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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Telephones and Telegraphs


Men working on a telephone pole on 
the corner of State and East Market Streets, 
circa 1900. Courtesy of Diane Janowski.
by Diane Janowski
Elmira City Historian

In 1846, Elmira was temporarily up-to-date. We had telegraph service thanks to Ezra Cornell who strung up a line from Ithaca to Elmira. Unfortunately, Elmirans did not use the new technology and Ezra, being a practical businessman, stopped the service after only a few months.

By 1847, Elmirans had a new working telegraph service running out of Hall’s Book Store at 334 East Water Street run by Francis Hall. Mr. Hall was also Elmira’s first express agent. Although Hall’s telegraph was a convenience it was not always reliable – the wires easily fell off their poles during high winds. In 1850, another telegraph office opened over Dr. Paine’s drug store on Water Street. The line ran from Elmira to Canandaigua and connected to the New York Central Railroad wires.

In 1852, an exclusive wire was strung for the Erie depot with an office in the American Hotel.

In 1855, Mr. Cornell connected lines between Addison and Newburgh with an office in Elmira. The Northern Central Railroad put up a line between Williamsport and Elmira with an office on Fifth Street.

The challenge for early telegraph service was that people only used them for emergencies and receipts barely covered expenses. Many small lines quickly went out of business.


In 1865, Western Union opened a new line from Buffalo to New York City with an office at the Brainard House on East Water Street. This enabled our regional newspapers to become members of the Associated Press. The telegraph provided “up to the minute” information. By this time, telegrams began making money.

In 1877, a local company connected forty telegraph boxes in hotels, offices, and private dwellings. This brought about a new occupation – telegraph operator. One needed to know Morse code to work the boxes. By 1879, telegrams to and from Elmira totaled around 200 per day.

Wellsburg had two telegraph offices – one at the train depot and one at Morris Young’s store. Horseheads, Lowman, and Ashland also had telegraph offices.

As we all know the telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell on March 10. 1876. Telephones were quickly recognized as a valuable utility and a stepping-stone to affluence. William N. Eastabrook was the first Elmiran to recognize these qualities. Easterbrook was a telegraph operator for the Northern Central Railroad. He was quick to sense that a voice through a wire would be a distinct improvement over Morse Code dots and dashes.

In late 1877, Elmira’s first telephone was installed by Eastabrook in Jervis Langdon’s office at 110 Baldwin Street. It connected to a telephone in the Western Union office at 150 Baldwin Street. He invited potential customers and prospective investors to visit to Langdon’s office and learn how the technology might benefit their businesses. Eastabrook tried to interest his co-workers to invest $100 each with him and bring this new service to Elmira.

Frank E. Smith worked for Mr. Eastabrook at the railroad as a telegrapher. Along with Horace French, Sylvester French, and F. Ellery Fitch, they formed a partnership that launched the first telephone local company known as the Elmira Bell Telephone Exchange. Smith became the office manager and published the first local telephone book. Smith recalled in a 1936 Star-Gazette article, “The first telephone I remember was a clumsy oblong box-like contraption fastened to the wall and equipped with a little bell-lever.”

By December 1879, enough Elmirans had subscribed to the idea of bringing service to our area. When telephone service finally connected Elmira to the world in 1880, forty-two customers had signed up - 36 businesses and 6 residences. The first telephone directory was quickly outdated as more and more customers subscribed. Businesses were the primary users of the service. They included A. B. Austin grocery store; Barker, Dounce & Rose hardware store; I. D. Booth hardware store; the Erie depot; the Park Church; and the “Reformatory.” The first private residence to have the luxury of a telephone was the Jervis Langdon home on the corner of East Church and North Main Streets. Several lawyers also had residential telephones. By the end of 1881, the directory listed 191 numbers.

An Elmira Gazette ad in 1901: “Wanted - One thousand chestnut telephone poles to be delivered at Elmira, New York. For particulars address the Elmira Telephone Company, No. 212 East Water Street.”

Competing telephone companies erected their own poles and wires. Businesses required more than one telephone. A notice in the Elmira Gazette in 1902: “If you want to send in a want ad to the gazette you may use the telephone, either line. Call 396 on the old line or 286 on the new line.”

Many residents resented the installation of telephone poles placed in front of their houses. From the Elmira Gazette, 1903: “Residents of the northern section of the city are complaining against the New York and Pennsylvania Telephone Company employees who are engaged in erecting new poles. Mrs. John Lonergan who resides at the corner of Washington Avenue and Magee Street compelled them to stop work by running out of the house and jumping into the freshly dug hole.”

From the Elmira Gazette, 1904: “The American Telephone and Telegraph Company, whose line runs from Montour Falls to Odessa, has been having all sorts of trouble lately. Several days ago, the inspector of the company made the discovery that about eight of their poles had been sawed into so that they were in imminent danger of falling to the ground.”

Many of us still recall when phone numbers increased from five digits to seven, adding the prefix “7-3” in 1958. This exchange was called “REgent” to help us remember.

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