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Jekyll Island and the Opening of the Transcontinental Telephone Line

By Tyler E. Bagwell

The Triumph of Science vignette, circa 1915
Most realize that the telephone has been an invaluable tool in modern America. But few are familiar with the role Jekyll Island played in the spread of its use across the country. On January 25, 1915 Theodore N. Vail, the first president of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T), participated from Jekyll Island in the opening of the first telephone line across the United States. Vail, a member of the Jekyll Island Club, was recuperating from a leg injury. Consequently, instead of traveling to New York for the inauguration, Theodore Vail opted to stay in Georgia and participate in the event from Jekyll.

While construction of the transcontinental telephone line was completed in June of 1914, the opening of it for commercial service was delayed to coincide with the San Francisco World's Fair. Several years earlier, AT&T declared that telephone service between the coastlines would be achieved by the start of the next World's Fair. The year this assertion was made, interesting to note, a way to amplify electrical current across the continent had not been invented yet.

Circa 1915 postcard from Bell Telephone Exhibit at Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco
Susan Albright Reed, the daughter of club member John J. Albright, recounted her childhood memories of the historic phone call in the book The Simple Life: The Memoirs of Susan Albright Reed at the Jekyl Island Club: 1913-1918. The day before the ceremony, Susan Albright Reed recalled that the phone line between Jekyll and the mainland was not in operation.

She explains, "On the evening of January 24th, Father was called to the telephone during dinner, and he came back with the look on his face that he had when things weren't going his way. He stopped at Mr. Vail's table and said, 'Vail, it's stopped working again. I told [club manager] Grob to come and talk to you.'

Theodore Newton Vail, first president of AT&T
Theodore Vail, President of AT&T, had his table [in the clubhouse dining room] next to ours... 'I'll go out and try to make a call,' he said as he left. He looked alarmed and in a hurry and didn't come back.

This was an opportunity for Father to tell us as much as we were able to understand about the line between Brunswick and Jekyl[l] and how many times they had tried to fix it. 'It will be terrible if Mr. Vail can't get through tomorrow... The President, Alexander Graham Bell and Mr. Vail will all be on the line at once.'"

Susan Albright Reed continues, "The next day, we had our first swim in Mr. Gould's pool. The famous telephone call was forgotten in the delight of that first swim outdoors."

The transcontinental telephone line, stretching between New York City and San Francisco, crossed through 13 states. Four copper wires, the means to transmit the telephone signal, were held up by 130,000 wood poles. On the day of the historic phone call, approximately 1,500 AT&T employees were positioned across the entire length of the line, east to west, and on the line between Jekyll Island and New York City. The workers were prepared to fix or repair any problem that might impede the ceremonial phone call.

Desk Set Telephone
The 1915 opening ceremony consisted of a four-way call between Jekyll Island, Washington D.C., New York City, and San Francisco. "Desk set" telephones along with multiple hand held receivers were located at each site participating in the inauguration. The additional hand held receivers, a device often dubbed a "watch case" in turn-of-the-century society, allowed others to listen-in to the telephone conversations taking place. "Desk set" telephones were sometimes called candlestick phones because the pedestal supporting the mouthpiece of the equipment resembled a slender-shaped candle in a candleholder. While the receivers on the "desk set" phones were conical in design, the hand held receivers used in the ceremony were small, round, and looked like a bloated pocket watch.

Telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell started the event around 4:00 pm Eastern Standard Time by speaking from New York to his assistant Thomas A. Watson in San Francisco. Mr. Vail and others including William Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, Jr. listened to the conversation keenly in one of the parlors of the Jekyll Island clubhouse.

The ceremony included phone speeches by officials, discussion of the lines' superb operation, as well as a brief talk between Vail and another person about the weather conditions in Georgia and California. Then, to help fill time before President Woodrow Wilson joined in, Bell and Watson were asked to recreate the first words transmitted by phone. Thomas Watson was pulled away from reporters in San Francisco and Alexander Graham Bell plugged in a reproduction of their circa 1876 telephone. Bell, with spectators laughing and applauding, uttered the words, "Mr. Watson, come here please, I want you."

Watson responded that it would take at least a week for him to get to New York. The crowd applauded. A short time later, President Woodrow Wilson congratulated everyone from a phone at the White House in Washington, D.C.

Seen left ro right, Welles Bosworth, S. B. P. Trowbridge, J. P. Morgan, Jr., William Rockefeller, Theodore N. Vail
The Telephone Review, a magazine printed in 1915 to commemorate the event, offers an account of the telephone conversation between Wilson and Vail. Near the ceremony's end, according to the periodical, AT&T chief engineer John J. Carty in New York asked, "Is Mr. Vail there? Hello Jekyl[l] Island." Carty, still speaking, proclaimed, "Mr. Vail has talked today from Jekyl[l] Island up to New York and then across the continent, making a distance of 4,500 miles."

Another voice then interjected, "Hello, Mr. Vail."

Vail responded, "Who is this?"

"This is the President. I am glad to hear your voice. I have just been speaking across the continent this afternoon," announced President Woodrow Wilson.

Theodore Vail replied, "Oh, yes."

"Before I give up the telephone," continued President Wilson, "I wanted to extend my congratulations to you on the consummation of this remarkable work."

"Thank you," said Vail.

President Wilson commented, "I am very sorry to hear that you are sick."

"I am getting along very nicely. I am sort of a cripple, that is all," asserted Vail.

"I hope you will be well soon. Good-bye, Mr. Vail."

"Thank you, Good-bye, Mr. President."

The transcontinental telephone ceremony ended soon afterwards. Later that evening, the line between San Francisco and Boston was officially dedicated and in the inauguration one of the conversations that transpired was spoken in Chinese.

Jekyll Island telephone display
Fifty years later, on January 22, 1965, a telephone display was erected near Indian Mound Cottage on Jekyll Island to mark the anniversary of the transcontinental phone call. Funding for the outdoor exhibit came from the Georgia Chapter of the Telephone Pioneers of America, an organization originally created by Theodore Vail in 1911.

During this 50th anniversary ceremony, retired telephone worker Herman Murdock and retired telephone operator Clara Horton attended. Murdock in 1915 repaired the telephone line near Brunswick before the official call took place and enabled Jekyll Island to take part in the affair. Ms. Horton in 1915 operated the telephone switchboard in the clubhouse.

Numerous government officials and regional dignitaries such as Dr. Sidney Vail, a St. Simons Island dentist and relative of Theodore Vail, were present at the 50th anniversary celebration. Following the dedication of the telephone display, a luncheon and a reenactment of the telephone call occurred at the then named Stuckey's Carriage Inn Motel on Jekyll. Using a telephone switchboard found in the attic of Crane Cottage, Secretary of State Ben W. Fortson Jr. called Theodore Vail's great grandniece Margaret Vail Foster in San Jose, California. The event concluded with Telephone Pioneer Vice President Larry P. Morgan telephoning AT&T president H. M. Romnes in New York.

Permission to use images courtesy of the AT&T Corporate Archives

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