Lost Butte, Montana, a book by Richard I. Gibson, is in stores and museum gift shops around Butte. Or order from the publisher. It's also in E-book formats at all the usual places. And read an interview with Gibson, here, and on KXLF here. The Facebook page has many historic photos of Butte, and the Butte-Anaconda NHLD project showcases many historic buildings. Location-oriented posts can be found on HistoryPin. On Mondays beginning in January 2016, look for Gibson's "Mining City History" column in the Montana Standard.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Telephones in 1880's Butte

By Richard I. Gibson

"TELco" is the 1884 second-floor office of
the Bell Telephone Co. on North Main.
85 is the Owsley Transfer Co. and Stable at Park and Main.
The building east of the Owsley stable was probably
a brothel (it was for sure by 1888.)
Butte boasts many firsts, but the telephone is not one of them. Montana’s first telephone appears to have been in Miles City, associated with Ft. Keogh (ca. 1877), and the first real exchange was in Helena in 1878. Butte’s telephone business apparently began February 21, 1882, when the phone line arrived, following (I think) the Utah and Northern Railroad line up from Salt Lake City.

By 1884 the Rocky Mountain Bell Telephone Company shared an office with Western Union Telegraph in the Owsley Hall, at 260 Main. This location was about mid-block between Park and Broadway, on the east side, north of the Owsley Transfer Company Stables on the corner (later site of the Owsley Block/Medical Arts Bldg. that burned down in 1973). The two-story building also contained the Butte Hardware Co. on the first floor, with a warehouse and tin shop in the basement, and the communications companies shared the second floor with the short-lived Variety Theater; by 1888 that space was occupied by the Inter Mountain Printing Company.

The telephone and telegraph companies were “open day and night” and both were managed in 1884 by William Cairns, who lived on the south side of Porphyry Street between Main and Colorado. By 1889, Rocky Mountain Bell must have been a promising enterprise, attracting as President Andrew Jackson Davis (to become Montana’s first millionaire, thanks to his First National Bank) and superintendent Patrick Largey (later president of the State Savings Bank at Park and Main, where he was murdered in 1898 by a disgruntled victim of the 1895 warehouse explosion).

The phone company continued at the Main Street location until about 1897, when it moved to 50-52 East Broadway, its headquarters for many years thereafter. The only phone company in Butte’s early years to compete with Bell was the Montana Independent Phone Company (1907-1914), which erected a prestigious Greek Revival building on Granite Street as its office, surviving today as the Butte Water Company building. Businesses listed both phone numbers in their advertising, as evidently the two systems were not interconnected.

By 1891 phone numbers were into the 200’s. Grocers and transfer companies were most likely to have phones, but a lumber company, a confectioner, and the Montana Iron Works (tel. no. 81) also had connections. By 1910, there were more than 7000 phone numbers in Butte.

Thanks to Kathy Carlson for suggesting this post. The story of the telephone in Butte could clearly fill a book, so perhaps you’ll see a future post on this topic.

Image from 1884 Bird's-eye View of Butte, from Library of Congress.

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