When phone service came to Waco

By: Terri Jo Ryan, Waco Tribune-Herald

Feb. 2007

The history of the telephone in Texas begins with a newsman — Col. Alfred Horatio Belo — who reportedly owned the first two such instruments in the state.

In 1878 — two years after Alexander Graham Bell received his first patent on the invention — the Confederate veteran and businessman had wires strung from his Galveston home to his office at the Galveston Daily News, according to the Handbook of Texas Online.

The first exchange (or "switchboard" a central system connecting individual telephones) was opened in Galveston a year later. Houston got the second telephone exchange in Texas.

But Waco wasn't too far behind.

On Feb. 5, 1881, The Southwestern Telegraph and Telephone Co., a Little Rock-based firm with exclusive rights to use Bell telephone patents in Arkansas and Texas, was organized. Over the course of the year, the company purchased the existing exchanges in Galveston and Houston and opened five new ones, in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio and Waco.

Waco's first exchange was opened on Oct. 1, 1881, and had 45 subscribers. This local exchange was sold to the independent Texas Telephone Co. on Jan. 25, 1916.

On April 6, 1920, Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. was formed from the combination of the Southwestern Telegraph and Telephone Co. and several other Bell-related operating units. Headquartered in St. Louis, Mo., the corporation served Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and a portion of Illinois.

On Jan. 1, 1928, Southwestern Bell purchased the property of the old Texas Telephone Co., and provided phone service through manual switchboards until 1949.

In 1949, the Waco exchange had more than 500 switchboard operators and was the largest remaining manually operated telephone exchange in Texas. But on Oct. 1 of that year — 68 years after the telephone arrived here — the Waco exchange converted to the dial system, which allowed users to dial a number directly. This switch involved nearly 26,000 telephones.

Since then, there have been many changes in the Bell system, from the days of "number please" to electronic switching, which came to Waco in 1978 and eliminated all remaining services handled by operators in the Waco office.

Sources: Luz Varela, AT&T; Handbook of Texas Online; Louise Brady, Lucile Brady and June Stolebarger, Waco; Moe Spradley, McGregor; Don Capehart, Corsicana.

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