June 24, 2018
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Telephones were catching on in Bangor a century ago

By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN

A century ago, construction crews hired by New England Telephone and Telegraph Company were clearing a path 30 feet wide through the deep woods between Bangor and Mattawamkeag. It was the biggest job of its kind ever done in Maine in the decades-long effort to install telephones in every village, no matter how remote from major population areas.

Construction crews were building “a toll line” 52 miles across private land that would connect Bangor, Pushaw, Orono, Old Town and Alton. Then it would swing across the Penobscot River mounted on steel towers to Greenbush, continuing from there to Passadumkeag, Enfield, Lincoln, Winn and Mattawamkeag, said the Bangor Daily Commercial on Dec. 29, 1911.

An older line that had served the same function needed to be replaced because it was being bothered by interference from “heavy current wires” and tree limbs in its pathway alongside Maine Central Railroad track.

The new wires were a sure sign that the telephone was catching on in central Maine. Periodic bulletins from the phone company kept newspaper readers informed of the progress since the first system was established in Bangor in 1880 and had about 250 subscribers a few years later.

“In order to serve telephone subscribers in Bangor over 10,000 miles of wire have been placed in the streets, nearly enough to reach halfway around the world,” noted the Bangor Daily News on Feb. 29, 1912.

The story recounted the setback caused by Bangor’s great fire the year before. After the fire, there had been 4,416 telephones, a loss of more than 100. Nearly a year later, there were 4,690 phones (many connected to 30 private exchanges such as the new one used by the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad in the Graham Building).

“Practically one sixth of all people in the city are connected with the telephone system,” the paper boasted.

For those who were not subscribers, about 50 pay phones were scattered throughout the city. “From any of these stations any subscriber within five miles of the central office can be called for 5 cents. For a small additional cost for messenger service, any nonsubscriber will be called to a pay station,” said the newspaper story.

Thanks to an agreement with Western Union, one could even dictate a telegram over the phone to the nearest telegraph office, if he didn’t want to try to make a long-distance call — sometimes a difficult task. The cost would be placed on his phone bill.

Newspaper advertisements were part of this campaign to get everybody hooked up to a phone. An effort was underway to convince people they needed to install a telephone in their homes and businesses if they wanted to be part of the twentieth century.

One ad was headlined “Home Comfort” in big type. The message was that you couldn’t have a comfortable home without the convenience of a telephone. The cost could be as low as 5 cents a day.

Another ad compared a phone to “protection insurance” from fire, burglary and sickness — all the “Dangers of the Night.” The telephone was called a “Home Danger Alarm.”

Other advertisements were aimed at training people to use phones in a civilized manner. Callers were asked to make sure they gave the right number of the party they were calling and spoke distinctly to the operator to save time. If their phone rang, they were told to answer it promptly. Some people who missed calls used to dial up the operator to see if she knew who was calling them.

Party liners, who included just about everybody, needed to follow the Golden Rule. “Lengthy conversations on unimportant matters, the prattling intercourse of children, phonograph concerts and the like” were discouraged. The Bangor Daily Commercial even offered up an editorial on the “Effort to Stop Gossip” on April 7, 1914.

Periodically these phone company advertisements were supplemented by lists of new telephone subscribers published in the city’s two daily newspapers. What better way to get folks to subscribe than to tell them their neighbors had purchased a phone?

The Bangor telephone exchange held an open house each year. By 1914, there were 5,496 telephones in Bangor, according to the Commercial reporter who wrote a story about the open house that year on April 23. A caller could ring up any one of those thousands of phones “in from four seconds up” simply by lifting the receiver of their phone and asking an operator for the number.

Manager I. L. Fisher explained the complex mechanism for making calls: “When one takes off the receiver, there is a light in front of the operator. She puts a plug in the jack or aperture corresponding to the number of the calling person, gets the number desired, rings in, and then there is one light. When the persons are in communication, the light goes out. When they cease talking, the two lights go on, and the plugs are removed.”

There were 66 operators at the Bangor phone exchange working different shifts. The reporter referred to them as “attractive operators,” but he noted it was no longer “the vogue” to call them “hello girls,” the nickname they had had for years.

Phone use was expanding rapidly. In 1909, there were 23,000 calls daily in Bangor, and by 1913, there were 36,000 calls. In the first 3.5 months of 1914, “no less than 41,000 calls have been received daily.”

America was truly turning into “A Telephone Nation,” said the Bangor Daily Commercial on May 21.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His new book, Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era, is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com


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