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Jim McKee: How phones came to Lincoln
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MEMORIES & MOMENTS

Jim McKee: How phones came to Lincoln

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Lincoln Telephone & Telegraph’s first Lincoln building is shown here about 1912 at 229 N. 14th St.

Louis Korty, from Omaha, attended the Centennial International Exhibition in 1876, the first world’s fair, at which exhibits featured new inventions including the typewriter, ketchup and the mechanical calculator.

Lincoln newspapers covered the fair in detail and included a list of the wonders displayed but failed to even mention the first major exposure of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. Louis Korty however took it in completely and set in motion a plan that changed everyday life in Nebraska virtually overnight.

When he returned from Philadelphia, Louis Korty, superintendent of telegraphy for the Union Pacific, immediately ordered two Bell Company telephones and constructed a “live wire” between his Omaha office over the Missouri River to the railroad’s office in Council bluffs. This two-phone connection in 1877 became the first telephone service in Nebraska. The following year Korty obtained a Bell Coompany franchise for five states but only for two-phone systems.

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The first telephones in Lincoln came in 1878, the first a two-phone connection on the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad’s line to Atchison, Kansas, then another two-party service between the Lincoln depot and the Western Union office, which was said to have “worked perfectly.” In September of the following year a two-party connection was made between the State Journal’s newspaper office with its business manager’s home at 16th and M streets.

In November of 1879 Korty and others from Omaha incorporated the Lincoln Telephone Exchange to build an actual multiparty exchange which would make it the first real phone “system” in the capital city and the second in the state.

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In February of 1880 Korty’s firm rented rooms in the Holmes Block on the west side of South 11th Street and began setting poles in the downtown area. That April the exchange opened with 65 telephone subscribers who paid $3 a month for individuals or $4 a month for businesses.

In 1882 the Nebraska Telephone Company incorporated in Omaha utilizing the Bell Company system. In 1888 Nebraska Telephone/Bell Company moved into the Richards Block on the northeast corner of 11th and O streets.

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In 1893 Alexander Graham Bell’s original patents expired, setting the stage for independent telephone companies to form. Nebraska Bell continued to expand, however, and in 1894 hired Omaha architect Thomas R. Kimball to design the three-story, Italian Renaissance, cast-iron fronted, St. Louis pressed brick and terra cotta building, extant on the east side of 13th Street midway between N and O streets.

The building had an elaborate cast iron, enclosed staircase on the north alley side of the building which connected to second floor offices. An internal staircase then connected to the third floor exchange/switchboards while the basement housed an auxiliary power source and incoming wires. The building was completely occupied and running in 1896 while overhead lines in the downtown area were being moved underground.

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In 1900 the Western Independent Long Distance Telephone Co. of Plattsmouth received permission from the City Council to enter Lincoln with a service to compete with the Bell system, but Lincoln’s mayor vetoed the proposition.

In 1903 brothers Charles and Frank Bills began investigating the possibility of establishing an independent telephone company in Lincoln. One of their initial contacts in Lincoln was Frank H. Woods, principally because Woods’ father had been the Bills brothers' teacher in Illinois.

That March 7, Charles Bills, Judge Allen Field and Frank Woods incorporated the Western Union Independent Telephone Company. Two days later a franchise to operate in the city of Lincoln was acquired. That July a contract was signed with the Automatic Electric Company of Chicago and in October, Campbell Brothers of Lincoln were hired to build a two-story plus basement masonry building at 229 S. 14th St. In 1904 the then-renamed Lincoln Telephone Company installed Strowger Automatic Dial Telephones, becoming “one of the first dial phone systems in the country.”

An ad in 1904 claimed the “Automatic Secret Service Telephones reach the greatest number of Lincoln subscribers” in partial answer to the interesting situation wherein Lincoln had two separate telephone companies at the same time, whose subscribers could only reach phones in “their own” system. Some businesses thus ended up with two distinctly different telephone numbers.

The two-company dilemma survived until January of 1912 when the then renamed Lincoln Telephone & Telegraph Co. acquired all Bell telephone assets south of the Platte River in 22 counties from Nebraska (Bell) and gave up their own holdings north of the Platte. LT & T issued a check, the largest drawn in Nebraska to that date, for $2,293,000 for the excess property received in their portion. The acquisition included the South 13th Street building meaning LT & T had two buildings in the city, but there was now only one telephone company.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com

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