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December 23, 2009 > History: Early Telecommunications

History: Early Telecommunications

Samuel Morse sent his first public telegraph in 1844. By 1856 there were 40 miles of telegraph lines in Alameda County. Historian William Halley recorded that an unusual storm hit the area in August 1862. Lightning struck a telegraph wire at Centerville and exploded the magnet in the telegraph office there making a report like that of a musket. This is the first report we have of a telegraph system in Washington Township.

Mission San Jose had a telegraph system in the 1870's. The office was in the Ehrman-Bachman store. The fire that destroyed the town in 1884 disrupted service, but repairs were made and operations continued.

A "spirit of telegraphic enterprise" was reported in Irvington in 1876 when the young people connected eight private stations with the necessary wires. They were learning the art of modern telegraph methods. The telegraph office was moved from the local newspaper office, The Independent, and reopened in Clark Bros. Store with L. E. Crow, manager. J. N. Saxe was the operator in 1879.

Telegraph offices moved around frequently in these early days. The Irvington office was later moved from the IOOF Building to the Mack building. A new telegraph was reported at the railroad depot in 1878. The next year they put lines from Stokes store and Fadey's house to the railroad depot. Ten years later it was reported that the Western Union office was at Washington College.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, and it soon replaced the telegraph for many people. In some cases telegraph facilities were converted for telephone use.

By 1880 Hayward had a local branch line south to Mission San Jose. The first office here was in the Briscoe General Store in 1897. E. J. Briscoe had the only telephone listed in the directory. The Standard Electric Company established an office here two years later. Joseph Turner was the agent in 1904 with the number Main 31. Two phones were added by 1907 with numbers Black 21 and Black 31.

The Hayward paper reported in 1884 that a line had been extended to Irvington, but the first public telephone was not operational until 1898. The office was in N. L. Babb's store and he was the agent. By 1904 Irvington had seven phones while Decoto had three, Alvarado and Centerville had 15 each and Newark and Mission San Jose only one each. It was reported that Josiah Stanford had the only phone in Warm Springs. Mrs. L. Bes was the agent in 1897. Niles had the most with 20. The company had to double the capacity of the switchboard in 1911 besides running a number of local extensions.

Residents pleaded with the telephone company in 1913 for a central office in the township. They complained about the uneven monthly rental fee whether there were five phones as in Decoto or 79 as in Niles. The charge was 10 cents a minute for a local call. Requests for improved service by residents of the towns in 1914 are interesting. Newark and Irvington subscribers wanted the exchange open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. while Mission San Jose wanted a direct line to Niles without switching through Irvington. Warm Springs had to switch through San Jose so they wanted a direct connection to towns in Washington Township. Centerville business had outgrown the plan and a new office was needed. The company fitted a separate room for new operators, Irvin Lewis and Miss Inez Silva, in 1916. They also inaugurated 24 hour service at that time. Customers continued to complain and service gradually improved through the years. New systems helped solve problems with long distance calls.

Civic groups continued to push for a Washington Township telephone exchange so inter-town calls could be made without going through the Hayward office, but this service had to wait until traffic justified the expense. For a long time telephones were largely a business tool, but with growth they also became a social one. An outcome of the haphazard growth was the need to share lines in some areas. The "party line" system required that a household share a line with another - at times two or three! Party line users were often annoyed when their line partners refused to get off the phone when they wanted to use it and especially upset when they felt the other party was eavesdropping on a conversation.

Some readers will remember the coming of new exchanges. Until the late 40's all phones were activated by a hard crank. Dial phones were introduced gradually, and customers needed to use OL (Oliver) or SY (Sycamore) plus a number to reach their party. Oliver was used in the south township, Sycamore farther north and Greenleaf in the current Union City area. The departure of the last hand crank in the township was accompanied by much fanfare in Irvington in 1955. Physician E. M. Grimmer had had the same number since 1909! Phones had come a long way in the previous 50 years. No one could have imagined their progress in the subsequent 50 years!

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