Fort Worth’s first telephones were installed by 1881.
The first telephone exchange was located on the third floor of the First National Bank building at 215 Houston Street. In this photo of 1881 note the wire-laden telephone poles. And if you squint you can see women sitting in windows on the third floor. Perhaps they were “hello girls,” as female operators were called (men were considered too rude to be operators). In 1890 this exchange would be the workplace of “hello girl” Addie Cullen, whose marriage to Mayor William S. Pendleton would lead to scandal and his resignation. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)
A plaque set in the sidewalk marks the location of the first telephone exchange, which initially served forty customers.
A single switchboard, a handful of “hello girls,” and phone numbers of first one digit and then two and three and four digits served the city for thirty years.
Telephone numbers in newspaper advertisements first appeared in 1883.
But during those thirty years Fort Worth’s population exploded. In fact, in 1900 Fort Worth’s population was just 26,688. By 1910 the population was 73,312, an increase of almost threefold. Much of that increase came in 1909 when Fort Worth annexed the city of North Fort Worth, which had boomed after the packing plants began operation in 1903. The increase in the number of phones in Fort Worth was almost ninefold, from 1,116 in 1900 to 9,800 in 1910. Thus, in 1900 one person in twenty-three had a telephone; by 1910 one person in seven had a telephone.
In fact, it was in large part due to the population boom in the former city of North Fort Worth that Southwestern Telegraph and Telephone Company in 1910 was forced to make some changes. A single switchboard could handle only so many phone numbers. So, on January 23 the Star-Telegram announced (type is cut off on the right margin in this clip) that, beginning on January 29, to place a call a caller would have to specify to the operator whether the number desired was in the Lamar exchange or the Prospect exchange. The Prospect exchange was added to serve the North Side. The original (nameless) single exchange that had served all of the city to that point became the “Lamar” exchange to distinguish it from the Prospect exchange. And the news story said that soon a third exchange—Rosedale—would be opened for the South Side.
Clip is from January 28.
On August 8, 1909 the Star-Telegram ran this photo of the new Cobden Building on North Main Street, which would house the new Prospect telephone exchange in 1910.
The Cobden Building today at 2027 North Main Street.
The phone company held an open house for the new Prospect exchange on March 24, 1910. Clip is from the March 23 Star-Telegram.
On January 29, 1910 the Star-Telegram reported that the new phone system would change the nature of telephone party lines. Now, instead of each phone on a party line being assigned a different number of rings, each phone would be assigned a different letter. Also, “only the phone of the party wanted”—not all the phones on the party line—“will ring.”
The story also said that bids would be taken for construction of the third exchange building (Rosedale) on Jennings Avenue.
Indeed, on April 7 the Dallas Morning News reported the progress of construction of the $40,000 ($985,000 today) Rosedale exchange building.
On October 2 the Star-Telegram printed a photo of the new Rosedale exchange building.
On December 31, 1910 the Star-Telegram announced that the Rosedale exchange would begin operation with thirty “hello” girls.
The Rosedale exchange building today.
Predictably, there were growing pains as callers adjusted to having to specify one of not two but now three exchanges when they placed a call with an operator. Clip is from the January 7, 1911 Star-Telegram.
The direct-dial system was begun in 1932. In 1956 several phone exchanges were eliminated as phone numbers changed from six to seven digits to accommodate long-distance dialing.
Phone numbers grew to ten digits in 2000 when the area code 817 became required for all local calls.
In the twenty-first century, here’s a look at other surviving telephone exchange buildings:
PErshing on Pershing Avenue (1931) on the West Side.
This 1931 ad announcing the opening of the new “7” exchange building on Pershing Avenue shows the growing pains that Fort Worth endured each time an exchange was added.
WAlnut on West Bowie Street (1931) on the South Side.
MArket on Chestnut Avenue (1931) on the North Side.
Note the art deco detailing of the three exchanges built in the early 1930s.
VAlley on Eagle Drive (1946) in Haltom City.