by JOHN J O’ROURKE
Extracted from PCHS Newsletter, Vol 1, No 4
Fifty-one years ago, all Paterson, at chat time a city with a population less than 50,000, marveled at a device that carried the human voice over wires into homes, business houses and factories from a central station on the third floor of the Morton Clark building, on the northwest corner of Main and Ellison streets. It was the beginning of commercial telephone service in this part of the country. Four years and six months earlier, June 2, 1875, Alexander Graham Bell, in the attic of a boarding house in Boston uttered the first message over a telephone wire when he communicated with his aid, Thomas A. Watson, in another room twenty feet away, saying, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.”
One year after that epochal event John F. Noonan witnessed a demonstration of the telephone by Mr. Bell at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and he was so impressed with the value of the invention that he planned at once to establish a telephone service in Paterson. He had been employed as ticket agent at the Erie station in Passaic and manager for the Western Union Telegraph Company, and he had won a high reputation as an expert telegraph operator. Resigning his position in Passaic, he came to Paterson and began his life’s work.
At the outset Mr. Noonan met with the same experience as the pioneers in every field of human progress. The people of Paterson had read about “the wonderful invention,” but they were slow to take advantage of it. The spirit and courage of the pioneer were essential. john F. Noonan possessed these qualifications to a high degree. His path was uphill and thorny, but the smile of confidence could not be effaced. .
Efforts in the same direction had been made by others, but it remained for Mr. Noonan to establish the first commercial telephone service in this part of the country with a crude equipment compared with the great modern and complex system in operation today under the direction of Donald Smith, serving 32,000 subscribers in this city alone who make an average 138,000 calls a day through 306 operators in three stations.
When John F. Noonan opened the first telephone exchange, he employed two operators, Miss Margaret Van Houten, wife of Dr. Pruden, of Ridgewood, and Miss Marion Makepeace, wife of Dr. George E. Christie. There is no record of the number of calls made in those early days of telephoning, but it is recalled that they were few, even during the business hours, and not enough at night to keep one operator busy.
Mr. Noonan’s Courage and Optimism
Less than a dozen subscribers were listed when Mr. Noonan opened the exchange, hut the pioneer never lost his optimism. “It cannot fail,” he is quoted as saying when someone questioned the wisdom of investing money in the enterprise. The equipment represented an outlay of $10,000.
“It needs no telegraphic education” Mr. Noonan argued. “Anybody who has ears to listen and tongue to talk can use in. Its alarm system is distinct and its communication is instant.”
Years later, in the Blue Front Building, 207 Main street, to which the telephone exchange was moved in 1885, Mr. Noonan said to the writer: “The telephone is only in its infancy. I firmly believe that in a few years you will be able to talk and to be distinctly heard over thousands of miles of wire, in every part of this country.”
Even Mr. Noonan did not dream that today we would be able to carry on a telephone conversation across the seas, to any country in Europe and to South America and Africa, and as for using the telephone as part of the equipment to carry on conversation with ships in mid-ocean and with aviators up in the clouds that would be regarded as a fantastic dream. Mr. Noonan, however, had ideas in advance of his time. No one was more optimistic about the future of the telephone.
Fifty-One Years Ago, and Now
Going back fifty-one years and peeping into the original telephone exchange which was reached by climbing flights of wooden stairs on the Ellison street side of the Clark building, the reportorial visitor of the day beheld “a wilderness of wires, batteries, signals and magnets.” Evidently the reporter was much bewildered for there the description of the equipment ends. The switchboard in use at that time was of the old magneto type and consisted of five sections. It was operated by means of a shutter, which, in falling, signaled the operator by causing a buzzer to sound. Below the buzzers were tiny holes, or jacks as they were known in the telephone vocabulary, each bearing a number corresponding to the number on the shutter. It was a noisy and confusing bit of apparatus, not in any sense to be compared with the quiet efficiency that impresses the visitor to a modern telephone exchange these days. But, under the direction of
Mr. Noonan, the Paterson office was kept abreast of the times, as the telephone engineers worked out new efficiency problems. Still pioneering he led the way for all of New jersey in 1900, when the first common battery switchboard equipment was placed in use here. The common battery switchboard, now generally in use throughout the state, makes possible signaling the operator without other effort than lifting the receiver off the hook. Then again, in 1922, Paterson continued in the field of telephone pioneering when a new dial central office, Sherwood 2, was opened. It was the second dial central office of the modern type in the world, the first having been opened in Omaha in 1921.
Here is to be found the marvel of the telephone age. Here is to be found machinery that all but talks. Here is to be found a machine that operates mechanically to tell the careless subscriber of some omission or other neglect. It gives all the signals required for operation; it even collects money from the coin boxes throughout the city. If you happen to leave the receiver off the hook it gives you notice by noise that may best be described by referring to it as a howl.
In this station is to be found two floors of mechanical apparatus that carries out every motion requisite to perfect telephone service. It registers 240 distinct operations between the few seconds during which you make a dial call and listen to the buzzing sound. John F. Noonan in his most fanciful dreams about the future of the telephone never saw such a mechanical telephone wonder.
Early Struggles Recalled
Looking back again to the early days of the telephone in this city, the strife and controversy over the construction of the outdoor equipment are recalled. To carry the voice over wires it was necessary to have poles and to erect poles it was necessary to have the cooperation of property owners. There were property owners who realized that the telephone was, or would be, of great value to the community. There were backward citizens who regarded the telephone as a common nuisance. There were people who had enough civic pride to give their support to the telephone movement as well as their consent to the stringing of wires and the erection of poles. There were others who gave their consent only on condition that they would receive a free telephone. Thus, it was that there were many free telephones in the early days.
John Desmond, a relative of Mr. Noonan, who joined the construction force about a year after the telephone exchange was established, and who now lives in retirement at 662 East Twenty fourth street, recites some lively incidents of the pioneer days. He recalls a battle near the north end of the West street, now West Broadway, bridge in which Alderman George Addy, a large property owner in that section, was the chief actor. Mr. Addy objected to the erection of a telephone pole in front of his property, but the linemen went ahead with their job. The pole was in place and a lineman was busy fastening a cross arm on the top when Mr. Addy appeared with a new saw and a fixed determination. Mr. Addy was muscular as well as determined and the saw was brought into play with such effect that the lineman spiked down the pole in preference to taking an involuntary nose dive.
Mr. Desmond recalls another incident on Ellison street near Cross street. A prosperous butcher named Pfefflein, objected to the planting of a pole in front of his property, but the sturdy linemen remained master of the situation while digging the hole. When, however, the linemen proceeded to give their united effort to carrying the pole to position the objecting butcher climbed into the hole. Argument failing, the linemen used physical force to remove the butcher. In due time the pole was firmly planted and it remained.
Gradually the public began to see the value of the telephone, and Mr. Noonan was able to give his attention to the extension of the system to Little Falls and other suburban territory as far as Newton. One day, after he believed the effort of months to establish connection with Newton were successful, he received a message from a large land owner warning him that $50 must be forthcoming within twenty-four hours, otherwise the wires that had been erected would be demolished. Mr. Noonan saw the importance of quick action. He turned over $50 to Mr. Desmond with instruction to proceed at once to Ackerman’s livery stable and hire his best team of horses. Accompanied by John McDonald, another lineman, the trip to Newton was made and the lines were saved.
The Original Construction Force
The entire construction force during the first year was a small one. John Blow, who moved from Paterson to Philadelphia in 1882, bull the switchboard. His son, William, was a lineman. John Donnelly, who died a few years ago, was foreman of the linemen. Snat Smith, who began as a lineman and later became foreman, left for South America in the early eighties and was not again heard from. William Courson, _John Space and Thomas Kearney were employed as linemen, stringing the first wires. Thomas Kimble was employed as a night man at general work and Dr. O`Donnell and Dr. Christie were employed as boys in the exchange. These with the two telephone operators constituted the entire force. Today the telephone company employs a force of about 800 skilled men and women.
The implements with which the repair and construction force worked were as crude as the telephone switchboard compared with the modern functioning of the telephone system. Storms played havoc with the wires strung loosely on poles and over roofs. It was common to see the linemen and repair men trudging through the streets with coils of wire fastened about their waists, cross arms on their shoulders and an assortment of bolts, nuts, nails and hammers in their pockets, and spikes fastened from feet to knee adding to their burdens. These were the pioneer days in the repair field.
The telephones installed when the exchange opened in the Clark building were in the office of: The Guardian, The Press, R. and H. Adams mill, Phoenix Manufacturing Company, Post Office, Morton Clark, H. J. Garrison, Hamilton House, john Hopper and Son, and Chris Huber.
Noonan, The Original Broadcaster
There can be no question that Mr. Noonan was the first to use the telephone for broadcasting. He was deeply interested in all charitable enterprises, and one day while discussing with the trustees of First Baptist church new attractions for a bazaar for the benefit of the General Hospital he proposed sending music over the telephone wires from the central office in the Blue Front Building to the auditorium in which the bazaar was held. Ten instruments with ear pieces were placed on a table when Mr. Noonan turned on the music from a music box in the telephone exchange it was distinctly heard by those holding the ear pieces to their ears. Ten cents were charged for the privilege of listening to the music and the feature proved to be a big drawing card. That may be said to be the forerunner of the great broadcasting now enjoyed in almost every American home.
On May 1, 1900 the telephone company moved from the Blue Front Building to a more modern telephone building at Paterson and Ellison streets, which was opened with the common battery switchboard service and in 1927 the building of 114 Paterson street was added to the system.
It was fitting that this record of the origin and progress of the telephone in Paterson for half a century should be observed in a public demonstration and that the memory of the man who made it possible for Paterson to be among the first cities to have a commercial telephone service should be honored and perpetuated.
This idea brought about the appointment of a committee of citizens. The following were named on the committee: President, Harry B. Haines, editor and publisher of the Paterson Evening News; vice-president, john V. Hinchliffe, mayor of Paterson; vice-president, James Wilson, president of the Chamber of Commerce; secretary and treasurer, John J. O`Rourke; Charles A. Bergen, Louis F. Braun; Edward j. Cody; Marcus Cohen; Peter Cirmino; Charles E. Dietz; John Donnelly, Philip Donohue, M. I, Fuld, William H. Kearns, Louis Kirsinger, Dr. William Herbert Lowe, Francis K. Mason, John McCutcheon, John E. O’Connor, Dr. William H. Rauchfuss, Edward Sceery, Leonard Tamboer, P. J. Tierney, Dr. Frank J. Van Noort, James Zeliff.
Monument to The Pioneer
The committee at first proposed that the celebration take place on December 24, 1929, the fiftieth anniversary of the formal opening of the telephone exchange, but because of traffic conditions during the Christmas holiday season the date was changed to .January 6, 1930. the committee meanwhile selected as a suitable monument to Mr. Noonan a tablet thirty-six by twenty-five inches in statuary bronze to be placed on the Ellison street side of the Quackenbush building close to the site of the entrance to the old telephone exchange. On the upper part of the tablet there is a portrait in relief of the pioneer telephone man and beneath the portrait an appropriate inscription.
The day came-a beautiful spring day in midwinter. Thousands of people gathered on Ellison and Main streets at 3:30 o’clock in the afternoon when Mr. Haines as chairman opened the proceedings, following selections by the Police Band under the direction of Professor Dittarno.
After a brief introductory address, Mr. Haines called upon Miss Kathryn D, Noonan, daughter of John F. Noonan, and principal of Public-School No. 17, to unveil the tablet, as the great gathering of men and women applauded, the band played patriotic airs.
Mayor Hinchliffe then formally accepted the tablet on behalf of the people of Paterson, declaring, “As mayor of Paterson and in behalf of the people of Paterson I accept this tablet and this record of the birthplace in our city of the most important of our public utilities.”
Mayor Hinchliffe also paid a fine tribute to the vision and courage of the telephone pioneer. The mayor also paid a high compliment to the daughter of Mr. Noonan, whose life work has been the education of the young.
Henry Spitz, president of Quackenbush & Co., was the next speaker. In a brief acknowledgment of the tablet on behalf of his firm he said: “I am sure that my late father, Louis Spitz, would have been pleased to do so if he had been here today.”
R. W. Pyke, executive manager of the Quackenbush store, said that “this handsome plaque, placed in honor of a member of a former generation, should serve as an incentive to the coming generations.”
Historical Society’s Participation
Charles E. Dietz, speaking for the Passaic County Historical Society, declared that it was most appropriate for the city to honor the great accomplishments of fifty years ago. He pointed out that Mr. Noonan started with a small business organization but that the ideas and ideals fostered by him had grown to immense proportions and he urged the present generation and the generation to come to follow on. He said that the teaching force in the public schools and the members of the Passaic County Historical Society put forward the accomplishments of the past to the end that the new generation may be encouraged to do greater things. Dr. William Herbert Lowe, speaking for the United Improvement and Civic Associations of Paterson, declared that John F. Noonan’s ability and perseverance worked wonders in the establishment and development of a service that has become indispensable in our day and generation.
John McCutcheon’s Tribute
State Comptroller john McCutcheon, who had known Mr. Noonan intimately for many years, said: “I am sure that in some far off shade john F. Noonan and his estimable life companion are looking down on this wonderful gathering. It is indeed good to know and to realize that great deeds in the lives of such men as John F. Noonan are not forgotten. This is, indeed, a tribute by citizens to a citizen, for of _john F. Noonan it could truthfully be said he was a citizen worthy of a great city. Mr. Noonan faced no small task in his day as in our, there were spirits abroad who, lacking in vision or for some other reason, were ready to throw all kinds of obstacles in the path of progress. Pioneers, like John F. Noonan, had to plead with people to permit them to advance a project which has since grown to a three-billion-dollar business and whose ramifications reach all over the earth. John F. Noonan had vision plus pluck and perseverance which finally carried him though. I am indeed glad to be here and feel highly honored and it is a matter of great pride and satisfaction to me to have had intimate contact with Mr. Noonan and his most estimable wife, the mother of this splendid young woman who is with us today. Upwards to fifty years ago as indicated on this plaque, john F. Noonan brought to Paterson a Christmas present such as will perhaps never come again.”
Mr.McCutcheon closed, reciting William Ernst Henley’s “Invictus”:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstances
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.
Winfield W. Scott, historian and lifelong friend of Mr. Noonan, one of the few who encouraged him to establish a telephone system in Passaic a year or two after it had been established in Paterson, spoke on the topic “Fifty Years Ago,” jealing mainly with the experience of Mr. Noonan in Passaic.
Donald Smith, district manager of “lie New Jersey Bell Telephone Company, described the great strides that have been made in the telephone service and the efforts of the company to meet all the modern needs.
It was a wonderful tribute to one who bore the burden of the pioneer and through all the strife and trouble of pioneering and the pleasure of ultimate success won the hearts of the men and women of his day in our city.
Some time ago Mr. Nehemiah Vreeland gave to The Passaic Co Historical Society a photograph (not dated) of the Morton Clark Building on the northern corner of Main and Ellison streets. In the photograph the exact location of the old Telephone Exchange is shown. A cut of the photograph is printed here as an addendum to Mr. O`Rourke’s interesting article.
Indicated by Mr. Vreeland on the back of the original photograph are the names, as far as known, of the persons pictured in it:
In front of the store. (from right to let) Morton Clark, Nehemiah Vreeland, unknown(man with hat off). and Willis Davenport.
In the windows, (from left to right) Thomas C. Simonton, William j. Swinburne, unknown man, and Edward R. Weiss.
The men standing near the tall pole have not been identified.