Bolton’s Telephone History

by Larry Larned, town historian
(Published in the Bolton Community News, June 1992–October 1993)

Chapter 1.

Prior to 1902, Bolton's only method of contacting the outside world, other than the U.S. Mail, was by Union Telegraph at the Bolton Notch railroad station. The station agent would take your handwritten message and, for a fee, transmit it by dots and dashes using a telegraph key, over the wires of the Western Union Telegraph Company.

Telephone technology reached Bolton during 1902 when the independent Bolton and Coventry Telephone Association was formed. A switchboard and telephone office were located in the "1799 House" across from what is the present Bolton Post Office. By 1910, the B&C Company served 32 customers in the busy Bolton Notch area. Its founders were impatient for telephone service while the Southern New England Telephone Company was busy constructing lines and exchanges in the more populated areas of Connecticut.

Chapter 2.

Responding to similar requests for telephone service in remote areas, SNET adopted an alternate system. Small groups of rural subscribers were granted "sublicenses" under which they capitalized and built their own systems, while SNET sublet instruments to them. Agreements of this kind were made with groups in Bolton and Coventry in 1902 and in Lebanon, Huntington and Orange in 1903.

Telephone service during this era was a far cry from what we take for granted today. Party lines, with up to 13 subscribers each, and handcranked magneto phones were common. Long distance calls required four operators including one at Bolton Notch, two in Manchester, and one at the destination exchange.

Since electricity hadn't made its debut in Bolton yet, telephone poles were—telephone poles. Set 40 to the mile and made of chestnut from the remaining stands on local farms, the telephone poles carried bare copper wires called "open wire" on pony glass insulators. Until 1912 the only telephone service in Bolton was located at the Notch and in Quarryville.

Meanwhile, a national effort took place following the 1909 inauguration of President William Howard Taft. A snow and ice storm had isolated Washington during his inauguration. Wire communication was totally disrupted between Washington and Boston. President Taft ordered the construction of the Boston-Washington underground conduit, containing long distance cables, to ensure the nation's defense. It was constructed between the two cities by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.

This great communications achievement was constructed through Bolton under the present U.S. Route 44 during 1911. Hard to find? Not at all! An access point to the conduit still exists in the parking lot adjacent to the Bolton Post Office. And 30 years later, during 1941, an event occurred in Bolton that disrupted the very service that President Taft had promoted since his inauguration.

Chapter 3.

During 1911 the Southern New England Telephone company (SNET) purchased the Bolton and Coventry Telephone Association and discontinued the local Bolton exchange. Bolton residents already receiving telephone service were then placed in SNET's Manchester exchange.

The big breakthrough for expanded telephone service to Bolton occurred during 1912 when Dr. Charles F. Sumner, Bolton's resident physician, and William C. White, who operated White's General Store at Bolton Center, each paid $25 to SNET for setting poles and stringing wires from Middle Turnpike to the Bolton Green area.

A glance at the 1913 telephone directory for Connecticut reveals all of six pages for Manchester and 60 listings for Bolton! Let's take a look...

Eugenio Allirotti 246-4 G. F. Hellberg 246-5 J. H. Massey 35-5
Frederic Atkins 144-2 E. I. Hotchkiss 145-2 J. F. Milburn 35-14
M C. Baker 117-2 Marvin Howard 144-12 A. L. Oliver 265-12
Kingsley Barrows 265-3 John Hughes 266-13 Rev. Harold Pattison 144-23
C. R. Belden 144-12 Calvin Hutchinson 36-4 James Phelps 247-3
Luigi Boero 246-14 Bende Johnson 266-5 Charles Pinney 246-12
Bolton R.R. Station 266-2 J. F. LaChapell 145-5 Waldo Rice 144-13
F. W. Buckland 104-6 Everett Lathrop 145-15 Carlos Ruggles 247-4
Rev. C. W. Burt 117-12 Louis Lenti 246-3 William Sanford 104-5
Cary Carpenter 247-2 Charles Long 265-14 E. A. Shaw 266-12
Stephen Cavagnaro 35-24 C. N. Loomis 35-6 A. N. Skinner 141-13
Lydia Clark 246-13 F. L. Loomis 246-6 Helena Stirling 144-4
Paul Clement 106-6 Jared A. Loomis 246-2 Frank Strong 117-3
James Connors 145-4 William H. Loomis 35-12 John W. Summer 35-2
T. D. Daly 106-2 Myron Maine 144-5 Dr. Charles F. Sumner 247-12
Katherine Doane 145-14 Nathan Maine 145-13 J. White Sumner 247-5
J. P. Fanning 145-12 Dr. T. H. Mann 144-3 J. H. Thompson 141-3
George L. Fish 104-14 O. E. Mannel 104-12 W. C. White 35-3
Pio Gagliardone 246-23 G. Marchesini 109-12 John Wittman 145-13
Joseph Hebenstreet 35-23 William Martin 104-3 Samuel Woodward 266-3

Notice how strange the numbers look. During this period of telephone technology, a person's number included the line number and the number of rings. The dash represented the word "ring." Therefore, W. C. White's telephone number was 35 ring 3. This indicated a party line, since the number of rings was assigned to only one party, but the line number was shared by up to 13 parties. W. C. White shared line 35 with seven other users. When his telephone rang, he listened for three rings. If his phone rang with one short and two long rings he knew the call was for William H. Loomis. No private lines existed in Bolton during 1913, but the town was served by 13 party lines.

Toll calls cost the same both day and night with five minutes conversation at a flat rate. Toll charges included 10 cents to Hartford, 15 cents to Simsbury, and 25 cents to all other exchanges in the state.

Chapter 4.

The former subscribers to the Bolton and Coventry Telephone Association and the new subscribers hooked up during 1912 received the same telephone instruments being used in Manchester. They were black upright telephones called "candlesticks." Children delighted in taking the receiver off the hook and holding it against the mouthpiece. This caused a very loud noise on the party line and created a feedback effect when another phone on the party line was being used.

A wire connected the candlestick phone to a ringer box on the wall, which included a pair of bells on the front and a ringer crank on the side. The large oak wall telephones normally seen in rural areas didn't play a major role in Bolton's telephone history.

When your phone rang, you listened for your designated number of rings, that is the number of long and short rings, to see if the call was for you. And when life was dull, you might just pick up your receiver and "listen in" on a call that you knew was for one of your neighbors!

As more and moer Bolton residents had telephones installed, they became better informed at a faster rate. As AT&T ads of this era proclaimed: "Mail is quick, telegraph is quicker; but long distance telephone is instantaneous." The telephone office in Manchester became a general center of information and soon Bolton residents owning telephones became accustomed to calling the familiar number 25, the information operator, for details about such matters as the locations of fires, the arrivals and departures of railroad trains, the results of sports events, and the latest weather reports. The telephone became what the computer is today: an information system.

Chapter 5.

As word spread that having a telephone meant it was possible to call nearly anyone in business, education, the military, government, the church, as well as friends and neighbors, Bolton residents were enthusiastic about having more poles and lines installed for additional service to the town. By 1920 our town had over 180 listings in the Manchester section of the Connecticut telephone directory. This number swelled to over 800 listings by 1930.

Meanwhile, in Manchester, a great surge in new subscribers prompted the construction of a new telephone exchange building on East Center Street. Its construction came at a time when dial service was being introduced to Connecticut's cities. The new building was designed to accommodate dial switching equipment, and by 1929 all telephone subscribers in the Manchester exchange, including Bolton, had dial service. Gone were the days when a twist of the crank produced a friendly operator saying, "Number please."

While town residents soon took local telephone service for granted, people along the East Coast had taken dependable long distance calling for granted since 1911, when the Boston-Washington conduit was completed through peaceful Bolton. This changed abruptly on June 10, 1941.

Very suddenly, the Bolton Lake Dam broke, sending millions of gallons of water crashing down Hop Brook toward Route 44 and the small bridge near St. George's Episcopal Church. The bridge, although badly damaged, held. But the Route 44 approaches to the bridge were completely wiped out, as were the telephone cables connecting Boston to New York. Normal long distance telephone service ceased between the two cities. Both the New York Times and the Boston Globe ran stories about the event, putting Bolton, Connecticut, on the map.

Chapter 6.

During the fall nights of 1991, Bolton residents and airplane pilots, too, noticed new lights over Bolton. Centered in the northern end of town and visibly red, the lights pinpointed a new era of telephone technology.

Actually, some residents were already using the new technology called "cellular" before the new lights shone over Bolton, but with limited results.

Just off Vernon Road and .8 miles from the birthplace of Bolton's first and only exchange in the 1799 House, stands a 280-foot steel tower erected by Mountain Top Enterprises. Completed during October 1991, the tower is a shared facility for two competing providers of cellular telephone service: Southern New England Telephone Cellular and Bell Atlantic Mobile.

The cellular site in Bolton is one of 80 in Connecticut. It serves not only the town of Bolton but Vernon as well, and in today's world, roamer traffic. Roamer traffic? Just a term for vehicles with cellular telephones passing through the local region, such as from New York to Boston on Interstate 84.

What does all this mean for Bolton? Basically, we are no longer tethered to land wires. We have the option of being able to fully communicate with anybody at any time in any place in today's mobile society. Many of us are deciding whether to become cellular subscribers and deal with additional intrusion into our lives--just as Bolton residents in 1912 were deciding whether to hook up and become tied to the Manchester exchange...and to the rest of the world by wire.