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