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Petaluma’s Past: When the telephone came calling in Petaluma

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Recently, I wrote a column about the Herold Building on Kentucky Street and quoted some early telephone lore passed to me by one of Petaluma’s first phone operators. Well, my friend, John Sheehy, corrected me on a bit of that, and it got me to researching what really did happen when the phones first came to Petaluma.

The telephone, devised in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell, was to quickly become one of the greatest inventions of the Industrial Revolution. Within just four years, there were nearly 50,000 phones in service in the US. American Telephone & Telegraph Co. was established in 1880, just the start of a whole tidal change of verbal correspondence.

Browse with me thru those first eight years of phones in our town.

As our Petaluma Courier Editor D.W. Ravenscroft first noted in March of 1881, “A telephone line has been placed in position between the Carriage Factory of Wm. Zartman and Gwinn & Brainard’s Harness Establishment.”

Well, I guess that’s where the action was.

That same year, another line was established at the Petaluma Savings Bank, and another at the home of one of Petaluma’s founders, Hiram Fairbanks. (That three-story Victorian still stands there, at D and 8th. Note the buggy stepping-stone engraved “Fairbanks”). Those first phones in our town 138 years ago were wooden boxes, 10 inches by 3 inches in size, and covered in buckskin.

Eventually, there were several telephone companies servicing Petaluma. They included the W.S. Pierce Co., The Red Hill Co., The San Antonio Rural Co. and the Sunset Co. Early on in 1884, our Courier editor announced, ”Sunset Telephone is canvassing for subscriptions for a line through the city. You can have a strictly private conversation with a friend in Sacramento or Stockton and give him or her a piece of your mind for half a dollar.”

Then, in July it was reported, “The telephone is now completed between our sister City of the Roses and this city. Now, we can converse with our neighbors to our hearts’ content.”

Then this, that same month.

“For patrons, a telephone has been put up between the post office and Smith’s Hack Stables.” Not long after, the medical office of Dr. J. MacWhinnie was connected by telephone line to Maynard’s Drugs.

Progress was rampant.

Then, in August of ’84, our editor excitedly commented, “We paid a visit to the store of Frank Atwater (the son of Wickersham Bank mamager Henry Atwater and his wife, Addie), “where we saw the paraphernalia of the new telephone. Communication is now established between Petaluma, San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento and Alameda. This wonderful feat of conversing over wires is one of the greatest wonders of the ages. Petaluma is also connected with Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Guerneville, Sonoma and Cloverdale.” He then forecast, “It looks as if the telephone is going to dispute the field of the telegraph!”

But, it wasn’t all wine and roses.

In September of ’85, this irritated commentary appeared.

“The telephone will never come into general use, until some seclusion is thrown around it. For then, a person can hear the responses. Public telephones ought to be placed in a room, where quiet prevails.”

Sounds about right. Just ask anyone who has been disturbed by a cell phone at the next table.

Petaluma’s American Hotel sported telephone No. 29 in ’85 and some other big Petaluma names getting phones then were, the Steamer Gold office, the American Stables, G.P. McNear, Golden Eagle Feed Mills and The Brooklyn Hotel. It was noted that, “Dr. Keating had a narrow escape a few nights since crossing the flat, south of town on horseback, his throat came in contact with a telephone wire, which had gotten out of place.” The Doc survived, but all, it seemed, was not perfect about that new gadget and its installations.

In 1887, the Sunset Co. connected our new hospital with the residence of the county physician. That installation cost was $150 plus $3 per month. Sunset also that year requested of our Board of Trustees (i.e. the City Council), permission to run poles and lines all the way to the Pacific Ocean at Bodega Bay.

By 1889, there were 64 phones in Petaluma and, as our editor commented, “Even Nicasio will now be connected to the wicked world, and some are in favor of extending it to Olema!” (Be still my heart!) Those first eight years of phones, poles and wires were certainly eventful here.

Mostly upbeat, but sometimes frustrating.

I would be remiss if I didn’t jump forward a few more years to include the tragedy of March 21, 1895. Our Morning Courier’s headline was, “The Awful Death Of W.S. Pierce.”

The story continued, “Wm. Pierce of the Pierce Telephone Co.” (also president of Petaluma Light & Power) “was instantly killed in the presence of hundreds of citizens, during a driving wind and rain storm.” The well-known 25-year-old Pierce had been driving his buggy through town, checking for storm damage to wires, when he found a pole on Main Street needing attention. Clad in soaking wet clothing, he climbed the pole to make an assessment, and was electrocuted. Tragically, Pierce’s body was caught there on the pole for a half-hour before our fire ladder truck was able to remove it. Petaluma was stunned.

The miracles of electric light and telephone were certainly two of the greatest inventions ever and, of course, are still with us now. But nothing new is easy to establish, and the tragic death of our much admired local entrepreneur was a major upset to our community, for quite some while. “Willie” Pierce’s final tribute in the Argus rightly concluded, “He was a promising young man with a bright future. Sad indeed, are the hearts of the populace.”

(Historian Skip Sommer is an honorary member of the Petaluma Historical Museum and Heritage Homes. You can reach him at skipsommer@hotmail.com)