Portland, Maine and the Telephone
Key: Portland telephone history events / Other events for historical context
|1842||Railroad service connects Portland to Boston.|
|1849||Gas lighting becomes available in Portland.|
|1868||Western Union Telegraph Company opens a telegraph office in Portland in the newly-built Thomas Block at 24 Exchange Street.|
|1876||Alexander Graham Bell granted his first U.S. patent for the telephone on March 7th. Bell and his assistant Thomas A. Watson transmit clear speech for the first time in Bell’s Boston laboratory three days later. Watson was employed at the telegraph and electrical equipment firm of Charles Williams, Jr. at the time, where Bell was a client.|
The world’s first telephone exchange established in Boston by Edwin T. Holmes for experimental purposes. He later creates the Boston Telephone Despatch Company, a commercial telephone exchange.
James Seymour Bedlow, manager of Portland’s Western Union office, announces his role as Western Union’s telephone agent for the State of Maine in local newspapers.
The first commercial telephone exchange is established in New Haven, Connecticut in February.
George H. Smardon of Portland is licensed by the Bell Telephone Company as the first agent in Maine to sell their telephones. He receives his first two demonstration models on March 23rd (like the one on the right), and secures coal supplier Randall & McAllister as his first Portland customer.
Portland’s first telephones installed in April at the offices of Randall & McAllister at 84 Commercial Street. Frederick A. Gower, an agent from Bell Telephone Company, installed a two-telephone system connecting the company’s office with their coal pockets on Franklin Wharf.
Bell Telephone files suit against Western Union for patent infringement in September.
By this year, Bell’s Maine agent George H. Smardon has connected up to a dozen subscribers on a private telephone network, and runs wires from his office at 27 1/2 Market Square to the post office at Woodfords Corner for experimental purposes.
(From the Portland Sunday Telegram, May 14, 1933, page 1D.)
The Western Union Telegraph Company begins operating Maine’s first public telephone exchange on September 1st with 112 telephones. The exchange is located on the second floor of 22-26 Exchange Street, upstairs from its telegraph office, now run by Charles D. Livermore. Telephones are equipped with hand-cranked magneto generators to ring other phones and the operator, manufactured for Western Union’s new subsidiary The American Speaking Telephone Company (example images at right). Service is available between 7 am and 10 pm, Monday through Saturday. The exchange is initially run by operators John Tierney, John Welsh, and Patrick A. Mahoney. By the end of the year, Miss Amy Facey is hired to answer calls and Isaiah H. Farnham is transferred from Western Union’s Wiscasset branch to manage the Portland exchange. (First telephone directory at left from the collections of Jasper N. Keller Pioneers.)
The National Bell Telephone Company wins its patent infringement suit against Western Union and its subsidiaries in the U.S. Supreme Court on November 10th. Western Union surrenders its telephone patents and the exchanges it manages (with 56,000 telephones nationwide) to Bell in return for 20% of Bell royalties for the duration of Bell’s patents. Bell agrees to stay out the direct telegraph business.
|1880||With Bell’s Maine agent George H. Smardon having abandoned telephone work, the National Bell Telephone Company of the State of Maine is incorporated on March 9th and begins doing business in Portland in April. They replace the telephones installed by Western Union with new models, designed by Charles Williams, Jr. and recently perfected with the Blake transmitter (example pictured at left). There are 160 subscribers in Portland at this time, and the company is managed from Lowell, Massachusetts by Charles B. Gardner, President and General Manager; Franklin J. Rollins, Secretary and Treasurer; and Isaiah H. Farnham, Managing Electrician (former employee of Portland’s Western Union). The exchange moves up to the third floor at 22-26 Exchange Street.
(From The Portland Directory and Reference Book of 1881 by S. B. Beckett, page 358, the 22nd Annual Report of the Receipts and Expenditures of the City of Portland, 1881, page 94, and ad below in Edward Elwell’s Portland and Vicinity, 1881 edition.)
National Bell Telephone Company of the State of Maine publishes a directory with seven pages listing 425 subscribers. By this time, Portland subscribers can call locations in Pine Point (Scarborough), Old Orchard Beach, Biddeford and Saco in addition to other Portland telephones. According to the directory, sixty wires connected “all parts of Portland,” and the central office (location pictured at right) answered about 1,000 calls daily.
By the end of the year, six to eight men and women typically work the exchange, connecting about 5,000 calls a day. Miss Lydia Facey joins her sister as one of the operators, and William Herbert Lincoln is “first assistant” under Mr. Farnhum.
Western Electric becomes the exclusive telephone manufacturer for American Bell Telephone and it’s affiliates. Several companies had supplied telephone equipment for the Bell system before this.
The National Bell Telephone Company of the State of Maine is absorbed by the Northern Massachusetts Telephone Company by May.
Dirigo Telephone Company organized in Portland. Due to legal battles over telephone patents and later opposition from New England Telephone & Telegraph, the company doesn’t start to make significant progress until the original Bell patents expire in 1894. After moving their headquarters to Farmington, the company extends telephone lines throughout rural parts of the state.
The City of Portland passes an ordinance regulating “the erection of poles and wires for telegraphic and telephonic purposes in the streets and public grounds of the City…”
|1883||Facing increasing demand for space, the Portland exchange is moved up another flight to occupy the entire new fourth floor of 22-26 Exchange Street (pictured at left). The move is completed on April 30th.
(From the Portland Sunday Telegram, May 14, 1933, page 1D.)The Northern Massachusetts Telephone Company is absorbed by the newly incorporated New England Telephone & Telegraph Company (NET&T) in October, along with the Boston Telephone Despatch Company and six other companies operating throughout New England. Portland’s telephone exchange remains in the same location, and is still managed by Isaiah H. Farnham. The number of subscribers to the Portland exchange has risen to about 800.
Electric lighting becomes available in Portland one year after the first power plant was established in New York City.
|1885||American Bell Telephone Company introduces a new long distance company, the American Telephone & Telegraph Company.|
|1891||New England Telephone & Telegraph moves its Portland exchange across the street to 19 Exchange Street. Offices for management and subscriber services are located on the second floor, and a new multiple switchboard with the latest electrical equipment is installed on the third floor.
(From the Portland Sunday Times, February 22, 1891 and the Portland Sunday Telegram, October 5, 1952.)
|1892||First year that New England Telephone & Telegraph’s Boston directory lists subscribers in other major New England locations, including about 700 subscribers in the Greater Portland area (beginning on page 187). Telephone numbers are two to four digits long.|
|1893||New branch exchange opened in Deering, Maine (Deering became part of Portland six years later).
(From New England Telephone History, c. 1982 – collections of Jasper N. Keller Pioneers.)
|1895||As the original Bell telephone patents expired the year before, new independent telephone companies emerge in the Portland area. These include the Standard Telephone Company and the Casco Bay Telegraph and Telephone Company, which are both granted the right to string wires in Portland by the City Council. (Neither company seems to have survived for long.)
(From The Electrical Engineer, Vol. 19, No. 367 – 5/15/1895, page 447.)
|1899||American Telephone & Telegraph takes over the business and property of the American Bell Telephone Company, and becomes the parent company of the Bell system.|
Portland’s city council gives approval for the Dirigo Telephone Company to operate lines within the city, as many other municipalities in New England struggle with competing demands from Bell operating companies and independent competitors. Dirigo moves their headquarters to Monument Square (273 Middle St.) in Portland and changes their name to the Northeastern Telephone Company by the following year. Lewis A. Goudy is the vice president and general manager.
NET&T replaces Portland’s magneto switchboards with battery-powered equipment, and subscribers receive new “common battery” telephones powered by the central office.
Double murder occurs at NET&T’s Portland exchange building on April 24th – makes national headlines. George H. Brainerd, a foreman from Boston who had been working on the switch to common battery in Portland’s exchange, unexpectedly shoots and kills Isaiah H. Farnham, electrical engineer for NET&T (former manager of Portland’s telephone exchange), coworker Earle Buxton, and wounds three others during an inspection of the improvements.
Northeastern Telephone Company builds an exchange and office facility at 16 Casco Street (pictured here), designed by architect John Calvin Stevens. The company offers the first direct dial (or “secret”) service in Portland, competing with NET&T’s operator-assisted system. Strowger-dial telephones from the Automatic Electric Company are installed in customers’ homes and offices, starting in November, and many local businesses maintain telephones from both service providers concurrently. The company claims to be the oldest continuously-run independent telephone company in the United States.
New England Telephone and Telegraph connects Peaks Island and Great Diamond Island to Portland’s telephone exchange.
NET&T’s local directory lists almost 3,000 subscribers for the Portland exchange, which includes Portland, South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough, Westbrook, Gorham, Windham, Cumberland, Yarmouth, Casco, Gray, Raymond and Bridgton. (The majority are within the City of Portland, and some towns are served by multiple telephone companies.)
|1908||New England Telephone & Telegraph announces in September that it has acquired Northeastern Telephone Company, along with the Lewiston-Auburn Telephone Company and the Cumberland Telephone Company. Northeastern Telephone had started facing serious financial trouble the year before, and had about 3,000 subscribers at the time of the merger. Former Northeastern customers must revert back to operator-assisted calls (Northeastern’s Strowger-dial telephones were incompatible with NET&T’s system).
(From Public Service Management, October 1908, page 104.)[Read a description of all of the independent telephone companies absorbed by NET&T through 1915 in this Annual Report of the Massachusetts Public Service Commission (1916)]
|1912||New England Telephone & Telegraph builds a new four-story facility for its switchboard equipment at 45 Forest Avenue in Portland, and moves its business office to Brown Street. The “cut-over” to the new switchboard occurs at 11:17 pm on November 2nd.
(From the Portland Board of Trade Journal, November 1910, page 409, the Portland Evening Express, September 2, 1954, page 40, and the Portland Sunday Telegram, November 3, 1912, page 1.)
|1919||On April 15th, about 200 operators at the Forest Avenue exchange abandon their posts for six days to participate in a workers’ strike against the U.S. Postmaster General, which had assumed war-time control of the New England Telephone & Telegraph company. The women meet at the Pythian Temple on Cumberland Avenue and picket outside of the exchange building. Backed by other industry unions as well their own, the strikers negotiate higher wages and other protections on April 20th and return to work.
(From A Women’s History Walking Trail in Portland, Maine by the Women’s Studies Program, University of Southern Maine (1997) and Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities website Mass Moments.)
|1920||NET&T incorporates its Portland business office into the facility at 45 Forest Avenue.
(From the Portland Evening Express, September 2, 1954, page 40.)
|1921||The Portland Sunday Telegram offers to start taking time-of-day, weather and no-school-announcement type calls for Portland’s operators.
(From the Portland Sunday Telegram, September 6, 1964.)
NET&T expands and remodels their facility at 45 Forest Avenue, adding two more floors (City of Portland 1924 tax photo at left).
The new Jasper N. Keller Chapter, No. 33, of the Telephone Pioneers of America, an industry charitable organization, holds their first organizational meeting at the Lafayette Hotel in Portland on December 12th. The chapter first represented the State of Maine, but later merged with chapters in New Hampshire and Vermont.
|1925||To accommodate the growing number of Portland subscribers, New England Telephone & Telegraph introduces separate exchanges on February 28th named “Forest” and “Preble” for mainland Portland and “Peaks” for Peaks Island.
(From Portland Press Herald, March 1st, 1925.)
|1932||NET&T completes construction of an art deco-styled addition to its Forest Avenue facility at the corner of Cumberland Avenue in October.
(From the Portland Evening Express, September 2, 1954, page 40.)
|1933||NET&T introduces direct dialing within Portland on June 3rd. The “Forest” and “Preble” exchanges are replaced with numeric telephone numbers beginning with prefixes 2, 3 or 4 and followed by a four-digit number. Peaks Island continues to use operator-assisted calling, along with other towns surrounding Portland. Mainland Portland subscribers must dial 8 to be connected with a Westbrook number, 9 for a Peaks Island number or 0 for all other telephone offices outside of Portland. Total cost of new equipment is over $1 million.
(From the Portland Sunday Telegram, June 4, 1933, page 1A and the Portland Sunday Telegram, September 6, 1964.)
|1948||Mainland Portland prefixes are 2, 3, 4 and 5, followed by a four-digit number. Peaks Island continues with operator-assisted calling.|
|1951||Peaks Island gains direct dial calling by this year – phone numbers on the island begin with the prefix 6. Peaks subscribers must dial 7 plus the number to reach mainland Portland phones.|
|1952||40,166 telephone subscribers in the Portland vicinity on August 1st, not including Peaks Island and Westbrook.
(From the Portland Sunday Telegram, October 5, 1952.)
|1953||NET&T opens a new engineering department office serving Maine on the third floor of 616 Congress Street in Portland.
(From unknown newspaper clipping, vertical file for “Portland Telephone” at Maine Historical Society library.)
|1955||New England Telephone & Telegraph introduces the “SPruce” prefix for mainland Portland, “POrter” for Peaks Island and other named prefixes for surrounding towns on July 17th. Subscribers can now dial phones in multiple towns within their “local calling area,” but long-distance calls are still handled by an operator. The first two letters of each prefix name are capitalized, as subscribers are instructed to dial these letters before the remaining five digits in a local phone number. Example: SPruce 5-4321. Calls made from SPruce numbers to other SPruce numbers are still able to use 5-digit dialing.
(From the Portland Press Herald, July 19, 1955, page 1.)
|1956|| The first direct cable line call from the U.S. to Europe is made on September 25th. All such calls at the time are routed through Portland’s Forest Avenue exchange building.
(From the Portland Evening Express, September 25, 1956, page 1.)
|1962||Portland’s telephone exchange incorporated into a direct distance dialing network, allowing subscribers to make most long-distance calls without operator assistance.
(From the Portland Sunday Telegram, September 6, 1964.)
|1963||By the end of the year, NET&T discontinues the use of named exchanges like “SPruce” and “POrter” in favor of their numerical equivalents (“all-number calling”). Example: 775-4321 instead of SPruce 5-4321. Five-digit dialing within Portland is officially terminated (although the ability remains within some exchanges). See the examples of ads from 1963 and 1964 Portland directories below.
(From the Portland Sunday Telegram, September 6, 1964)
|1966||NET&T begins converting equipment to enable the use of new touch tone phones for Greater Portland.
(From the Portland Press Herald, October 29, 1966.)
|1972||NET&T expands their facility at 45 Forest Avenue, adding a third building to the back along Cumberland Avenue.|
|1976||NET&T moves their offices in February from 45 Forest Avenue to a new office facility at 5 Davis Farm Road (leased from Pizzagalli Properties). Telephone switching equipment remains at the Forest Avenue facility.
(From Verizon New England, Inc. vs. Pizzagalli Properties, LLC, United States District Court, District of Maine, June 1, 2001.)AT&T builds a new office building at 380 Cumberland Avenue, connected through an underground conduit to New England Telephone’s facility at 45 Forest Avenue.
|1978||NET&T replaces their operated switchboard at 45 Forest Avenue with an automated system.
(From the Lewiston Sun Journal, January 13, 1978.)
New England Telephone becomes part of NYNEX, a new regional Bell operating company (or “Baby Bell”) after the U.S. government forces AT&T to relinquish control of the Bell system. The NYNEX name came from the combination of the New York (NY) and New England (NE) companies.
First cellular telephone service begins in several large cities, including New York and Los Angeles.
|1986||FCC auctions off cellular telephone operating licenses in service areas across the country, granting two licenses in the Greater Portland area to mobile service providers Cellular One and Maine Cellular.
(From Portland Press Herald, October 15, 1998, page 1A and June 14, 1994, page 1C.)
Cellular One begins operating in Greater Portland during the week of June 13th. The company is a franchise, the Portland division owned by Vanguard Cellular Systems of Greenville, North Carolina.
Maine Cellular begins offering service in Greater Portland on June 14th. The company is initially a joint venture among the Standish Telephone Company, Community Service Telephone Company of Winthrop, and NYNEX Mobile Communications.
By this time, Maine Cellular is owned by PortCell (Portland Cellular Partnership), a business partnership between NYNEX Mobile Communications, Lewiston-Auburn Cellular and Seacoast Cellular.
Northeast Cellular Telephone Company wins a court appeal forcing the FCC to transfer PortCell’s license to them. Northeast Cellular complained that PortCell never filed required proof of its financial ability to build and operate a cellular phone system before being awarded their license. Northeast Cellular begins building their own cellular network.
|1992||Vanguard builds a new mobile telephone switching office (MTSO) at 12 Saunders Way in Westbrook for their Cellular One network in southern Maine. The owner is listed as their subsidiary, Atlantic Cellular Telephone Corporation.|
|1994||Northeast Cellular begins offering service in Greater Portland in November under the name Maine Wireless, absorbing the former customers of Maine Cellular (PortCell). Northeast Cellular was primarily owned by Timothy D. Hutchinson of Gray, with U.S. Cellular as a partner in the venture.
(From Portland Press Herald, November 26, 1994, page 1B and October 15, 1998, page 1A)
NYNEX merges with Bell Atlantic, another regional Bell operating company created after the Bell system divestiture, and use of the NYNEX name is dropped. The two companies had already launched a joint wireless venture two years before: Bell Atlantic NYNEX Mobile.
Nextel Communications begins offering mobile phone service in Greater Portland.
Starting in September, Mainers are allowed for the first time to subscribe to companies other than their local carrier for in-state long-distance calls. About 25 companies, including AT&T, MCI and Sprint compete for new customers. (Subscribers had already been able to use other companies for in-state long-distance calls since the mid-1980s by dialing a five-digit access code.)
Supreme Court rules in favor of Maine Cellular’s appeal to take their FCC operating license back from Maine Wireless due to provisions of the Paperwork Reduction Act, thus ending a twelve-year battle between the two companies. Maine Cellular begins rebuilding its network to prepare for providing mobile phone service again.
OmniPoint begins offering mobile phone service in Greater Portland.
Bell Atlantic Mobile buys out Lewiston-Auburn Cellular and Seacoast Cellular’s stakes in PortCell, and begins operating Maine Cellular under its own name.
AT&T Wireless Services buys Vanguard Cellular Systems, closes their Cellular One call center in South Portland, and begins operating the former Cellular One franchise in Maine as AT&T Wireless.
Bell Atlantic changes its name to Verizon after acquiring independent telephone company GTE. Bell Atlantic Mobile becomes Verizon Wireless.
AT&T Wireless expands the MTSO in Westbrook. (The facility is still registered under their subsidiary Atlantic Cellular Telephone Corp.)
VoiceStream Wireless takes over OmniPoint.
|2002||VoiceStream Wireless changes its name to T-Mobile.|
|2004||AT&T Wireless is acquired by Cingular Wireless.|
|2005||Nextel Communications merges with Sprint.|
|2006||U.S. Cellular begins operating mobile phone service in the Portland area.|
|2007||Cingular Wireless changes its name to AT&T (the wireless branch is AT&T Mobility) after corporate mergers among SBC Communications, BellSouth and the original AT&T.|
|2008||Verizon sells its landline operations in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to FairPoint Communications after a year of regulatory approval. The complex at 45 Forest Avenue becomes the property of Northern New England Telephone Operations, LLC, a division of FairPoint based in Bangor. The building still houses Portland’s public switched telephone network (PSTN) – the largest central office in Maine – as well as a mobile telephone switching office (MTSO) for Verizon Wireless, Sprint and other carriers. FairPoint also continues to lease the office facility on Davis Farm Road.|
|2017||Consolidated Communications buys FairPoint Communications, and the purchase is finalized on July 3rd.|
|2018||Consolidated Communications retires the FairPoint name on February 20th.|
- The Telephone Museum – Ellsworth, Maine
- The New Hampshire Telephone Museum – Warren, New Hampshire
- The Telephone Museum – Waltham, Massachusetts
Sources & Acknowledgements: Many of the transitions above, unless otherwise noted, were gleaned from Portland city directories and telephone directories available at Portland Public Library and Brown Library at Maine Historical Society, online tax assessor databases used by the cities of Portland and Westbrook and the FCC’s online license database. I would like to thank Bill Barry, Jamie Kingman Rice, Jamie Cantoni and Dani Fazio at Maine Historical Society’s Brown Library; Cathleen Miller of the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England; Gabrielle Daniello and Abraham Schechter of the Portland Room at Portland Public Library; and Mary Lefebvre of the Japser N. Keller Pioneers (TelecomPioneers Chapter # 33) for their assistance in my research.