentieth century that the first telephone poles were being installed into the rocky grounds of inland Fairfield County.
Beginning in the very early 1900’s, there were regular accounts published in the Newtown Bee about line crews from the telephone company installing poles in both Easton and Redding. These crews would board with local residents while they worked. There were more than a few instances where they had to blast through the rocky ground to set poles. The powerful digging equipment that exists today hadn’t yet been invented and it took teams of as many as a dozen men several weeks to plant enough poles and string enough cable to service just one rural road.
During those early years, there were no government mandates in place requiring telephone companies to make their services available to everyone. Salespeople employed by the telephone company had to convince enough people on each road to subscribe before a single pole was installed. Because of this, early telephone service was concentrated in those sections of the community where enough residents could see the value of instant communication to justify the cost of the subscription. People who wanted telephone service in other parts of town could get it, but only if they were willing to pay for installing the poles themselves. Obviously, there weren’t many takers for that option.
In researching this article, I could find no historical evidence of an early telephone switchboard within the confines of Easton. It is likely that early lines in Easton were serviced by exchanges in neighboring towns. A January 1904 article in the Newtown Bee describes “telephone fever” in Easton as the first residents were then able to use their new telephones while several others would be hooked up shortly. Some homes were in close proximity to the Trumbull town line and would have been accessible from the Line Road, which comprises today’s North and South Park Avenues. Others would have been along Sport Hill and Center Roads
Ellis Wheeler’s home was on the corner of Sport Hill and Old Oak. There, he also had an artesian well that provided the drinking water that he sold to customers in Bridgeport. Elmer Andrews owned a farm on Norh Park Avenue just south of the intersection with Adams Road. Fred Haublein owned the general store at the northwest corner of Sport Hill Road and Adams. Charles Silliman, who was the town clerk, lived on the western side of Sport Hill Road near the intersection with Bibbins. John Candee’s farm was near the intersection of Church and Stepney Roads, as was Mallet Sanford’s. Farmer W.T Beardsley lived in the Narrows. William Sherman’s farm was near the intersection of Adams and Center, and Henry Osborne operated his store in what is now Greiser’s Coffee and Market. In all there were eight initial subscribers with several more who would soon be added.
It was much the same in Redding, but there we can substantiate two separate switchboard locations: one on the Ridge at the northeast corner of Cross Highway and Newtown Turnpike and the other on the western side of Long Ridge Road just north of the railroad tracks in West Redding. The exchanges were identifiable by the first three numbers: 383 being the Ridge and 247 being West Redding.
In 1904, Randolph Bradley’s estate on black Rock Turnpike near the Easton town line was known as “Ridgelawn.” Hugh C. McCollam was a prolific builder in both Redding and Easton in the early 1900’s and resided just south of the Bradley estate.
A little further north on Black Rock Turnpike was the grocery store run by the Sullivan Brothers. At that location calls could be placed to reach telephones outside of the local exchange. Known as a “toll station,” those calls went over long-distance transmission lines that were equipped with “boosters” along the way that kept the transmission of voices clear. All calls placed on these lines incurred a separate “toll” charge. These toll stations were the precursor to the public phone booths that became popular during the middle of the twentieth century. The Sullivans’ store had a separate number for their toll station telephone. Today, Pignones Market occupies that location.
Jeanette Gilder was an author whose summer residence was on the same side of the highway as the Sullivan Brothers’ store about 200 feet to the north. William C. Sanford was an educator residing at the Sanford School for Boys. Lester O. Peck’s estate was known as “Wiantenuck” and was located on today’s Sunset Hill just south of Huntington State Park. Peck was a representative from Redding in the State Legislature in Hartford and later was elected to the State Senate.
As part of the West Redding exchange, John B. Sanford lived at 10 Cross Highway where he ran his Clover Farm Creamery for many years. At this location, he provided a toll station for those who didn’t have access to a telephone in their own home or who wanted to place a call to someone outside of the local exchange.
Industrialist Jesse Banks Cornwall’s summer estate “Oak Knolls” was located at the corner of Sanfordtown Road and Newtown Turnpike. Doctor Ernest Smith’s home and office were further west on Sanfordtown at the intersection with Cross Highway.
New England Lime was on Limekiln Road and Bronson’s General Store which later became the West Redding Store was located at the railroad depot.
As one can see from the above names, most of the early telephones were owned by businessmen, town officials, physicians, wealthy farmers, and estate owners.
Within about ten years, telephones became more commonplace, although for most subscribers, they were relegated to sharing “party lines” because of the limited number of calls that could be simultaneously transmitted over early wires. Party lines remained the norm in Easton and Redding well into the 1950’s, with each line servicing as many as five or six different numbers. Private telephone conversations were non-existent.
Long-distance calls all needed to be initiated through a long-distance operator. Those calls often took many minutes to place as operators had to patch together available lines to complete the connection. If you wanted to talk to Aunt Irma in Philadelphia, you would normally call the operator, tell her the number you wanted to reach, and then hang up and wait for her to call you back once the connection was completed. It wasn’t at all unusual for calls not to be completed on busy holidays due to the lack of available lines.
Many of us are old enough to remember when telephone numbers were preceded by exchange names such as AMherst, CLinton, and WEbster. Dialing the numbers associated with the first two letters of the exchange made each phone number seven digits in length. While some exchange names were associated with geographical locations – such as the Murray Hill exchange in New York City – most were not. In the 1950’s AT&T came up with an extensive list of central office names for local companies to choose from. The idea was to have exchange names that were difficult to mispronounce, making it easier for operators to place the call correctly on their first attempt.
When area codes were introduced, and virtually all local switchboards were replaced by mechanical switching stations, the exchange names were dropped. As time progressed, geographical areas without incurred toll charges expanded as well. For those of us who grew up in either Redding or Easton during the 1950’s and 60’s, it was indeed a happy day when one could call a friend and classmate in the other town without listening to our parents complain about the toll charges.