Wires in the Sky: A Short History of Telephone Service in Bozeman

Rachel Phillips 

Today, nearly everyone has a telephone tucked into their pocket. These amazing machines are not only capable of making a phone call, but with the touch of a button they provide convenient access to online banking, social media, and entertainment. It’s hard to imagine that only 140 years ago Bozeman boasted its first telephone exchange and operator service—the past’s version of today’s cell phone network.

As white settlers moved west in the mid-19th century, they searched for a reliable means of communication with family members, businesses and suppliers back East. Various methods arose, including Pony Express mail delivery, telegraphs, and eventually telephones. By the early 1880s, several telephone exchanges had already emerged in the new territories of the American West. Two giants, American Bell Telephone Company and Western Union Telegraph Company, competed for telephone business until American Bell bought out Western Union interests. Utah-based Rocky Mountain Bell Telephone Company was established in 1883 to consolidate the telephone exchanges in Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming.

In early 1884, the Rocky Mountain Bell Telephone Company created the Bozeman Telephone Exchange, which, according to early reports, provided service to 24 customers (likely mostly businesses). Its longest line was a connection to Fort Ellis, which ran 2 ½ miles east of town. A Rocky Mountain Bell Telephone Company report in 1886 noted that Bozeman had “32 circuits, 8 ½ miles of wire, one employee and 8 residents and 26 business subscribers.” Foreshadowing what was to come, the report also noted: “Prospects for business bad.” 

Unfortunately, telephone use didn’t increase as rapidly as expected and the exchange shut down in 1889. It took a few more years, but it did reopen permanently in 1896, partly thanks to the availability of long-distance service. Customers increased, and before 1910, a new building was constructed at 23 North Tracy Avenue (today home of the Cateye Café).

A second exchange company soon emerged in Bozeman, called the Home Telephone Company. According to the 1908 Bozeman Polk City Directory, the Home Telephone office was located in the National Bank of Gallatin Valley building on the northwest corner of Main Street and Tracy Avenue—a stone’s throw from the Bozeman Telephone Exchange at 23 North Tracy. 

Home Telephone Company managers and officers were local businessmen. President J. M. Flint was manager of the Flint-Lynn Lumber Co., Vice President John H. Dawes worked in the real estate and insurance business, Treasurer R. Emmett Brown was a cashier at the National Bank of Gallatin Valley, and Secretary and Manager John S. Haley was a Montana rancher. John S. Haley’s son John Jr. continued in his father’s footsteps and later celebrated a long career with Mountain Bell Telephone Company. Despite its talented management team, Home Telephone was short-lived. By 1911, the Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company acquired the Bozeman Telephone Exchange and the Home Telephone Company and continued operations out of the building at 23 North Tracy. 

Telephone technology and infrastructure continued to expand, and on December 10, 1926, Bozeman had the distinction of being the completion site of the final link in the Northern Transcontinental Toll Line. This rambling telephone line stretched from Chicago to Seattle (including 700 miles across Montana), and the final connections were made in downtown Bozeman, directly behind the Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph building on North Tracy.

Advanced as the initial telephone technology seemed at the time, it still required skilled human operators. Ina Christie Denton of Bridger Canyon worked as a telephone operator from 1933 to 1974 and witnessed dramatic changes in telephone technology throughout her career. When she first began work as an operator, the Bozeman area was still using hand-cranked magneto telephones and switchboards that used magnets to generate an alternating current. Switchboard operation required manually connecting plugs into appropriate jacks to connect calls.

Party lines allowed multiple households to share one phone line, and each family had their own assigned ring. Ina described the configuration in Bridger Canyon in a 1975 oral history interview: “One [phone line] was a 7-F line which went up to the Upper Bridger School…Each home had a separate ring. My parents’ number was 7F14—that meant one long and four [short] rings. The Shooks’ number was 7F5—that was five short rings. The Gallup family had 7F11, which was one long and one short.” 

Sharing a phone line meant that every time a call was put through to one of the households, phones rang in every house. The ring pattern indicated which household the call was intended for. Ina relates, “And everybody heard everyone else’s ring. We would ring one long ring for central. That was the operator. The operator would answer, ‘Operator,’ and then connect with who they wished.”

As one can imagine, party lines created the perfect opportunity to listen in on neighborhood gossip. There was nothing to stop anyone on the line from eavesdropping on conversations, and in her 1975 interview, Ina Denton confirms that this pastime was “quite a hobby.” “Everybody at times would do it,” she said, “to find out certain things and the local affairs, but it did cut down the hearing.” The more people listening in, the lower the volume, so at times people did have an inkling that others were eavesdropping.

The speed with which telephone operators could work was truly amazing. Connecting callers required quick thinking, fast fingers and excellent communication skills. Cecelia Morey, another career telephone operator like Ina Denton, started her job at the Montana State College Telephone Exchange in 1924. At that time, she was the sole operator, approximately 100 calls came through her switchboard each day, and she would cheerfully connect callers with their desired party. For a typical 8-hour workday, that worked out to about 13 calls every hour. An article in the October 3, 1947 issue of the Bozeman Courier newspaper featured Cecelia Morey, who was still at work in MSC’s telephone exchange office but now joined by two other operators. The trio processed 600 phone calls each day—approximately 25 calls per operator per hour.

During emergencies, switchboards faced floods of calls and work accelerated to a fevered pace that could wear down even the most seasoned operator. In 1925, western Gallatin County was hit with a large earthquake that measured 6.75 on the Richter scale. The quake was felt throughout Montana, Idaho and Wyoming and thousands of calls lit up switchboards across the region. According to a newspaper article titled “Excited Persons Cause of Terrific Telephone Strain,” several Butte operators fainted on the job while trying to keep up. Normally, Butte telephone operators expected about 6,200 calls per hour, but that evening the switchboard overloaded with 25,000 calls every sixty minutes. An emergency crew of 28 operators was brought in to help.

Some “emergencies” turned out to be false alarms, but that didn’t stop callers. Cecelia Morey recalled one morning when the college heating plant whistle awakened sleepy students from their beds at 7:30 am. The cause turned out to be related to a stopped engineer’s clock, but the unusual event prompted a flood of calls to the MSC Telephone Exchange. The 1947 Bozeman Courier printed Cecelia’s recollection of that event with a creative analogy. “That time and at other times when some unusual happening at the college demanded more than one operator, Mrs. Morey pulled plugs from the board faster than the cash register rings in a cafeteria.”

Telephone operators provided an essential service for several decades, until technology for direct dialing became available in Bozeman in the mid-1950s. On the night of January 15, 1956, officials switched the local Bozeman system from operator-assisted to direct-dial. According to an article in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle on March 29, 1983, on the night of the switchover, local radio station KXLQ was broadcasting live from the new Mountain States Telephone Company building at 114 South Willson Avenue. The radio broadcast was using phone lines for transmission that evening. Apparently, the wrong lines were cut in the switchover and radio reporting of the event went silent. This episode likely left listeners scratching their heads, wondering if a more automated system was indeed a good idea. Despite the embarrassment, the switch was a success, and by 1968, direct long-distance dialing was available in Bozeman.

We’ve come a long way since January 1884, when the first telephone poles and wires were installed around town. At that time, the new technology must have been unfathomable to some, who in the 1860s had waited months to receive letters from family back east. Evidence of the telephone’s novelty is illustrated well in the January 16, 1884 issue of The Bozeman Weekly Chronicle, where editors felt compelled to print this cautionary suggestion: “Persons are warned against stepping into the holes dug for the telephone poles.”   

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