Hello Central?

The Historians of Hillsdale recently found themselves wondering when the telephone first came to Hillsdale. This information turned out to be a little trickier to find than we imagined, because of the difference between a telephone and a telephone company.

Mr. Bell and his telephone

Recall that in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the first US patent for a device that could transmit and receive intelligible voice communication – the telephone.

Obviously, there were no telephones in Hillsdale (or anywhere else in the United States) prior to 1876. But Bell’s invention spread quickly and in just a few years, phones were common, especially in cities and large towns. But in rural communities like Hillsdale, it took a while for the telephone to become widespread.

Still, as early as 1909, the trade publication Telephony noted the launch of the North Hillsdale & Green River Telephone Company:

“HILLSDALE, N. Y. (Columbia County) The North Hillsdale and Green River Telephone Company has been incorporated with a capital stock of $4500. The incorporators are Edward Harrington (sic), Frank J. Shaw, Frank Mercer, Adam Steuerwald, John P. Gilmore and George De Larmater of Hillsdale; Albert Moore of Austerlitz. Lines will be built through several towns in Columbia county, including Hillsdale and Austerlitz. The eastern terminus will be West Stockbridge, Mass.”

But as we mentioned, there is a difference between a telephone company and a telephone. In fact, the telephone got to Hillsdale 27 years before 1909. The August 3, 1882 issue of the Hillsdale Herald reported:

“Communication by telephone is becoming one of the greatest conveniences of our day, but it is often a long time before an isolated village can secure such advantage. However, it now seems possible for Hillsdale to enjoy such opportunities, which will increase her business in many ways. A line has been in successful operation for about two weeks from West Copake to Copake Flats, with a branch to the Rhinebeck depot, thence to the iron works. Formerly, a telegraph message intended for Copake Flats had to be taken from the wires at the iron works and forwarded by vehicle at considerable expense and delay. Now it is immediately forwarded through the telephone at the nominal price of ten cents and answered at once. This line will soon be extended to Ancram and Ancram Lead Mines, which will increase its business. Hillsdale should at once construct a line to the iron works south, and the state line east, where they can connect with South Egremont and Great Barrington. If Hillsdale will build these two pieces of line, it is more than probable that the Hudson Telephone Company will stretch a line from Hillsdale to Hudson…”

In that era, telephones were directly connected from one place to another, generally between two businesses. If you had a telephone line connected to another business, you could only communicate back and forth. To call someone else, you had to install a second direct line. Obviously, this was an impractical way to build a network, and before long, telephone companies were building centralized switchboards, enabling anybody with a line to talk to anybody else with a line. We’re sure you remember images like this:

(Incidentally, although the electromechanical automatic telephone exchange was invented in 1888, manual switchboards could be found nearly a century later. Hillsdale Historian Lauren had a part time job as a New England Telephone switchboard jockey during high school and college.)

Even though the early proliferation of the telephone was from business to business, residential telephones were not unheard of:

“R. L. Cannon has completed a telephone line from the railroad station to his residence. Efforts are being made to continue the line to North Hillsdale. Cyrenus Tyler is working up the project at that end of the line. The stations [phone locations] at present are at the depot, the Herald office, and Mr. Cannon’s house.” — Hillsdale Herald, July 22, 1880

Richard Cannon was born in 1848 in Maryland and at some point moved to Hillsdale. In the 1890s, he was Hillsdale’s postmaster. The 1900 census lists his occupation as railroad agent, so it makes sense that he installed a phone line between his home and the depot.

Hillsdale Railroad Station

We believe that Mr. Cannon had the first residential telephone in Hillsdale, although given its limited connections, he almost certainly used it mainly for business reasons.

One reason Mr. Cannon’s telephone is remarkable is that it was installed right here in Hillsdale a mere four years after Mr. Bell got his patent for the device.

The advantages of having a telephone were immediately apparent to some business people. This advertisement appeared in the July 3, 1884 issue of the Herald:

The ad reads, “Jas E. Phillip UNDERTAKER. Orders by telegraph to Philmont station, thence by telephone to undertaking office, promptly attended to. Will take entire charge of all arrangements from time of death to interment.”

Although the telephone spread widely and quickly, even in 1940 telephone companies still felt it was necessary to advertise the benefits of long distance phone service:

But as exciting as the arrival of the telephone was to some, not everyone was enthralled. From the February 4, 1910 issue of the Hillsdale Harbinger:

“Mrs. Frost: Who was it that said ‘Peace, Perfect Peace?’
Mr. Frost: Someone whose telephone was out of order.”

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