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Telephones in Tucson

1940s telephone operators at the Tucson unit of Mountains States Telephone and Telegraph Company.

In 1881, five years after Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the first electrical transmission of speech, the newfangled apparatus called a telephone was introduced to Tucson. That same year, amid considerable public curiosity, a small exchange opened its doors on April 1.

The Arizona Daily Star reported May 26, “the latest improvement in our growing city is the establishment of the telephone headquarters adjoining the post office, where our citizens and visitors can now communicate with all parts of the city and by telegraph connections with the remotest parts of Europe, Asia and Africa.”

Early on, most calls were made directly from the exchange. Telephone sets were in short supply and many people could not afford them. Others mistrusted the new device, and some were self-conscious about talking into a wooden box.

In his 1897 “Handbook to Tucson and Southern Arizona,” George Hilzinger wrote, “In the matter of telephone communication, Arizona is not a whit behind the rest of the world. There are about 150 subscribers in Tucson, and the central office is kept constantly busy answering calls.” Hilzinger also noted that County Treasurer Charles F. Hoff, manager of the telephone exchanges in Tucson, Nogales, Prescott and Flagstaff, was “making arrangements to connect the different important mining camps with Tucson,” and he intended to extend the line into Mexico.

Two years later, in September 1899, the Tucson Citizen reported that Hoff, “the local manager of the Sunset Telephone company,” would replace “the present Tucson telephone [system] with a complete metallic circuit.” Even more important to telephone users, however, was the fact that “the long distance line between here and Phoenix will be completed in about 60 days.” Hoff told the newspaper, “the lines between here and Phoenix will have exchanges at Oracle, Mammoth, Florence, Mesa [and] Tempe.” A line to Nogales was proposed as well, but Hoff wouldn’t construct it “unless proper encouragement [was] received from people along the proposed route.”

Although telephone use was gaining popularity by 1900, the publishers of Tucson’s city directory apparently saw little importance in identifying telephone users. With the exception of businesses that paid for display advertising space, not a single telephone number was listed in the directory.

By 1915, unsightly wires had become an issue. Mountain States Telephone, which had absorbed the Sunset Company, was ordered by the City Council to bury its lines “underground on certain streets.” The resolution also called for the company to standardize its service, but failed to mention what it meant by standardization.

By 1919, there were 2,229 telephones in use in Tucson. A decade later, the number had increased to 6,857. Given a population of some 40,000 people, and another 7,000 living in the county, it is fair to say that telephone service was still considered a luxury.

Residential telephone use increased dramatically during World War II, and by the 1950s most Tucsonans were equipped with service. Today, the telephone is a highly sophisticated and versatile instrument that appears nearly as an appendage to countless ears.

— Arizona Capitol Times archives.

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