History of Vashon’s Independent Telephone Companies
Based on interviews with Don and Louise Gallagher, the Vashon Telephone Company scrapbook, O.S. Van Olinda’s History of Vashon Maury Islands, Marjorie Stanley’s Beachcomber articles, Vashon Maury Island Heritage Association “White Books”, Vashon News, Vashon News Record, Newspapers.com, regional newspaper database
Early Vashon Phone Systems
As early as 1892 people needed to communicate between homes and businesses, homes that were close together used a simple system of cans and string or wire. Legend has it that the households of J.Jacobs and Mr. Webber made the first ‘”acoustic” telephone between their Vashon homes by attaching tin cans to a string. A half mile telephone line, the first, was established between the newspaper and the J.T. Thompson household.
The Tacoma Times ran an article December 24, 1903 commenting, “The project for establishing electrical communication and the matter of laying a cable is being considered once more. The residents of Vashon Island are very enthusiastic about establishing communication”.
The Farmers Mutual Independent Telephone Company, headquartered in Everett, WA secured a franchise for telephone service on Vashon Maury Islands in 1904 and set up an exchange in the town of Vashon serving the north part of the Island.
The Independent Telephone Co. of Seattle was granted a contract to lay a submarine telephone cable under the Sound connecting with Farmers Mutual Telephone Company, the cable was connected and working July, 1904. All phone numbers on the Farmers exchange started with red.
A short time after Farmers Mutual began serving Vashon, George Barlow of Tacoma, who owned a telephone exchange in Gig Harbor started an opposition exchange in Burton, the larger of the two towns at that time, known as the Island Empire Company, the exchange was connected by submarine cable with the Home Telephone Company of Tacoma. All phone numbers on the Island Empire exchange started with black.
The two phone exchanges were not interconnected. Francis Sherman recalled that both companies served his lumber mill in Paradise Valley so the business would be able to get calls from the whole Island. A caller from the Farmers exchange was not able to call a phone on the Island Empire exchange causing a situation that customers could call long distance off Island but could not call a friend at the other end of the Island.
There were no telephone poles at this time, the lines were strung on trees. Only customers close to the exchange office had service. There were not very many roads that were more than just trails and most were in rough condition.
The condition of the submarine cable, laid in 1904, is discussed in a 1905 letter from Farmers Mutual to stockholders and subscribers. “It is no news to you that the telephone cable connecting the Island with the Mainland is out of service, the cable was carefully tested and examined at both ends and upon being taken up out toward deep water was found to be so badly injured as to be worthless. We learn from the men who laid it that they put it down with some holes in it and with some joints not made water tight”. Further describing the cable laid by the Independent Telephone Co. the letter states. “We have an unwelcome inheritance from the old company of not only good cable spoiled in the laying, but in the fact that both on the Mainland and on the Island the lines laid to cable were for about two miles on each side run along the beach where there was no highway, and where the company had not taken the trouble to acquire right of way”.
O.S.Van Olinda wrote, “the cable was two #16 copper wires, rubber covered and wrapped with jute and one wrapping of cloth tape, the whole thing covered by a lead sheath less than 1/16 of an inch in thickness, the overall diameter was only 5/8 of an inch thick, with no armor whatsoever. The cable, as might be expected gave trouble almost immediately”. The cable continued to give trouble and on November 1907 a meeting was held by Farmers Mutual customers to take definite action in regard to lack of service and to circulate an agreement to the effect that if a cable connection to Seattle was not forthcoming within two months customers would discontinue their phone service, 80 of 125 customers signed the petition.
By February 1908 with the petition deadline two months past and no new cable to Seattle, Farmers Mutual responded with a letter from company president C.S. Wiley in the Vashon Island News. “The condition of the money market got to be such that it was next to impossible to raise money for new construction”…”I have not been unmindful of the great inconvenience caused to the people of Vashon Island by lack of communication with the mainland”.
Farmers Mutual began to lay new cable to Tacoma in March 1908, and the Seattle cable was up and running by April. Ironically in April dissatisfied customers incorporated a new telephone company the Vashon Telephone and Telegraph Company with Islanders H. Harrington as President, J.W. Rickart, Vice president, T. Hansen, Sec. Treas. With the intention of taking over both phone companies on the Island and consolidating them into one system, a plan that never came to fruition.
By 1915 there had been take overs and consolidation of the many independent companies in the telephone industry. At this time there were two telephone companies in operation on Vashon the Sunset Telephone Company owned by Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company located in the town of Vashon, and the West Coast Company located in Burton. The population on the Island was approximately 1200 people, with 200 telephone subscribers.
In 1917 Washington Coast Utilities bought and consolidated both Island phone systems and took over Vashon Light and Power which included a steam power plant at Ellisport. C.L. Garner was the trouble shooter and made his rounds with a horse and buckboard. A two man crew set poles by horse replacing the lines that were mostly strung on trees.
Washington Coast Utilities built a new building for the telephone exchange near the center of the Island on the Sw corner of the main road and SW 204thth St (the original building, still standing, was moved across the street and west on 204th in the 1970’s). According to Marjorie Stanley, “Peter Ericksen of Olympic Berry fame donated the property where the new the telephone office was located”.
Washington Coast Utilities office, photo from Vashon Telephone Co. scrapbook
Mrs. Sargent was the night operator at the time and had a cot near the switchboard with a buzzer system, instead of a light, thus waking her if there was an emergency call in the night. The number system was just a simple three or four number and the operator knew from the number asked for, how many rings to give the recipient of the call.
Old Operators Station, photo from Vashon Telephone Co. scrapbook
The submarine cable to Seattle failed in July 1918, and was found to be so badly deteriorated that repairs were impossible. The Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company claimed in a 1919 letter to the Public Service Commission of Washington, “Prior to to the failure of the cable the Pacific Telephone Company had been intending to lay a new submarine cable as the toll facilities taken over from the former company were not of our usual standard, due to war conditions it had been impossible to secure a new submarine cable, the Island is now served by the Washington Coast Utilities”.
In 1919 new submarine cable was laid to Seattle, and Tacoma. By 1921 there were 400 customers, and Washington Coast Utilities put in a submarine cable for power and cut out the steam plant in Ellisport.
In late 1922 the phone and electrical systems were sold to Puget Sound Power and Light, with C.L.Garner as manager. By 1924 the service had grown to three operators, with no service between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. Pop Wilbur was the telephone crew with the power crew helping out in times of emergency.
C.L. Garner, photo from Vashon Telephone Co. scrapbook
There were about ten parties on each line, with only a few private lines. There were two “sides” to each line with black or red as the prefix to a three or four digit number, with live operators. One could let the operator know they would be at a friend’s house for the evening so they could be reached there. People could listen in to folk’s conversations and then spread whatever news or gossip they heard. Many women worked as operators, it was up to the night operator to alert the volunteer firefighters, in the event of a fire.
Original switches, photo from Vashon Telephone Co. scrapboo
During a bad storm in 1924 on December 24th a ship drug anchor over the cable that carried electricity to Vashon and tore out the cable. The Power company, said Van Olinda, “Leased Peary’s famous old North Pole discovery ship, the Roosevelt, docked it in Tramp Harbor, installed a generator on it, and connected it up with the Island lines, it supplied current for about three months”.
By 1925 all-night service telephone service was inaugurated with four operators.There was still only telephone service for those who lived in communities close to the telephone office, with no long lines going out to the sparsely populated areas.
In 1934 telephone service was extended to 600 customers, of the Islands 2000 residents, served by six operators. A gale that year, with a velocity of 80 miles per hour, blew down all the poles between the office and Center.
Vashon had a few industries such as dairies, sand and gravel, lumber, logging, and farming, in those days these business were not yet dependent on telephone service and business began to fall off in 1935 with a decline in customers.
In 1943 wind and snow blew down all poles from the KIRO towers uphill to Maury, thirty inches of snow was recored from the storm.
Vashon Telephone Company
A 1945 Vashon Island News Record article reported, “The telephone system has been for sale since it’s acquisition but until the substantial increase in population on the Island which occurred during the war period, there has not been, up to now, a purchaser sufficiently interested to make a satisfactory bid for the property, and who was in a position to give adequate service”. The article continues, “Mr W.F. Barnett president of the Vashon Telephone Corporation is now on the Island in charge of the 600 customer system and will make his home here. Mr Barnett comes to Vashon from Port Angeles where for the past nine years he has been connected with the electric and natural gas utilities of that city. During the war he was engaged in electrical construction work on government contracts”.
Floyd Barnett and his secretary, photo from Vashon Telephone Co. scrapbook
When Mr Barnett took over the company the phone system had been an unwanted step child of Puget Sound Power and Light, who had been trying to sell the telephone part of the business. Puget Power and Light had not kept up the system, they left rusted and broken lines and a deteriorating system. Mr Barnett struggled to get it going at all. In the first snow in 1946 all lines but one were knocked out. Being a hands on guy Barnett put on his tool belt and boots and went out and worked with the linemen.
In order to get the system up and running Barnett had to borrow money but since he was a new kid on the block and money was tight because of the war, he had a hard time getting a loan, finally someone told him to go see an insurance company because they were lending money, he did and he got a loan.
Barnett’s daughter Louise’s husband Don Gallagher began working for the company in the early 1950’s starting with climbing poles working as a lineman and ending up running nine telephone companies. Don Gallagher says of Barnett getting the loan, “ Mr B. was ready to sign the contract and the insurance guy said, Mr Barnett we would like to own part of your company, well he told me he didn’t know what to do, but he picked the pen up and signed it because he needed it to get the system up and running. They had ten percent of everything and they were never a problem for the telephone company.”
Don Gallagher climbing a poll, photo from Vashon Telephone Co. scrapbook.
Don Gallagher continues, “I’ll tell you about utilities, Vashon Telephone Co. had a monopoly, like the Bell System, that was granted by the state of Washington. Vashon Telephone Company had a certain area they applied for and the state granted them that territory, another company could also get in the same area but they had to get approved by the state commission. Mr B sometimes complained and didn’t like what the commission told him to do but as a monopoly you have no one to answer to so you answer to the commission, thats a strange situation, you are granted that and if you want to raise your rates and you go to the commission and you give them all the information and they would say we will give you 8% increase and Mr B would say well I need 10% on the return of my money and they would come to an agreement. You were always guaranteed a profit and you would agree with the commission on your percentage of the profit, most unusual, now a days I don’t know if it works that way.”
To improve service the company needed to invest in infrastructure, Mr Barnett could only raise rates as approved by the commission and of course customers did not want rate hikes. Lenders were there but the rates they charged were prohibitive, one of the reasons Barnett went to the Insurance company for a loan.
“Little by little he began to build up the system,Vashon is not very big but there is a lot of territory to cover and you’ve got lines running way out and they are always down, the thing he was shooting for later on, specially when I was working for him, was to get rid of the open wire and put it all in cable”, Don Gallagher remembers, If you’ve got a hundred pairs in a cable they are stronger and the wind doesn’t bother them”
By 1949 lead covered cable was installed from the telephone office to the town of Vashon, the new lead covered cable was not affected by weather conditions and provided better service for customers. During this time the phone industry was going through big changes from old oak crank phones to rotary dial phones.
By 1950 there were 14 operators and 1000 customers.and the company switched over to the dial system. By 1951 Vashon Telephone’s 1,200 customers were using dial phones, and Barnett had doubled his customer base. During the 1950’s the company continued to siring lead cable on the Island including Heights, Cove, Dockton, and Burton.
Operators photo from Vashon Telephone Co. scrapbook
Barnett was very involved with the Washington Telephone Association, of which Louise Gallagher said “People don’t realize how important those associations were to the whole Northwest because there were a lot of independent telephone companies, most in small areas and privately owned, there aren’t many left, but back then there was and they were struggling so when the associations were formed of which my dad was involved, they could get together at conventions and discuss problems, approach the commission which governed them, and work on ways to improve their companies and their service.”
Lambert Miller, President of Oregon Independant Telephone Association, Floyd Barnett Washington President Washington Independant Telephone Association photo from Vashon Telephone Co. scrapbook
Don Gallagher recalls, “Mr B was good to take me to those meetings and conventions so I was on top of what was going on, us younger guys could watch and listen and learn”. While not always agreeing with Barnett the Utilities Commissioners and others in the industry respected him.
Don Gallagher recalls Barnett teaching him a lot about business including at one point telling him “I’m giving you a job I don’t like to do, collecting overdue bills”. Gallagher notes that “ Mr. B had very low accounts receivable, he taught me to treat customers with respect and to remember that it is important to the running of the operation that everyone pays. Mr. B also taught me how to deal with irate customers he said when they come listen the first time, don’t say anything, let them take a breath and listen again, by about the third time they are ready to listen and you can talk business”.
Barnett’s main focus was to modernize the system and move along with the times. In a talk to the Vashon Chamber of Commerce Barnett said “There is no better medium for the building of a greater volume of local business than up to date, efficient and convenient communications system. In this day and age no merchant would think of trying to do business without the advantage of telephone service”.
Barnett was a strong advocated for direct long distance dialing and asked the Commission for a rate hike to help cover the costs, the commission turned him down, as Don Gallagher recalled, “So in Mr Barnett fashion he came home and said the heck with it and he raised the rate anyway and the Commission took him to court and said you cant do that”. Barnett set aside all the money from the rate increase, and represented himself in court after his lawyers at Preston Gates and Ellis refused to represent him. He ended up winning in court and as a result in 1957 Vashon was one of the first communities in the state to have direct long distance dialing. Direct long distance dialing meant an end to the local operators and as Don Gallagher recalled “ On the last night they had a lot of fun and left the cables all mixed and tied up”.
In May of 1957 Washington State had 60 independent telephone companies, as the president of the Washington Independent Telephone Association Floyd Barnett presented Washington State Governor a symbolic one millionth telephone representing the millionth telephone customer in the state.
Floyd Barnett, center, presents Governor Rosellini, right with symbolic 1,000,000 phone. photo from Vashon Telephone Co. scrapbook
In 1960 an expanded switch room was completed allowing 55% of the Vashon Telephone Company’s 1,679 customers to be switched from 10 party line to 5 party lines. New cable was strung to Heights, Glen Acres, Dilworth, Quartermaster, Burton, and out to Maury Island.
New switch room addition on right, photo Vashon Telephone Co. scrapbook
Setting up the new switch board, photo Vashon Telephone Co. scrapbook
Being a small independent company Vashon Telephone Co. had employees that were part of the community and are were a vital part of the company. Gramps or Pop Wilbur as he was called, who had worked for Puget Power and was one of Barnett’s early employees, Al Hoffmiester who was born and raised on Vashon and quite a character as Don Gallagher remembers. “When I worked outside I worked mainly with Al he had a little camps stashed all over the Island where we could go in the winter time build a little fire eat our lunch and get warm”. Another employee Vern “Red” Young taught Don Gallagher how to climb poles Gallagher remembers. ” You got hooks and a belt, you don’t hug the pole or else the hooks will fall out, so you have to lean back into the belt and you have to get comfortable doing that, so I’m riding around with Red and it was time for lunch, I packed lunch so I was done and Red took me over and showed me a pole to practice climbing on while he finished his lunch, I did some practice and then got to the top, when Red came out from lunch and saw me stuck on top, boy did he get a laugh”. Louise Gallagher worked as an operator as did Marie Shride, Olga Robinson, and Mary Calhoun.
Vern “Red” Young, photo Vashon Telephone Co. scrapbook
Vashon Telephone continued to be an independent system until 1968 when it became a subsidiary of Telephone Utilities Inc., which in 1985 became a subsidiary of Pacific Telcom Inc., which then became a subsidiary of PTI Communication. Don Gallagher continued to work for the systems eventually running 9 telephone companies before retiring. In 1998 Centurytel took over operations.
VASHON TELEPHONE HISTORY TIMELINE
1903 Billy Scales remembers, a meeting in 1903 on the forming of a telephone system on Vashon. Marjorie Stanley, Beachcomber article, 11/16/196
The residents of Vashon are enthusiastic about establishing communication with the mainland either by wireless telegraph or cable. Tacoma Times 12/24/1903
1904 Farmers Mutual Telephone Co. granted telephone franchise on Vashon. O.S.Van Olinda, History of Vashon Maury Islands, Vashon News 1935
The Independent Telephone Co. of Seattle awarded contract to lay submarine telephone cable across the sound connecting to Farmers Mutual Telephone Co. Aberdeen Herald, 4/21/1904
The Independent Telephone Co. of Seattle connected it’s lines with Vashon and began giving service Oct. 1, 1904. Telephony, an illustrated monthly telephone journal, 10/1904
Farmers Mutual Telephone Co. lobbies Tacoma for a telephone cable from Vashon to Tacoma. Tacoma Times, 7/20/1904
1905 Farmers Mutual plans new submarine cable, letter states. Farmers Mutual letter to stockholders and subscribers, 10/11/1905
1908 Vashon Telephone and Telegraph Co formed by islanders. The American Telephone Journal Vol. 17, 1908; Vashon News, 4/3/1908
Island Empire Telephone Co. plans to extend their system from Gig Harbor to Vashon Island. The Journal of Electrical Power and Gas, 4/18/1908
Farmers Mutual plans to lay a submarine cable from Tacoma to Vashon. Journal of Electricity Power and Gas, 3/21/1908
Farmers Mutual connects new submarines cable to Seattle. Vashon News, 4/3/1908
1909 Several Island citizens protest the granting a telephone franchise to Island Empire Telephone and Telegraph Co. Tacoma Times, 4/15/1909
1910 Farmers Mutual Telephone Co. plans extensions of service. Vashon News, 5/9/1910
A new cable installed between Tacoma and Vashon. Oregon Daily News 10/17/1910
1913 Sunset Telephone Company, operating on the north end of the Island acquired it’s competitor and was renamed the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co. History Link.org
1915 Island Empire Telephone Co. extended to extreme south end of Island. VMIHA, Utilities, White Book
New power plant at built at Ellisport. Tacoma Times 6/7/1915
1916 Two separate systems, Sunset Telephone Company, serving the north end of the Island, owned by Pacific Tel. Company; and West Coast Company, located at Burton and serving south end, serve Vashon. Don Gallagher, Vashon Beachcomber article, 1956; VMIHA, White Book
Vashon Light and Power writes in newspaper rooting for Vashon Telephone Co to get franchise for both Island phone systems. Vashon News Record 2/28/1916
1917 Washington Coast Utilities buys and consolidates both phone systems on Vashon and buys Vashon Light and Power. Washington Coast Utilities notice to customers, dated 12/6/1917; Letter from Pacific Tel Co. Public Service Commission of Washington, dated 7/10/1919
1918 Telephone cable to Seattle failed 7/1918. Letter from Pacific Tel Co. Public Service Commission of Washington, dated 7/10/1919;
A new telephone exchange building was built near the center of the Island. County Property Tax Records; VMIHA, Utilities white book
1919 New submarine cable to Seattle installed. Oregon Daily Review 10/17/1919
1921 Washington Coast Utilities puts in submarine power cable and cuts out Ellisport steam plant.There are 400 telephone customers. Don Gallagher, Vashon Beachcomber article, 1957
1923 Puget Sound Power and Light buys Vashon Light and Power and the Telephone system from Washington Coast Utilities. Vashon News Record, 1/5/1923; Vashon Beachcomber, 1/5/1923; Don Gallagher, Vashon Beachcomber article, 1956; Marjorie Stanley, Vashon Beachcomber article, 11/16/1967
1924 Storm drags ship over power cable form Seattle, ship Roosevelt ties up in Tramp Harbor with generator. Three operators, with no service from 10pm to 8am. Don Gallagher, Vashon Beachcomber article, 1957
1925 All night phone service inaugurated. Don Gallagher, Vashon Beachcomber article, 1957
1934 600 customers and 6 operators, gale blows out service. Don Gallagher, Vashon Beachcomber article, 1957
1935 Decline in customers. Don Gallagher, Vashon Beachcomber, 1957
1945 W.F.Barnett Vashon Telephone Corp. buys phone system, W.F. Barnett president. 600 customers and eight operators. Vashon News Record, 12/27/1945; Don Gallagher, Vashon Beachcomber article, 1957
1946 Storm blows down all lines leaving but one working line for over two days. Don Gallagher, Vashon Beachcomber article, 1957
1949 The first lead covered cable was installed from the telephone office to Vashon. Don Gallagher, Vashon Beachcomber article, 1957
1950 14 operators and 1000 customers, company switched over to direct dial system. Don Gallagher, Vashon Beachcomber, 1957
1951 1,200 Vashon Telephone Co. subscribers have started using dial telephones. Vashon News Record, 12/11/1951
1954 More lead cable installed from Vashon down Cove Road. Don Gallagher, Vashon Beachcomber article, 1957
1956 More lead cable strung to Heights, Cove, Dockton, and Burton. Don Gallagher, Vashon Beachcomber article, 1957
1957 1600 customers, first independent phone customers in Washington-Idaho to have Direct Distance Dialing, starting 5/25/1957. Pacific Tel. Magazine, 5/1957; Vashon Telephone dialing instruction card, 1957
Floyd Barnett presents governor Rosellini with Washington’s millionth phone. Vashon News Record, 5/23/1957; Daily Journal of Commerce 5/25/1957
1960 5 party service will cover 65% of customers by fall through covered cable. Vashon Beachcomber 7/14/1960
1968 Vashon Telephone no longer independent becomes subsidiary of Telephone Utilities Inc.
1998 Centurytel takes over Vashon telephone service