The early days of the telephone in Virgin Valley
By CHERYL JENSEN
These days, it’s easy to reach out and touch someone. With the proliferation of cell phone technology, many homes don’t even bother to have a landline phone. So it’s easy to forget what a marvel and novelty it was to have early telephone technology in the Virgin Valley community. This is a brief but comprehensive history of the early days of the Rio Virgin Telephone system.
A small telephone system in Mesquite was first pioneered around the turn of the 20th century by Hubert A. Leavitt. Later he got enough cables and hardware to connect to Bunkerville and all the way to Littlefield, Arizona.
Local communication at this level was considered a big thing. But a long distance line was still needed in an emergency, so that a doctor could be reached in St. George, fifty miles above Utah Hill.
Hubert began riding horses by pulling poles from the river and stringing bullet wire, barbed wire, or any type of wire he could get hold of. People joked that the ladies took their clotheslines off when not in use to keep “Old Huber” from slipping off the telephone system cord.
On July 10, 1908, the other communities were visited for the purpose of soliciting information and subscriptions for the erection of a telephone line from Moapa to St. George. Edward Bunker visited EH Snow in St. George and received “much encouragement at the proposal”.
They wanted to gather poplar poles of sufficient size and obtain wire and glass insulators. The other company in Washington County would give them fares on their lines and accept fares on those in the Virgin Valley. The people of Littlefield also wanted to be online. The minutes of that meeting indicated that the motion passed to build a line from Moapa to St. George.
On July 17, the first meeting of the Rio Virgin Telephone company took place. William E. Abbott was elected president and chief commercial officer. James S. Abbott was secretary/treasurer and Joseph H. Reber was appointed director. The share capital limit has been set at $1,000. The shares were offered with a par value of $10 each with a subscription payable at the office no later than September 1.
The company wanted to source pine poles for the line through town and poplar poles elsewhere. They would pay 10 cents each provided they were no less than 13 feet long, 3 inches at the top end, and straight. Laborers were hired to install the line and were paid $1.50 a day. They had to board themselves.
There were places where the post holes couldn’t be dug deep enough because of the hard, rocky ground. So the crews would dig as deep as possible, then build around the pole with rocks and dirt to hold it in place.
They wanted to take some of the seed money and run a branch line to the raisin farm and Mr. Reber would pay $10 a month for using the line.
In the minutes of the meeting of February 15, 1909, EH Snow of St. George stated that they would operate their own line and would not need poles and frames for this purpose. The people there would provide 400 poles to run from the point to the mountain wood.
Hubert A. Leavitt reported his work in pole collecting in Mesquite and had 40 poles. Bunker urged getting the poles in place as quickly as possible.
At a 1910 meeting, the stock was set at $10 per share and charges were set at $2.00 per month for telephone service. If you were a member, the fee was $1.50; and only $1.00 per month if you run the standard in turn.
The $10 stock would be used to repair and extend the line. In the minutes of the meeting, the issue of uniting the Muddy Valley and St. George telephone companies was raised but nothing was resolved as of this date.
One of the main reasons they wanted a hotline was to call St. George’s Medical Aid. The only way to get medical assistance, other than what the locals could provide, was on horseback, which took six or more hours of hard riding to get to the doctor in St. George and six more for the return. By then, it may be too late.
In 1916 a number of people, including Grandfather Bowler, Bert Truman, John Bowler of Gunlock, Henry Holt of St. George and others, organized the People’s Progressive Telephone Company and built a St. George line to Littlefield, Mesquite and to the Moapa Railroad. station where it was connected to Western Union.
JD Pulsipher had purchased several miles of Desert Telegraph Line No. 9 wire that was built in Utah around 1870. He intended to use it to fence off the first enclosures in Mesquite. But the intrepid Hubert had other plans. His fencing quickly became the subject of “finished” discussions instead of “talking about”. Pulsipher then becomes the holder of a block of shares in the company.
Lewis Pulsipher provided forty miles of BB #12 telephone wire to build the line. It was understood that when the cable was purchased, it would be refunded in cash. However, when the company was unable to pay, they instead issued him shares of the company.
Pulsipher could hardly afford such an investment. But he had no other choice and everyone in the community was eager to see the new line put in place. The hotline helped save lives, market agricultural produce and exchange news.
In 1917, Pulsipher, the largest shareholder, bought more shares and ran the line from Moapa to St. George. The line was later extended to Pine Valley, Pinto and Enterprise.
The report to the Public Utilities Commission shortly after its inception is a great read. Under the officers, the report said: “None elected in nine years”. Grand total of assets, “None”. Total Liability, “None”. Operating revenue is listed for one year as a total of $30. In the space left for the notary public to make it official, the report reads: “no notary public within 43 miles”.
The company eventually split and Mesquite began operating its own portion of the line from St. George to Moapa. Nancy Bowler became the operator.
In 1922 Pulsipher hired Vie Hancock and Lawrence Leavitt and they rebuilt the line from St. George to Moapa. Lewis’s wife, Marian, became the central switchboard operator and worked from his home. They operated the telephone exchange for almost twenty years with first, almost primitive instruments. They used an old hand-cranked generator and a grounded line circuit.
When messages came from outside the area, the information was written down and passed on. Western Union telegrams from Moapa station were read over the phone and written on the yellow papers provided. Hazel Pulsipher, her daughter, would hop on her bike, ride to a house, and deliver a message for a 10-cent fee. The person would go downstairs and use the outside phone to make a call if they didn’t have a phone at home. Hazel also spent a lot of time at the switchboard as her mother carried for her brother who was blind.
Hazel’s daughter, Geraldine, recalled that most calls came from out of the area or calls were made to St. George for medical help.
“In those days, if you wanted to talk to friends and neighbors, you just had to get on a horse and come visit,” Geraldine said.
“Everyone was on a group line and everyone had a special ringtone to know if they should answer,” adds Géraldine. “If you were very calm and careful, you could listen in on your neighbor’s conversation if you knew his phone’s ‘ring’.”
Lewis’s sons were raised to the tinkling tune of the old-fashioned crank wall telephone.
Around 1940 James Pulsipher, Lewis’s brother, bought the telephone system and moved all the equipment from Lewis’s parlor to what was once the egg co-op where farmers brought their eggs to sell in Las Vegas. Pulsipher’s wife, Rita, became a switchboard operator. There were now 77 outlets.
In March 1954, Mike Burns bought half the shares of the Rio Virgin Company. It was incorporated and by July 21 there were over 300 outlets, with 90% of the houses having telephone service.
It took seven months to convert the system to rotary dial telephones with all new equipment and lines installed. Owners James N. Pulsipher and Mike Burns invested $125,000 to make the new system a reality.
The company purchased equipment from Stromberg-Carlson – the very latest type, from non-breathable plastic telephones to 23X wet cell batteries connected in series to automatically supply power when the other source fails.
Robert Blewett, was hired to install 500 miles of new copper line, with three additional pole cars and 300 new “falls” and bollards. Blewett remained general manager and engineer.
Wayne Persline was in charge of the installation of the dial board which was installed in a new air-conditioned and dust-proof building. Persline was delighted to have a single ten-party line on which one phone would ring at a time. It was called split ringing and no other manufacturer had this modern equipment.
The company also added an “out of service” tape recording. Before that, if you called, you had no way of knowing if the line was down or if the phone was down.
J. Lewis Pulsipher made the first call on the new system at 10:00 a.m. July 21. The public was invited to attend the ceremonies and hear her call to her sons in Salt Lake City. Elizabeth Pulsipher, eighty-seven, a former operator, was also in line to say hello.