Looking Back: Telephones come to the C&O Canal

This picture shows a drawing from an 1878 issue of Scientific American showing the Edison Telephone, which was used on the C&O Canal.

History books will tell you that Lee de Forest transmitted the world’s first public musical performance on radio on January 13, 1910. The broadcast from New York City featured Enrico Caruso and other Metropolitan Opera stars.

However, 31 years earlier a single violinist played his music near Hancock. His audience was 50 miles away in Cumberland.

“The telephone on the canal is quite a novel thing as well as a great convenience to the employees,” the Cumberland Daily Times reported in 1879. “The sound of a violin was heard distinctly in the collector’s office last night, which was played at the locks 50 miles distant from this city.

This short concert marked the completion of wiring the old transportation route with the latest communications technology — the telephone.

The C&O Canal Company had originally wanted to run a telegraph line along the canal and start erecting poles to carry the wires. However, the officers realized that each telegraph terminal they installed would need to be staffed by a skilled operator. They realized it would be far cheaper, at least in terms of labor costs, to install telephone lines instead of telegraph lines because any canal employee could use the telephone.

Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the first patent for inventing the telephone in 1876. In the early years of phone service, the main users were businesses that were directly connected to a specific phone. Before the invention of the telephone switchboard, you could only make a call to the phone that yours was connected to. The first switchboard was invented in 1878 and used in Boston.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal made use of this new communications technology. A survey was made of the canal in 1878 “for the purpose of constructing a telegraph line and establishing stations at proper points for the transaction of the company’s business and to expedite the making of repairs when necessary,” according to a report to the canal president and board of directors.

The idea was to string the telephone wire on existing telegraph poles that the superintendents of the different divisions on the canal were using for communication. With that expense minimized, the cost was expected to be only $14,000.

However, upon final inspection, it was discovered that the existing poles were too light for the load that would be required and new poles would need to be installed. Some areas also needed to be cleared to overhanging trees that could interfere with the telephone lines.

According to the report to the canal company, the new poles “would not only carry wires to provide for the addition of other wires from time to time as the wants of the company might require.”

Construction began on March 12, 1879, and the telephones were put into operation as each new section of wire was strung. The complete line from Georgetown to Cumberland went into operation on Oct. 1.

Each mile of canal route had 30 chestnut poles erected to a height of 25 feet. Each pole, which was at least 6 inches in diameter, had to be buried 5 feet in the ground. The line was powered by 10 gravity batteries on the ends and five batteries at each telephone. Communication was done through 48 “Edison Universal telephones.”

Although the installation of a phone system along the canal was a large expense, the canal company believed it would see other savings to offset the installation and maintenance of the phones.

“The simple and easy method of communication by telephone adapts it peculiarly well to canal transportation service, and the facilities afforded to work and transportation on the canal must and will very soon dispense with a number of superintendents and other employees necessary under the present management,” according to the report to the canal company.

When the project was complete, it used 5,665 poles, 69,300 pounds of wire, 7,500 screw glass insulators and 6,000 brackets.

Contact James Rada at jimrada@yahoo.com or 410-698-3571.

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