While AT&T transformed nationwide communication with its transcontinental telephone line, the line also brought change and business opportunities to small communities like Tooele.
At first, locals didn’t see the need for this newfangled communication device, and when Deseret Telegraph first offered telephone services in Tooele in 1878, less than 100 individuals subscribed, according to Mary Helen Parsons, a contributor to the Daughters of Utah Pioneer’s “History of Tooele County.” A long-distance line was extended to Tooele County in the early 1880s, and shortly after a telephone was installed at the Honerine Mine in Stockton, but the telephone wouldn’t come to Tooele city until George Atkin had one installed at the Tooele Co-op Store in the 1890s.
Before long, a telephone exchange was built at 129 North Main Street to direct calls within the city. The office was equipped with hand-operated crank ringing switchboards. Callers would first summon one of the operators, who were referred to as “centrals” or “hello girls.” These women would then build a circuit for the call by hand. More than half a dozen operators ran the office, which was open 24-7, year round. (Although service was interrupted somewhat after 10 p.m. during 1910 when the office was relocating to another Main Street building.)
After 1916, the Tooele Telephone Exchange extended its services to Grantsville and other outlying communities. According to Parsons, some of the operators soon caught on to a few romantic schemes that involved cross-county love calls at the same time each night. Other operators managed to make a spectacle of themselves after discovering that telephone wire could also be used to curl hair.
“What an impressive, striking group of operators we must have been, with hair all done up in wire, when Mr. Campbell, district manager, and his dignitaries walked in to make an official call,” Parsons wrote. Special attention was, of course, given to calls for or from emergency personnel. In 1920, a new fire alarm system was installed, allowing the operator to signal the fire department at the touch of a button whenever a fire was reported.
Two Tooele operators would eventually receive medals for their heroics, but this age of telephone glory was to be short lived. According to AT&T, switching began to move toward automation by the 1920s, and by the 1940s a single individual could operate an entire switchboard.