Tough Operators

US West may take a lot of criticism, but its customer-service shortcomings are nothing compared to the way Denver's first telephone company treated customers.

In the 1880s, the Denver Telephone Dispatch Company set up shop at 15th and Larimer streets, taking up three rooms in a second-story office. The city's first telephone operators were foul-mouthed teenage boys who spent most of the day "chasing back and forth, shouting, arguing with customers and scorching the air with caustic comments," according to a fellow operator who is quoted in a book about the history of Colorado's phone company. "The boys sometimes left the 'o' off 'hello,' and a few even dared to tell the complaining subscribers to go there."

The owners of the phone company soon decided that women might be better suited to be operators, the first of many decisions that would affect the lives of Coloradans. From the heroic effort to string wires over the Continental Divide to linking Colorado by phone to the coasts, the rise of the telephone industry ended the state's geographical isolation.

A little-known museum in the building that housed Colorado's phone monopoly for decades, at 14th and Curtis streets, gives visitors a firsthand introduction to the history of phone service in the state. The 1929 building itself is an extraordinary artifact, a fifteen-story tower that stood as Denver's tallest building for two decades. With its granite-and-travertine base, wrought-iron doors and Gothic turrets, Mountain Bell's former headquarters really does seem like the "temple of telephonic speech" that the phone company promised Denver's residents.

To celebrate the topping off of one of Denver's first skyscrapers, the Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company, which later became Mountain Bell and then US West, hired two flapper girls, Bubbles and Nell McIntyre, to dance for the building's construction workers.

The murals by Allen True that adorn the entrance to the building reflect a faith in technology that borders on the religious. Winged gods transport messages above buzzing phone lines while an operator with a halo connects mere mortals. Indian smoke signals and the Pony Express embody the Western communications systems that preceded the telephone.

Tours of the building, which is still used by US West, and the Telephone Museum are offered by appointment only. Herb Hackenburg, a retired public-relations man for the phone company, frequently leads the tours and regales visitors with stories from the company's early days. (To arrange a tour, call 303-296-1221.)

"If you were a male, white Mason, it helped you get ahead in the company," Hackenburg says of the early-twentieth-century phone world. Jews and other minorities were often harassed by co-workers, he adds, while women were accepted as operators but had a hard time getting other jobs.

"A young woman could earn enough money as an operator to move away from Mom and Dad," says Hackenburg. "The telephone company tried to take the place of Mom and Dad and became very paternal. If you went to Elitch's by yourself, you got in big trouble. The kind of girls who went to Elitch's by themselves might end up dancing."

Until 1964, telephone operators in Montana who got married were fired, he adds. When that requirement was dropped with the advent of civil-rights laws, Mountain Bell discovered that many of the "single" telephone operators had married secretly.

The telephone museum has dozens of telephones dating back to 1889. The first phones were simple contraptions known as "banjo backs," for their curved wooden bases. Other highlights include a 1934 switchboard that the company kept in service until 1980, as well as the hot line used at the military command inside Cheyenne Mountain during the Cuban missile crisis. An orange Denver Broncos phone will bring back memories for anyone who lived in Denver in the 1970s.

Hackenburg wrote Mountain Bell's official company history, Muttering Machines to Laser Beams, and now directs the Telecommunications History Group, an alliance of retired phone-company employees and other people who share a keen interest in the industry's history. The group has already succeeded in getting US West to donate 43 tons of photos and documents to its archive, a collection that chronicles the development of the entire Rocky Mountain region.

Now the group dreams of creating a national telecommunications archive and museum in Denver. A similar facility for the cable industry is under construction on the University of Denver campus, and Hackenburg has drawn up a proposal to do the same thing for telephones.

"It could become a major tourist attraction," he says.
With the telecommunications industry going through radical change, no one can be sure what telephone service will be like in the coming century. Denver's longtime regional phone carrier is about to become part of a national company that has international ambitions, and Hackenburg worries that an irreplaceable part of Colorado's history could get lost in the shuffle. Several other Bell system archives have closed in the wake of corporate mergers. His group plans to ask other national telecom companies to donate both archival material and money for the proposed museum.

One thing he doesn't want to do is ask for state tax money.
"The industry is too rich," he says, "to be feeding at the public trough."

--Steers

 
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