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Telephone History

Pages: (1)_(2)_(3)_(4)_(5)_(6)_(7)_(8)_(9) (10) (11) (Communicating) (Soundwaves) (Life at Western Electric)


Many, many more related pages! Click for a list. Information on J.R. Snyder Jr., operators, directory assistance working and history, placing toll calls and so on. Great reading.

Privateline.com's Telephone History: Operators, Pay Stations, and International Calls

By J.R. Synder Jr.

Toll Stations
Pay Stations and International Calls
Nevada musings
Old network hiearchy and trunking arrangements

I was one of the first male telephone operators in the Bell System, the third male hired in Arizona. This was the early 1970's. I've written about some of my experiences here. Sometimes I worked cord switchboards, placing calls the old fashioned way, by hand, with plugs and jacks. Arizona had one of the last remaining cordboards in a very small toll center. This long distance facility served only three exchanges. I was loaned to it for a while and I used to feel like I was sitting in the seat of the ghosts of long passed operators. Cord switchboard

Toll Stations

In a sense Toll Stations or "ring downs" were the original party lines, but quite unlike what party lines had evolved to by the 1970's. Modern party lines have individual 7 digit numbers, using a switch to connect the call. But ring downs need an operator. Ring downs provide telephone service to very remote areas that have no reason for a switch and that required a small 4-wire toll line with repeaters.

Toll Stations or "ring downs" basically were localities that had a single 4-wire toll line going directly from a toll center to the locality, then disbursed to stations in the area on 2-wire "party lines." No local central office. They had from 1 to 8 stations and were numbered by name, e.g.: Valle (Grand Canyon) #1, #2, etc. or Organ Pipe #1, #2, etc. They usually had at least one pay station, usually at the General Store (sounds quaint these days). Very often they may have had only one station, which was the pay station itself.

The general store at Crown King, Arizona The General Store at Crown King, Arizona. Phone booth on the left.

In Arizona that was Crown King and it was located at the Crown King General Store. People from the community, mainly ranchers and forest service people, would pick up messages left for them by the Toll Center Operator to call "Operator 6" with the store owner-operator. Operator 6 was really a code, a signal for us. When a person called the Toll Center back, asking for Operator 6, we'd look for a mark sense IBM ticket with call information.That ticket had who called the Toll Station, their number, and billing information. We'd then try to connect the call.


What is mark sensing? In computing, a technique that enables pencil marks made in predetermined positions on specially prepared forms to be rapidly read and input to a computer. The technique makes use of the fact that pencil marks contain graphite and therefore conduct electricity. A mark sense reader scans the form by passing small metal brushes over the paper surface. Whenever a brush touches a pencil mark a circuit is completed and the mark is detected. From The Hutchinson Encyclopedia

Generally the person who had originally placed the call was going to pay for it because toll station payphones were not collected very often and that presented a whole new problem of FMB or "full money box" and the Toll Station user couldn't pay for the call. We then connected the call through the tandem switch. (A tandem switch normally connects two or more local switches.) On a Toll Station the callers in the area could call each other without an operator but I'm not sure how they did it.

When a call came in to the cord switchboard from a nearby community that had a switch and someone asked for a Toll Station, we used to have to plug into "Organ Pipe" and select #1, #2. and so on, with the front (outgoing) cord and use the orange "ring" key by pulling it back to generate battery and hopefully ring the right station. (We used to roll our eyes to the back of our head and pray that it went through.) Thankfully some switchboard tech figured out how to assign 7 digit numbers to Toll Stations (although the users couldn't use them) and we dialed them on the tandem trunks and the numbers did the toll ring down work pretty well. The system eventually evolved.

When an operator in Wyoming or somewhere called Inward (operator to operator trunks) and asked for a toll station, we'd either gave them the number or they called Rate and Route or Directory Assistance who had the number. In that way the operator could place the call and ticket and time it themselves. Otherwise we had a whole other set of billing ticket issues because the caller was from some distant rate center and if we ticket and timed the call it required special handling because the originating party in Wyoming or wherever was paying for the call. It was time consuming, but kind of fun because you had the sense you were handling a call in the manner operators handled most of their calls decades before you.

Pay Stations and International Calls

On another note about pay stations, they were the angst of International Operators. As an International Operator (ironically my operator number was "Number 9") we had the same reaction of eyes rolling to the back of our head and said a prayer when a Toll and Assistance operator in, say, Dothan, Alabama passed a call to us and said "the calling party is at a pay station and is paying." Oh NO! First we couldn't collect or return coins from our cord switchboards, only the local Toll operator could and only $3 could be collected at a time. International calls were usually $12 or more and the caller often spoke limited English. Therefore we had a number of challenges.

First I had to gather the call information while the Dothan operator waited. I then told the operator the amount of the call and gave instructions. They should tell the caller to put in only $3 at a time, and to pull the ring key to collect the coins from the chute to the coin box. Invariably if we got this far, we would collect about $9 and get a Full Money Box. That meant that the Dothan operator and I had to make an arrangement, explain to the caller they had credit for $9 but had to go to another pay station and replace the call asking for International Operator number 9. This wasn't always easy to get across to the caller. If you were lucky there was another pay station right next to the one they were already at.

Nevada musings

What about Nevada? What I understand of the relatively large amount and areas of Toll Stations with Nevada Bell comes down to pure economics with a good dose of tradition thrown in. It seems they're mostly ranching and forestry areas and never were economically viable enough to make the transition to more contemporary landlines. With the rapidity of change in the telecom industry they're largely forgotten and the end users don't want nor see a need to expend a lot of money for a change when wireless is making such inroads. As a matter of fact I suspect, as is still the case in Arizona, there are a lot of remote homes and the like that use radio-telephones. It's another case of interesting history and choices of ways of life. My father's family comes from what was a fairly remote region outside of Prescott, AZ and I actually grew up in Bermuda and later a remote island of the Bahamas. I understand the thinking of staying out of "civilization."

This is just from memory, I haven't researched it, but I recall there were Toll Centers with operators in the 70's in Nevada at: Carson City (Nevada Bell)

Gardnerville (GTE)

Winnemucca (Nevada Bell)

Elko (Citizens)

Henderson (GTE)

Las Vegas (Centel -- had a very early version of Northern Electric's TSPS that had been trialed in Greenwood SC prior to Western Electrics trial of TSPS) Fallon (Independent)

Pioche (Lincoln County Tel)

Tonopah (Independent)

Interestingly there wasn't one in Reno, it was handled by Carson City. I'm curious who does the ring downs for the Toll Regions now.

Old network hiearchy and trunking arrangements

On the diagram showing the old network hiearchy, circa 1980, at first glance I'm wondering if Fike means by a 4X Intermediate Point is what I'd call 'local toll' interoffice trunking. That's just a quick guess. Maybe Fike and Friend means a point that amplifies and repeats the signal. Let me give an example if you are reviewing that diagram. There were dozens of possible arrangements between offices.

Phoenix, for example, before it was one giant metro local calling area had local toll trunking to call a town (now a suburb) northwest of Phoenix to a town (now a suburb) south of Phoenix. You could get a cheap toll charge but you had to 1+7D dial and be billed. So if you went to ASU in Tempe, which is SE of Phoenix and your parents lived in Glendale, which is Nw of Phoenix, and you needed money you dialed 1+7D and the call was trunked from Tempe Main to either Phoenix Main or Phoenix Northeast and on to Glendale Main.

Certain CO's were main interoffice trunking and there were two of them. That is until the Corporation Commmsion stepped in and said we basically now have a metropolitan area like Atlanta and Denver where all of these towns have merged into one giant metro area. Consider it all local, which of course Mountain Bell fought.

Pages: (1)_(2)_(3)_(4)_(5)_(6)_(7)_(8)_(9) (10) (11) (Communicating) (Soundwaves) (Life at Western Electric)

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