The first telephone line in Haywood County — the first local link in what has evolved into an Internet system connecting our mountains to the world — came about because a man wanted to improve his horse business.
Progress doesn’t always move swiftly in the mountains. While J.P. Swift was clever enough to see the business advantages of a telephone line in Waynesville, it would take another six decades for telephone service to be offered to every community in Haywood County. Swift installed that first line in 1894; White Oak residents did not get telephone service until 1957. Half a century ago, citizens rallied to bring telephone lines to their remote communities; today, they are working to bring broadband internet.
But it all began with a man who wanted to make sure tourists could rent a horse or horse and buggy to see the scenery.
Horse call, dinner bellSwift ran a livery stable in a building that still stands at the corner of Haywood and Depot streets. And by the 1890s, tourists were arriving by railroad by the hundreds to escape summer heat and disease in their flatland homes. When a passenger train was due, Swift and other livery owners would send horses and buggies to the depot two blocks north to receive the visitors and transport them to their summer boarding houses or hotels.
Swift realized that if he installed a telephone line from the White Sulphur Springs Hotel to his business, those same visitors could call ahead, and he could have horses saddled or harnessed to buggies whenever they arrived at the stable, ready to picnic or see the views. It made sense to choose the Sulphur Springs for the first connection; it was close, only a mile away, well-known, and the largest of the local hotels.
That was the beginning. Swift then installed a second line to his home on Haywood Street. Fay Toy who authored a history of telephone service in Haywood County, wrote that the second line was used “mostly to tell him when to come home to dinner.”
That first line, according to Haywood Homes and History, was a magneto-type line that required the user to turn a crank. That turning created an electric current which rang a bell at the end of the line.
In 1900 S.C. Satterthwaite, owner of the Eagles Nest Hotel; R.D. Gilmer, owner of the Suyeta Park Hotel and sawmill owner W.H. Cole joined Swift to create a telephone franchise. They had a rocky start – the first switchboard, which cost about $1,000, was destroyed in a fire at the Waynesville Depot. A second had to be ordered.
The operator for that switchboard used a cardboard guide tacked near the device that had all the numbers listed. That first system could accommodate about 100 telephones. Its early connections included the Waynesville Pharmacy, Clyde Ray’s Store, local doctors, the Bank of Waynesville and the sheriff’s office. Some of those early one- and two-digit telephone numbers remained the same until the dial program was established in 1953, according to Toy.
By 1906, 75 to 100 telephones operated on the Waynesville system. Its operators were paid $20 per month and included Toy. Telephone rent was $1.50 per month for a party line, $2 for a private line.
Initially, operators would connect each call that came in. Later, a code system developed, where each telephone had its own “code,” based on long and short rings. Each call made would ring at every customer’s home, with the rings indicating which customer should pick up the receiver. For rural communities, this system lasted until the Great Depression.
“All this (rural) service was magneto, and everyone heard all the rings,” Toy wrote. The constant ringing was one reason customers would later welcome a direct dial-up service.
Meanwhile, Swift was expanding. He built a line to the Turnpike hotel at the Haywood-Buncombe county line, where he tied into the Asheville Telephone Company around 1906. He also expanded westward, running a line west to the Knight’s Store in Balsam.
Those telephones became vital links in an early chain of emergency medical service, as did the Richard Barber residence in Waynesville. Often during medical emergencies out in the country, a messenger would travel to the nearest phone and contact the doctors, saving precious hours in traveling all the way into town to fetch medical help. The young town of Canton received its first telephone service from Swift, though a separate Canton Electric and Telephone Company would organize there by 1909.
Southern Bell installed a long-distance line to Asheville in 1902 that operated out of two drug stores. Those telephones would accept coins.
Southern Bell buyoutsThe Asheville Telephone Company purchased the Waynesville Telephone Company in March 1916. Then Southern Bell purchased the Asheville franchise seven years later and absorbed the Canton telephone company soon after.
In the 1920s, Southern Bell worked on expanding telephone service into the rural communities, running lines up Balsam Road, to Bethel and even the Sunburst logging community. A line ran up to Maggie Valley; another down Jonathan Creek to the Haywood Electric Power Company Dam in the Pigeon River Gorge. Most of these lines did not branch far off the main route, but as was the case in the early days of service in town, the telephones gave citizens a point at which they could call for help rather than travel into town.
Several steps backwards
Then came the Great Depression. Telephone expansion did not simply stall; it reversed. Customers didn’t have the money to pay monthly fees, and entire lines were discontinued and dismantled. By 1935, according to Toy, the county had only 1,082 telephone customers. Southern Bell even asked some customers to discontinue service, because it was too expensive to maintain the lines and poles. Some technological advances continued, as Canton went to a dial-up system in 1939, though Waynesville would not make that transition for another 14 years.
The dial-up system was so novel that Southern Bell representatives went door-to-door to explain to the 700 customers in the Canton area how it would work.
“The subscribers were warned on Saturday that if ‘central’ failed to answer their call, that they would know that they were to dial the number they desired,” the Waynesville Mountaineer reported.
During World War II, citizens again wanted telephone service, but restoring most of those lines would have to wait until after the war.
When supplies became available after the close of the war, Southern Bell began expanding service, adding customers in towns and the nearby rural areas. The Waynesville exchange went from 646 customers in 1940 to 1,700 in 1946.
“Telephone service is being extended to rural homes in the Canton area,” The Waynesville Mountaineer reported in March 1946. “A number of phones are being installed in homes throughout the Rockwood community.”
Rockwood lies just outside of Canton, and that was the problem. Both the telephone company and the region’s electric provider, Carolina Power & Light, showed little interest in expanding where homes were widely spaced, areas where they calculated the maintenance and infrastructure costs would be too expansive for too few customers. So sections of Ratcliffe Cove, for example, had telephone service in the late 1940s, but others in the area did not. Lower Jonathan Creek, Crabtree and Cruso had no service. While Haywood residents had organized their own cooperative to obtain electric service, that option did not seem feasible for telephones.
Putting on the pressure
In the late 1940s, Wayne Corpening, county extension agent, took on the challenge. In 2001, Corpening, then 88, described how he realized the desperate need for phone service in Haywood’s outlying regions.
“I was on the other side of the mountain (Fines Creek), and this little kid had pneumonia,” he said. “I asked her mother, ‘Can’t you take her to the doctor?’ and she said, ‘I can’t get in touch with anybody.’
“Well, that got on my mind and I thought, ‘We’ve got to do something about that.’”
Corpening organized meetings for citizens in Crabtree and Fines Creek and other rural areas, who then campaigned for telephone service.
Residents went door to door to gets phone line rights of way signed by their neighbors. Southern Bell was facing its own pressures of dramatically increasing demand in an economy that was shifting from wartime to peacetime manufacturing.
In 1949, Crabtree and Iron Duff received telephone service. Residents kept up the pressure. In another meeting coordinated by Corpening, they made statements to the State Utilities Commission in April 1950 about indefinite promises from Southern Bell.
“Jack Felmet, also of Ratcliffe Cove, reported that there are five to eight families in a triangle bounded by main telephone trunk lines who do not have telephone service,” The Mountaineer reported. “It’s a case, he added, of ‘so near and yet so far.’
“… Lester Stockton, Cruso Community Development Program leader … reported that 122 persons had signed a petition in his community to get phone service, and that the East Pigeon Community was joining Cruso in this. He estimated the petition would bear at least 300 signatures of persons who do not have but want phone service. … He also reported that Southern Bell had ‘three or four months ago’ said it would install the phones as soon as it could.”
Fines Creek got its phone line in 1951. White Oak was the last community in Haywood to receive telephone service, in August 1956.
“Haywood history was made last weekend as telephone lines were completed into the White Oak area, giving telephone service to the last remaining Haywood Community,” an editorial in the Waynesville Mountaineer declared. “… The white Oak project cost almost $8,000 and will add 13 telephones to the present system, with seven due to be installed at a later date.”
Sources for this story include “Early History of Telephone Service” by Fay Toy with Mrs. S.H. Jones and W.F. Swift; “Haywood Homes and History” by Betsy Farlow, Dan Lane and Duane Oliver, and multiple editions of the Mountaineer.