Nevada’s role in trans-U.S. phone construction

Anniversary commemorations that mark significant historical events are important to all of us, for they enable us to reflect upon the past and contemplate the future.

On Oct. 31, for example, Nevadans celebrated the 150th anniversary of statehood. In April, we will observe two more 150th milestones: President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to Union Army Commander Ulysses S. Grant that ended the Civil War.

But there’s another recent, lesser-known anniversary — an anniversary that had major Nevada implications — which most of us probably missed: The 100th anniversary of the first transcontinental telephone call.

That original call took place on Jan. 25, 1915, when Alexander Graham Bell, who had invented the telephone in 1875, spoke by telephone from Boston to his long-time assistant, Thomas Watson, who was in San Francisco.

Later that day, President Woodrow Wilson made a second transcontinental call to the West Coast, this time from the White House, when he told the mayor of San Francisco, “It appeals to the imagination to speak across the continent.”

The following day, the San Francisco Chronicle heralded the first trans-U.S. phone call with a page-one, two-line banner headline that read, “San Francisco Talks With New York 3,400 Miles Away!”

As for Nevada’s contribution to the transcontinental phone line: It fell in late June of 1914, the last day of the line’s construction and less than seven months before Bell’s and President Wilson’s calls to San Francisco.

The telephone line, which closely followed the transcontinental routes of the Pony Express, the telegraph and the railroad (and, many years later, Interstate 80) reached Nevada on June 27, 1914, when it arrived in what today is West Wendover, Elko County, on the Nevada side of the Nevada-Utah state line.

Here in West Wendover on a spot that today is in the center of the parking lot of the Montego Bay Resort and Casino, the last remaining segment of the line was completed when two linemen climbed a wooden pole and spliced the phone wires that had come eastward from Carson City and westward from Salt Lake City.

A photograph of the linemen making that final connection, a photo that included a sign affixed to the pole that read “Nevada-Utah State Line,” was soon flashed around the nation.

A commemorative U.S. postage stamp was later issued that featured this iconic photo and the words “Telephone Spans The Nation.”

Locally, Churchill County’s first communication system was formed on Aug. 5, 1889, when the county commissioners voted to pay the Western Union Co. $975 to extend a telegraph line from Virginia City to a point east of Stillwater, which was then the Churchill County seat. (Fallon became the county seat in 1904.)

Seven years later, the newly-formed, county-owned Churchill County Telephone and Telegraph Co. (it became CC Communications in 2000) installed a switchboard in the J.M. Sanford Hotel in Stillwater. In 1907, the switchboard was moved to Fallon, and in 1911 it got its first permanent home, a cement block building at 50 W. Williams Ave.

What has intrigued me about early Nevada telephone operations was the existence in Churchill County and other rural areas of telephone toll stations that were called “non-dialable points” by telephone company personnel. When customers used the toll lines, they were required to speak with the operator and ask her to make their connection.

Several toll stations were still located in remote county locations until 2001, when they were converted to seven-digit service. I remember those toll lines here, and was sad to see them give way to modern technology. But I’m sure rural phone customers were pleased when they could make their calls by pushing seven buttons rather than having to rely upon an operator sitting at a switchboard in downtown Fallon.

Hand-crank or magneto telephones lasted in Nevada and the U.S. until July 13, 1990, when the nation‘s last-known operating hand-crank, party-line telephones were disconnected and replaced by private-line, touch-tone technology.

These last-remaining hand-crank phones had been the communication links to the outside world for the 18 year-round residents of North Fork, Idaho,in the rugged Salmon River Canyon.

David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN. He may be reached at


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