Hello? Can you hear me? Laramie gets telephones—1882

Some inventions are so good they take the world by storm. Such was the telephone.

First came the telegraph. Western Union began business in 1851—east coast railroads found it very useful for train dispatching. Transcontinental telegraphy started in October of 1861, putting an end to the Pony Express. Laramie Plains Museum (LPM) historian Jerry Hansen says the Overland Stage Company, starting in 1862, used the telegraph to keep track of their Ft. Collins to Salt Lake stagecoaches. So telegraph lines traversed the Laramie Plains even before Laramie was founded in 1868.  

Bell’s Invention

If telegraphy was possible, then transmitting voice seemed feasible. Alexander Graham Bell and many others worked to invent a practical phone and in 1876 Bell contacted the US Patent Office just minutes ahead of another inventor. Then he founded the Bell Telephone Company, which operated 3,000 phones in the Boston area by the end of 1877. One of America’s largest monopolies—Ma Bell—was created.  

Laramie’s Sentinel newspaper reported on February 15, 1878: “Cheyenne has gone crazy over its telephone.” Phil Roberts reports in the Wyoming Almanac that on February 24, 1878, the first long-distance call was made from Laramie to Cheyenne. It used the telegraph lines along the railroad with a telephone on each end.

Neither city had anything like actual telephone service at the time. I found no record of what Bill Nye, editor of the Laramie Boomerang, said to Editor Slack of the Cheyenne newspaper in that historic call. Cheyenne did get telephone service beginning in March of 1881. Laramie’s service started a year later.

Wires Everywhere!

Editor J. W. Hayford of the Laramie Sentinel was a huge booster. He had the first actual phone in Laramie, on a line between his house and the post office. He became incensed when smaller places like Pueblo, Colorado and Rawlins got phones before Laramie, not to mention Cheyenne. But on May 6, 1882, Hayford could report happily: “The city begins to look as though it were enveloped in the meshes of a cobweb from the numerous wires running every direction.”

An entrepreneur named Frank Arnett had convinced Cheyenne investors to develop a local telephone service and he delivered what he promised. He then set his sights on Laramie. In February of 1882, Arnett’s telephone poles were delivered to Tie Siding.

It is not clear exactly what day Laramie phone service began but it was around May 10, 1882. By May 20, there were 50 Laramie subscribers: 10 residences and 40 businesses. “Soon there will be 100 subscribers, “ the ever-enthusiastic Hayford predicted.

The Trabing Brothers store in Laramie ran an ad explaining to customers how to order groceries by phone. First they were to summon the operator by turning the crank on the wall telephone to ring the bell. It then directed the customer to say to the switchboard operator, “Hello, connect me to Trabing,” and then “Hello” again when someone at the store answered. After the order was placed, the customers were instructed to ring their bell twice to signal the operator that they were hanging up. This was all new to people.

First Switchboard

There was one Laramie switchboard at first, with a Miss Brockway as the operator. The rate for phone service was $3 per month—but the phones themselves were rented from a Bell Company subsidiary, a practice that continued long into the next century.

 Miss Brockway was very busy the first week, but after the novelty wore off, the Sentinel predicted that the phone would be used only for legitimate business within town. That first switchboard was in an upstairs room at the original Holliday and Stryker’s store at 300 S. 2nd. This building, known later as the Frazee Building, had been constructed in 1872. It is still standing, though remodeled. The “Works of Wyoming” gallery is on the first floor; KRQU radio station is on the second floor where the switchboard was.

On October 21, 1882, the paper reported: “The telephone line is strung between here and Cheyenne [up newly-named ‘Telephone Canyon’] but is not yet in operation. It probably will be within a day or two.” On October 28, Editor Hayford said: “The telephone is now in operation between here and Cheyenne, and whenever we are sad, or gloomy, or mad, we can ‘hello?’ at the Cheyennese, until it makes us feel better.”

Mr. Arnett’s enterprise became part of the Rocky Mountain Bell Telephone Co. with H.R. Christy as manager. The switchboards stayed in the same building at 300 S. 2nd St., except the business on the first floor changed to Gem City Grocery. But few if any businesses advertised phone numbers until around 1901. Apparently there was no telephone book—operators knew who to connect the caller with by name.

Phone Numbers

By 1908 there were two exchanges; all numbers had a suffix of either “Red” or “Black.” In 1911 the company name changed to Mountain States Telephone & Telegraph Co. and switchboards were moved to the Republican Newspaper Building, at 221 ½ Grand Ave. (upstairs, where Roxie’s restaurant is today).

The first actual telephone book in the LPM collection, as opposed to a city directory of addresses, was published in 1918 by American Telephone & Telegraph Co. (AT&T), which had become the parent of all the Bell System subsidiaries. All Laramie numbers listed had 3 to 5 digits, and most had a suffix such as A, B, J, W, X, or Y.

Pete Lindahl, who started with the Laramie phone company in 1968, says that the letter “A” designated a party line going in one direction from Laramie. The “J“ line went in another direction and so on through the alphabet.  Operators knew which line to plug into when the caller told her the rural dwelling they wanted. There was a code of long and short rings that would let folks know who on the party line should pick up. One of the last party lines that Lindahl remembers in Laramie connected the Don Lamb ranch and the Quadradangle Clubhouse—both located past the northeast edge of town in 1968.   

Laramie phone numbers were in the thousands in 1921, and the suffixes for most were gone—all numbers had 4 digits. On midnight December 17, 1921 Laramie made telephone history.  The phone company switched to a fully-automatic system within town—the first one installed west of the Mississippi.  Lindahl says that was because the company wanted to test the system in a place with the most adverse weather conditions.  If it worked here, it would work anywhere, the company probably thought.  At this point everyone needed a new telephone with a dial and subscribers were trained on how to use it.

Also in 1921, the Ivinson Mansion became a girls’ boarding school. A stone mason scratched his calling card in the wet cement at the back of a fireplace he repaired there that still reads: “Art Mast, Dial 2311.”  At the time, the central telephone office was near the corner of 4th and Grand Ave., about where the Boomerang offices are today.   

In 1926, I.W. Bond was the manager of the Laramie telephone company. The use of telephones by outlying ranches dramatically increased. Even though there was an automatic dialing system in town, to call a ranch, the operator needed to be contacted.

AT&T built a new “repeater station” at 1604 Grand Ave. (a building still standing though adapted for other purposes) sometime around 1930.  Lindahl says this office had nothing to do with phone service in Laramie—it was for the long line cable between Denver and Salt Lake. In the 1936 Polk Directory for Laramie, William H. Cawley is listed as the supervisor.

 “Franklin”

The 1958 Polk Directory at the LPM is the first showing the “Franklin” exchange for all subscriber households except ranches.  All numbers began with FR followed by a 5 and four more digits as in FR5-1234.  In town, users just dialed the 5 and the following 4 digits. But in 1962, Laramie numbers changed to either 745- or 742- and all 7 digits were required when dialing.  The “Franklin” term disappeared.

The current telephone central office is at 8th and Grand Ave. with one employee to maintain the Laramie exchanges. There has been turnover in Laramie phone service providers.  When Lindahl began, it was Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph.  Then came Mountain Bell, US West, Quest and now Century Link.

As those of us with gray hair know, telephone service has changed dramatically.  People without landlines are no longer in a directory unless they make special arrangements, operators are scarce, and a call for repairs may involve a long wait before a real person answers, speaking from who knows where. The Bell system monopoly was broken up by the US government starting with an antitrust suit in 1913 and culminating in 1984 when the various subsidiaries of the Bell system had to become independent companies. 

Editor Hayford, who was so enthusiastic about getting telephones for Laramie, would be blown away by what we have now. As of 2017 there were at least four telephone companies and seven cell phone companies serving Laramie. New technology includes fiber optic cables, satellite phones, even wrist phones. But Hayford did have a vision of the future: “We have the telephone, next comes the electric light and then street cars. . .” he reported in the Sentinel. The lights did come, in 1886, but the street cars never materialized.

By Judy Knight

Caption: Laramie telephone switchboard c. 1908 with five operators, all women, who adhered to a strict dress code for work. Third from left is Eliza O’Conner, second from left is Jessie Tom Stirling, daughter of Sheriff “Scotty” Sterling, and standing is Alice E. Hunt. Photo courtesy of the Laramie Plains Museum.