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Stu Pospisil: Remember when phones were simple and easy to use?

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Miss Alice Sternad was busier than ever at the Northwestern Bell Telephone Company long distance switchboard on Christmas Day, 1946. She was one of 400 operators handling from 25,000 to 30,000 calls.

Into the recycling bin at our house went the stack from the back of a kitchen cabinet.

Phone books, once indispensable. But the last ones delivered in Omaha by CenturyLink were in 2013 and the last one in the cabinet with residential listings, published by another directory firm, was dated 2018-19.

That one has been kept. Just to show the kids someday a part of Omaha’s telephone history. They have no idea about directories, rotary-dial phones, telephone numbers with two letters and four digits, party lines, pay phones and phone booths. Landlines? Yes. They’ll get their smartphones in due time.

Stu Pospisil

Stu Pospisil

Alexander Graham Bell’s invention came to Omaha in April 1877, once Union Pacific telegraph superintendent J.J. Dickey ordered the city’s first set of phones. The Omaha Daily Bee reported he was to give “an exhibition of its powers.” To assist him was to be Louis H. Korty, another executive in the telegraph department.

The first report of a phone call was the week before Christmas in 1877. Army officers and some of Omaha’s elite were treated to three hours of “telephone entertainment” at the home of Gen. George Crook at 18th and Davenport Streets. A special wire ran from Dickey’s phone set up in Crook’s parlor to the barracks office of the post commandant. The program was vocal and instrumental music. The bugle was heard the clearest, the piano the most muddled. Crook and Maj. Andrew Burt conversed in the Crow language, which the Bee proclaimed was the first time any Native American language was spoken on a telephone.

Within a year, seven lines had been strung for telephones for business use. The connections were two for the Union Pacific operations in Omaha and in Council Bluffs, two for coal offices, one for the Burlington and Missouri railroad, one for Max Meyer’s cigar and music stores and one for Willow Springs distillery and owner Peter Iler’s wholesale liquor house.

Charles W. Mead was named president, Dickey vice president and Korty secretary-treasurer of the state’s first telephone company in May 1879. The Omaha Electric Company was said to be the nation’s 10th telephone exchange. It strung 30 miles of wire before launching that summer.

A 1935 World-Herald article tells of the first telephone directory, issued July 10, 1879, that was on one sheet. Among the 124 subscribers were four newspapers and only one hotel, the Withnell house at 15th and Harney Streets. Subscribers called each other by name, not number. The first directory included no numbers. All lines were party lines — multiple subscribers on the same wire — and calling the central office required signaling with a bell hammer.

Pay Phone

Pay phones are scarcely today. According to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, roughly 100,000 pay phones remained in the U.S. in 2021 – down from 2 million in 1999.

Korty had ties to American Bell Telephone executive Theodore Vail. Vail granted Korty and Dickey the territorial rights to install telephone lines in the state in 1881. Fremont was the first city in the state with a long-distance line to Omaha in 1881. The connection to Lincoln was put in operation on Christmas Eve 1882. Other Omaha neighboring towns came on line in the next few years, but as late as 1896 Grand Island was the western terminus of the Nebraska Telephone Company.

Nebraska Telephone was formed in 1882 with Silas H.H. Clark, Dickey and Korty as officers. In 1909 it merged management with Iowa Telephone and Northwestern Telephone (Minnesota and the Dakotas) and starting in 1921 the alliance became Northwestern Bell. Subsequent mergers left Omaha’s legacy phone company known as US West, Qwest and CenturyLink.

In 1885, Omaha had 716 telephone customers, about one for every 90 residents. Then came rapid growth. A new switchboard was needed just two years later as customers more than doubled. South Omaha’s first switchboard was established in 1888, two years after the village’s incorporation.

In 1897, AT&T connected Omaha with the long-distance lines from the east and Cudahy Packing installed the first private branch switchboard west of Chicago. For the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in 1898, Nebraska Telephone set up pay telephone stations — perhaps the first for the city — on the grounds. It brought the public telephone booth to South Omaha that year, too, placing one in the rotunda of the first Livestock Exchange Building.

Multiple city switchboards were needed by 1907, and the Harney and Webster central offices opened to serve the western and northern parts of town. The downtown office had the Atlantic and Jackson exchanges. The introduction of dial service began in 1921. Phone numbers originally were two letters (the first two in an exchange’s name) and four digits.

In 1960, Northwestern Bell converted the city to seven-digit numbers in advance of direct dialing of long-distance calls. Downtown, ATlantic became 341, JAckson 342, EXpress 344, HArney 345, WEbster 346 and YEllowstone 347. North, PLeasant became 451, PRospect 453 and KEnwood 455. West Central, WAlnut became 551, GLendale 553, REgent 556 and CApital 558. West, TErrance became 391. South, MArket became 731 and ORchard 733. In the suburbs, BEllevue became 291. Papillion phones received the 339 prefix, Millard’s 334.

Area codes were instituted in 1961 to facilitate long distance. Nebraska was given two, 402 and 308. Fifty years later, the 402 area — including Omaha — got a second area code, 531, and 2011 was the first time 10-digit dialing was required.

Before this column hangs up, here’s a little bit more about the Kenwood exchange that was the last in town with a manual switchboard. The area around 30th and Ames didn’t get dialing until 1958.

Hazel Jones was a Kenwood operator for 40 years. In her final days at the switchboard, she recalled spreading the news of Missouri River floods and V-E and V-J Days.

She told of lighter moments, such as the hungover gentleman one New Year’s Day who asked for the time and, not satisfied with “8 o’clock,” demanded, “a.m. or p.m.?” And of the afternoon when an elderly lady asked to make a toll call and was instructed to deposit 10 cents. She did. Then another coin fell into the slot as she tittered, “And here’s a nickel for you.”

Now, she’d have to have a smartphone to Venmo it.

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Reporter - High school sports

Stu is The World-Herald's lead writer for high school sports and for golf. Follow him on Twitter @stuOWH. Email stu.pospisil@owh.com

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