In an age when most of us carry our telephones around with us, we’re never far away from a quick call, text, or any other kind of contact, much less access to 911 for emergencies. It’s probably hard to imagine not having cell phones, but 55 years ago, Richmond’s citizens didn’t even have their home landlines to count on, and they had to rely on technology from the turn of the 20th century.
On the morning of February 4, 1965, an employee of the General Telephone company discovered a fire raging on the second floor of the Richmond headquarters on North 9th Street. She had time to make just two calls before the fire wiped out the city’s phone system — one to the fire department, and one to the chief operator. Heavy toxic smoke prevented access to most of the firefighters, so they had to fight the fire from the roof. It took the rest of the morning to extinguish the fire, and the damage was extensive. As Esther Kellner wrote later, “Smoke and water were everywhere, the temperature close to zero. Ice covered streets, sidewalks, the hoses used by the fire department. The switchroom was a charred and tangled mass of cables, wires and debris.”
More than 70% of Richmond’s 26,000 phones were dead, and the rest were in contact only with each other. Coordinated by the Civil Defense organization, the phone company, police and fire departments, Red Cross, and innumerable civilian volunteers came together to tackle the problem. The immediate issue was emergency communications, and much of this was handled by Ham and CB radio operators, who were stationed around the city to relay messages to emergency services. There was no other way to report a fire or medical emergency.
By the next day an emergency manual switchboard had arrived and was slowly hooked into the system, emergency locations first, then public telephone booths, which were then all over town. Four days later, a huge 3,500 line switchboard arrived from Illinois. For the first time in decades, phone customers didn’t hear a dial tone when they picked up their phones — they had to ask a person to connect them to another phone.
Even more inconvenient, residential phone lines were 4-party lines, meaning four households were on the same line. Each household had a different ring pattern to identify calls meant for them, but there was no privacy, and anyone could listen to any call if they wanted. The phone company had to print a temporary phone book, the cover of which included directions on how to use this different system.
It took nearly eight months of tedious, around-the-clock work to reconnect every phone into the new and updated switching system. Finally, at 2:01 a.m. on the morning of October 3, the switch-over to the new system was complete, and the temporary phone books became souvenirs.