Telephone operators work at the American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) station in Phoneton in Bethel Township, Miami County, Ohio
(Photos courtesy of the Troy Historical Society)
"Some Miami County residents say that at one time, all long distance calls made in the United States passed through Phoneton"
Phoneton - The Village Founded by a Phone Company
By Judy Deeter
PHONETON - At the intersection of U.S. Route 40 and State Route 202 in Miami County is the Village of Phoneton. The village name provides a clue to its past. It was first named Phonetown. It was a community founded by a telephone company and its name and story are part of American telecommunication history.
To fully appreciate the history of Phoneton, one should know a little bit about American telephone history—the story of technology in the days of our great-grandparents.
Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, and in 1876 and 1877 he secured U.S. patents for his invention. In 1877, the Bell Telephone Company was formed. During the first two decades of the company, the patents secured by Mr. Bell meant that only the Bell Telephone Company could provide telephone service to the U.S. market. When his second patent expired in 1894, other telephone companies—nearly 6,000—went into business. The number of telephones in the United States jumped from a little under 300,000 to over 3,300,000. New areas of the country were wired for telephone service and previously wired areas got new telephone company competition.
There were two problems in those early years: people could not call across the United States and they couldn’t call people who subscribed to other telephone companies. In 1885, American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation was incorporated as a subsidiary of the Bell Telephone Company. American Telephone and Telegraph’s mission was outlined in its 1885 corporate charter— "to connect America with telephone service."
Starting in New York, it would (according to the charter): “Connect one or more points in each and every city, town or place in New York with one or more points in every other city, town or place in said State and in each and every other of the United States, Canada and Mexico; and in each and every other city, town or place in said states and countries, and also by cable and appropriate means with the rest of the world.” By 1899, the company was well on its way to achieving its goal and in that year it acquired the assets of its parent company, the Bell Telephone Company. Suddenly, the Bell Telephone Company became the subsidiary of its former subsidiary American Telephone and Telegraph!
It should be noted that because of this reversal of positions between the Bell Telephone Company and American Telephone and Telegraph, historians differ over which company founded Phoneton. Most agree, however, that after 1899 site was known as an American Telephone & Telegraph facility. Use of the letters “AT&T” for the company name occurred in later years; the letters became the official company name in 1994.
The first long distance line, which connected New York with Chicago, opened in October 1892, but it was difficult to use. It could handle only one call at a time and the cost was $9 for the first five minutes.
At about the same time that the first long distance line was established, Bethel Township was chosen to be the location of an American Telephone and Telegraph repeater station. A repeater was a vacuum tube amplifier, and its purpose here was to boost transmission for company “long-line” cables between Pittsburgh and St. Louis. In 1893 the company established a test station in a Bethel Township Grange hall. (The hall was at the northeast corner of U.S. Route 40 and State Route 202.)
It was from this Grange hall test station that the village began in 1894.
At first, the village was known as Tadmor—the location of the nearest post office (even though Tadmor was not close to the test facility and its employees). This little village, which began without a proper name or post office, eventually became the hub of American long-distance communication. The village site became the junction of the company’s main lines: Detroit-Cincinnati (sometimes referred to as Maumee, Ohio-Cincinnati), Pittsburgh-St. Louis and Point Pleasant, West Virginia-Marion, Indiana. Some Miami County residents say that at one time, all long distance calls made in the United States passed through Phoneton.
People came from near and far to work for the company. Some came from the eastern United States; others came from local farms. In 1896, telephone company employee George T. Parsons built a ten-room house for his family and telephone company guests.
Employees of the phone company and the former 3-story building located on the corner of St. Rt. 202 & US 40.
By 1899, the village had grown enough to have its own post office. As part of the establishment of a post office, a village name was needed. Through the efforts of former Ohio State Congressman N.H. Albaugh, the village was named Phonetown in honor of the American Telephone and Telegraph operations. Almost as soon as it was named, it was re-named Phoneton. An old story states that Albaugh decided to change the name because he thought the name Phoneton sounded more “musical” than Phonetown.
Telephone operations expanded in 1898 with the construction of an “Exchange Building”. The building was completed and the exchange operation began in 1901. (A telephone exchange was the district office for a specified area.) The exchange at Phoneton was one of the company’s largest at the time. It employed about 40 people at the peak of operations (including 25 operators). Soon after the completion of the building, it was moved south; a new three-story building was constructed on in its place and occupied and in 1902.
The work done at Phoneton was described in an article “Old Building at Phoneton Important Part of Early History”. The article contains a quote from the SPRINGFIELD SUNDAY NEWS, June 1, 1919.
"In this building, every minute of the day and night, there ticks the ceaseless tapping of hundreds of telegraph instruments. Here on the second floor, North and South and East and West meet over the wires—to exchange messages through the long distance telephone. Through the wires, both telephone and telegraph, there pass almost momentarily the heart throbs of a great nation, the joys and sorrows of a great people and the finance and business plans of a nation…."
The article continues:
"As a number of Tipp City people can still recount, it was a very vital place indeed. There was indeed a steady “click, click, click” of telegraph keys from the third floor. Not only did they handle personal and business messages, but press reports for the Associated Press, United Press and International News service were handled. It was estimated that ‘practically all the news of the world hums over the wires which pass through the Phoneton office."
The Phoneton American Telephone and Telegraph building had three floors; one floor of the building stands today and is occupied by a lawnmower repair business.
The top floor was the location telegraph and switching center. Here there was a constant clicking of telegraph keys sending personal news and the latest news worldwide. In the 1970s, Daisie Parsons Snell recalled the days of her youth working summers at the Phoneton office and running messages between the telegraph third floor and the long distance center on the second floor.
On the second floor, operators were responsible for 120 circuits that connected New York to California. It should be noted that America’s first transcontinental telephone call was a ceremonial call made January 25, 1915. The call went through Phoneton. It connected New York City, San Francisco, the White House in Washington, D.C. and Jekyll Island, Georgia. In the 1977 MIAMI VALLEY NEWS story by Judy Parr it states:
"(Ray) Parsons remembers that in 1915 the Phoneton transmission station played an important part in the first coast to coast telephone communications. He monitored the circuit when for the first time people listening on telephones could hear the waves of the Pacific Ocean at Seattle, the waves of the Atlantic at Miami, and then at Portland Maine. That event, says Parsons, was a big thrill for the industry."
The first floor housed generators to power the equipment.
Emergency equipment was also available in time of bad weather—snows and storms. It certainly was used in the spring of 1913.
In March 1913, one of the greatest floods in Ohio history struck Dayton and the Miami Valley. (The scope of the flood can be said to be Ohio’s version of Hurricane Katrina.) It was through Phoneton that information about the flood damage was transmitted to the world, then-Ohio Governor Cox passed it on to relief agencies. In Chapter III of the book STORY OF THE GREAT FLOOD AND CYCLONE DISASTERS (Thomas H. Russell, Editor, 1913) it states:
"It remained for two girls to be the chief giving to the world the news of the first day of the flood. Both were operators but on different lines. One a telephone operator in the main exchange of Dayton, flashed the last tidings that came out of the stricken city by telephone Wednesday and also gave news to Governor Cox, which enabled the executive to grasp the situation and start the rescue work."
The other was the telegraph operator at Phonetown, eight miles north of Dayton, who served as relay for the other girl. Both stood at their posts as long as the wires held and the young woman at Phonetown, Mrs. Rena White Eakin worked all day and night.
G.T. Parsons and E.C. Eidmiller, employees at the American Telephone and Telegraph Station, arrived in Dayton, trying to get communication with the adjutant generals office to request much-need aid.
Carl D. Williamson, a senior “repeater man” for American Telephone and Telegraph has also been cited for his work during the disaster.
These telephone employees were considered heroes of the 1913 Dayton flood.
During World War I, news went from the battlefronts to the home fronts by way of Phoneton.
Miami County residents still tell stories of family members who worked for American Telephone and Telegraph at Phoneton. THE OHIO GUIDE states “Old-timers recall that the company used to run two-horse and four-horse stages to near-by (sic) Tippecanoe City to transport the 40 or 50 operators.” Other sources refer to an 11-passenger bus that also transported employees between Tippecanoe City (now Tipp City) and Phoneton.
Old photos show female Phoneton telephone were operators beautifully dressed—long dresses or skirts, white blouses and once in a while a tie. Their hair piled high on their heads or wound tightly at the back of the head. These operators were known as the “Hello Girls” or “Central.” The “girls” retired when they married (married women were not allowed to work as operators).
By 1936 operations at Phoneton were closed and Dayton took over the work of Phoneton.
The village of Phoneton is pretty quiet these days. Only one floor now remains of the “powerful” three-story American Telephone & Telegraph building. Though the place that was once “the news service of the world” is mostly forgotten, the work that was done there is a part of American telecommunication history and the name Phoneton continues to give a clue to the area’s history.