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Observance of the Campau Centennial naturally brings to mind the fact that this year is the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell. Like the city, its first telephone system has a very humble beginning. In the early stages of the development of the telephone instrument, two samples of that marvelous conveyor of speech were brought here and connected, more in an experimental way than for any other purpose or reason, and were the city's first telephones, the beginning of the Grand Rapids exchange. Those first two telephones were given by the inventor himself to his friend, J. W. Converse, who brought them to Grand Rapids, where he held considerable real estate and was an owner of extensive plaster quarries.

The first pair of telephones were connected with a telegraph line extending from the plaster company's office, over 16 Monroe avenue, and the plaster mill, at the quarries on the west side. The line was owned by the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern railroad.

Great was the excitement on the evening of October 30, 1877, when the new instruments were tested. There were doubters among the little company gathered at each end of that first telephone line in western Michigan. Few had heard of the telephone; fewer believed it was possible, by means of these curious contrivances, to talk any distance over a piece of solid wire; none, excepting William S. Hovey, who connected the instruments, believed the experiment would prove successful.

Mr. Hovey had secured a license from Dr. Bell for the use of the patent in Grand Rapids, and even he was somewhat skeptical of the practical value of the telephone as an instrument to supplant the foot messenger or the telegraph of that day, although his first experiment did succeed.

Late in 1878 the Telephone & Telegraph Construction company, which had just opened an exchange in Detroit, appointed Samuel Watson, a telegraph operator, "telephone manager" at Grand Rapids and opened an exchange June 1, 1876, in the Lovett building, over 12 Canal (Monroe) street, with 21 subscribers. The first telephone call was from the firm of Curtis & Dunton, at 17 Canal street, to the Rathbun house, Monroe and Market avenues.

Grand Rapids was progressive half a century ago and quickly saw the practical value of the telephone. Its business men were much liver than those of many larger metropolitan centers, and within two weeks after the first exchange opened the 21 subscribers had grown to 65. June 15, 1879, the first telephone directory was published locally. There were 92 subscribers in August of that year and 160 on the first anniversary of the opening of the central office--June 1, 1880. A year later there were 286, and April 1, 1883, 530.

Day service only was furnished until April 22, 1884, when night service was instituted and proved a boon in many instances, particularly for calls for physicians, livery service, etc.

Long distance service was established in 1883 to Muskegon, Grand Haven, Big Rapids and Ionia.

By October, 1888, the old headquarters were outgrown and the office was moved to the top floor of the new Blodgett building on Ionia avenue. There then were 800 local subscribers, which increased to 1,000 by December 4, 1894. At the time Boston had only 2,450 subscribers and New York 6,363, while Saginaw had 525 and Bay City 483. There were but 6,666 telephones in all Michigan.

William J. Berry became manager of the local exchange. The Michigan Telephone company then was the owner of the system, but in 1899 the Erie Telephone system gained control and the western division was established, with headquarters here and Mr. Berry as general superintendent. The company completed a building at Ionia avenue and Fountain street in August, 1899, to which the main exchange was moved from the Blodgett building, east and west side branch exchanges being established.

C. E. Wilde came here as district manager in March, 1904, in which year the Michigan State Telephone company bought the Erie Telephone company's property in the state. Some years later the Michigan Bell Telephone company succeeded the Michigan State. When Grand Rapids was made the Bell system's headquarters for the entire western half of the state in 1911, Mr. Wilde was appointed district commercial manager.


The Bell system had no competitor in the Grand Rapids field until 1896, when the Citizens Telephone company began giving service. The basic Bell patents expired in 1894 and the next year independent companies began springing up throughout the country.

The Citizens company filed articles of association June 10, 1895. Its capital stock was $100,000, and it had 275 stockholders. Among those most active in the affairs of the company were C. F. Rood, William J. Stuart, Cyrus E. Perkins, Charles R. Sligh, S. B. Jenks, James M. Barnett, E. A. Stowe, Robert D. Graham and J. K. Johnston. The directors elected E. B. Fisher president, D. F. Rood vice-president, Amos S. Musselman secretary, William J. Stuart treasurer, and J. B. Ware was appointed general manager.

As soon as the company had secured from the city council a franchise to establish an independent telephone system, July 20, 1895, it opened an office at 87 Campau avenue. It set the first pole October 9, 1895. When the company began giving service July 1, 1896, it had 1,600 subscribers. Grand Rapids was the first city in the country to have more than 500 independent telephones in service. In October and November, 1903, the Citizens company moved into its new building at the foot of Lyon street.

Charles E. Tarte, an expert electrician, was engaged by the company in 1899 and the next year became its general manager. The automatic, or dial, telephone having been patented and being tested in several small communities in the east, Mr. Tarte became interested in it. After he had made a thorough investigation of the automatic system he believed it practical and recommended its installation here. This was a daring innovation, but Mr. Tarte's judgment, in the face of dire predictions that it would fail, proved sound. Having a thorough knowledge of the practical application of electricity and being one of the acknowledged telephone experts of the country, he remedied many minor defects.

The automatic system was established by the Citizens company and was first used January 9, 1904, Grand Rapids being the first large city in the country to have such service, and for some time boasting the largest automatic exchange in the world. This city also was the first to have more than 5,000 automatic telephones.

The Citizens company gradually extended its lines to other cities and made connections with independent systems inside and beyond the state limits. It was the first independent company to open a copper toll line. This ran to Holland and was ready for use July 4, 1896. In 1906 the Citizens company reached 250 exchanges and toll points within 50 miles of the city. To meet the constantly increasing costs of expansion it gradually increased its capital to $3,851,735; and the number of stockholders grew to more than 3,000.

C. F. Rood succeeded E. B. Fisher as president, and at his death Robert D. Graham was elected to that office, which he held until the Citizens company's plant was purchased by Michigan Bell Telephone company late in 1923. The Citizens company at that time had 22,800 subscribers in Grand Rapids.


The Michigan Bell Telephone company paid par for the Citizens company stock, $3,851,735, and besides assumed all obligations of the independent company. The Michigan Bell is a subsidiary of the American Telephone and Telegraph company, which has practical control ov the nation's telephone industry. As soon as it had come into ownership of the Citizens system it employed hundreds of telephone experts to consolidate the service by installing new plant, rebuilding old, readjusting and coordinating. The consolidation became effective in June, 1926. The district headquarters, as well as local commercial or business offices, are located in the beautiful new million dollar home of the company at Fountain street and Division avenue, and Grand Rapids has as fine a telephone system as any city in the country.


Transcriber: Ronnie Aungst
Created: 16 January 2000
 URL: http://kent.migenweb.net/etten1926/telephone.html