The Hometown History column is presented by the Fenton History Center and The Post-Journal. Each Friday, a distinct item from the Fenton History Center collections or archival special collections will be featured. Learn about your hometown history through parts of its past.
If one of the items featured brings back some memories or brings up a question, please contact the Fenton History Center at 664-6256 or firstname.lastname@example.org to share your memory or get an answer to your question.
The history of the telephone in Jamestown encompasses many stories.
The bronze sign from the Jamestown Telephone Corporation building that still stands on Fourth at Prendergast.
Until the invention of the telegraph, first put in use in 1844, communication was effectively inseparable from transportation. There were experiments over the ages with smoke signals, cannon blasts and mirrors. France set up a national network of semaphores in 1792 and Sweden had one operating until 1880, but they were impractically slow, expensive, and limited to daylight hours. The invention of the electro-magnetic telegraph marked the first of many times electricity remade the world.
The next logical step was the telephone. It wasn't too difficult to invent the earpiece, but the mouthpiece or microphone was more of a challenge. And unlike the telegraph which could jump across limitless miles, at least on land, by use of relays, the telephone's reach was limited to a few miles until after 1906 when the amplifier tube was invented.
Alexander Graham Bell famously invented the telephone in 1876 although he did not have a practical instrument until a year later. On Jan. 28, 1878, music was somehow transmitted over telegraph wires from Jamestown to Warren in an experiment by some local enthusiasts. On the same day, the first commercial switchboard in the world began operating in New Haven, Conn.
Chapin Hall hired Clarence Gifford to run a phone line from his Jamestown store to his Busti home. Gifford made the phones, set the poles, and ran the wire and finished the job by Aug. 1, 1879.
The usual version of Jamestown telephone history starts four months later on Nov. 28, when the Jamestown Telephone Exchange was organized in the Hatch and Preston Drug Store, 9 E. Third St. Gifford was again hired, and the first call was made Feb. 18, 1880.
The business history of telephone service in Jamestown is long and complex and can be followed in several references in our files and on our shelves and elsewhere. Very briefly, in 1890 the New York and Pennsylvania Telephone & Telegraph Company, part of the Bell System, came in and absorbed the local Jamestown Telephone Exchange. In 1902, four years after Bell's patents expired, the Home Telephone Company formed and two years later, it brought in John H. Wright (1867-1951), one of the strongest and most colorful figures in Jamestown history.
Telephones were largely confined to business settings in the early years. Many Jamestown stores and industries had two phones, one connected to each system because the systems were not connected to each other. After 17 years, the Home Telephone, with the aid of some political manipulations, bought out the Bell interests.
The rapidly growing local company broke ground for its large and showy, ultra-modern Art Deco building on Fourth Street just three months before the stock market crash that brought on the Great Depression. Not only growing demand but rapidly advancing technology had dictated the creation of new facilities.
The 39-by-20 1/2 inch, 71-pound bronze plaque in our collection proudly proclaimed the identity and location of the Jamestown Telephone Corporation. The name had been adopted in May 1919 when the company achieved its local monopoly status. The plaque was set just below eye level on the southwest corner of the building.
The Jamestown Telephone Corporation remained independent until July 1968 when it was acquired by Mid-Continent Telephone Corporation of Hudson, Ohio. It still operated independently until 1976 when Mid-Continent merged it with another Mid-Continent subsidiary, Midstate Telephone Corporation.
In 1983 Mid-Continent itself merged with Allied Telephone Company of Little Rock, Ark. The new combination took the name "Alltel" effective Jan. 1, 1984. It was then the bronze sign came down and was presented by Gary Walker, vice president of operations, to the Fenton Society. Alltel shucked off its conventional telephone business which went together with Valor Telecom and began operating under the name Windstream in 2006.
Today a modern but palpably impermanent plastic sign bears the modernistic Windstream logo in the former location of the heavy old bronze Jamestown Telephone plaque. In the age of bronze, corporations strove for immortality. In the age of plastic, they concentrate on immediate advantage and their identities merge, fragment and transform like quicksilver. Our artifact reveals more than what is inscribed on its face.
The purpose of the Fenton History Center is to gather and teach about southern Chautauqua County's history through artifacts, ephemeral and oral histories, and other pieces of the past.
Visit www.fentonhistorycenter.org for more information on upcoming events.
If you would like to donate to the collections or support the work of the Fenton History Center, call 664-6256 or visit the center at 67 Washington St., just south of the Washington Street Bridge.