Skip Gray holds a simulated conversation on an early 20th-century box phone and his cell phone during the opening of the exhibit “Switch and Exchange: A Brief History of Telephones in 20th Century Juneau” at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum on Friday. Gray is a former resident of the Telephone Hill neighborhood, which got its name when Juneau became the first city in Alaska with an established telephone system and a telephone company called the downtown area home during the early 1900s. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Skip Gray holds a simulated conversation on an early 20th-century box phone and his cell phone during the opening of the exhibit “Switch and Exchange: A Brief History of Telephones in 20th Century Juneau” at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum on Friday. Gray is a former resident of the Telephone Hill neighborhood, which got its name when Juneau became the first city in Alaska with an established telephone system and a telephone company called the downtown area home during the early 1900s. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Dialing, cranking and ringing into Juneau’s history as a telephone pioneer in Alaska

Museum exhibit highlights how capital got state’s first phone system and Telephone Hill got its name.

Stuart Sliter, 84, says it wasn’t all that hard filling in as a telephone operator as a preteen more than 70 years ago since plugging a cable into the proper place on one of two switchboards simply meant finding the outlet with the right three-digit number.

“Eight-three-two, that was our phone number,” she said.

Sliter, a lifelong Juneau resident, says she occasionally did such work either with or during brief breaks by her grandmother, Jessie Fraser, who was the last telephone operator in Douglas. Sliter said she lived with her grandmother at the telephone office for a couple of years due to an illness in the family, which is how learned the tricks of the switchboards.

“It rang and then a light would come on,” she said. “So you could hear (the caller) and then you would plug that into whatever number they wanted.”

Guests at the debut of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum’s “Switch and Exchange: A Brief History of Telephones in 20th Century Juneau” examine equipment and historic displays during the exhibit’s opening on Friday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Guests at the debut of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum’s “Switch and Exchange: A Brief History of Telephones in 20th Century Juneau” examine equipment and historic displays during the exhibit’s opening on Friday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Juneau was a pioneer of such technology in Alaska, being the first city to have an established telephone system. The history of that achievement, complete with a pair of early manual box telephones with hand-cranked magnetos to make the companion phone ring several yards away, is featured in the exhibit “Switch and Exchange: A Brief History of Telephones in 20th Century Juneau” which debuted Friday at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.

Sliter said she came to the opening hoping, among other things, to find a switchboard like the one she used to operate and a mention of grandmother. Neither are part of the current exhibit, although museum officials said additions may be made since it is currently scheduled to remain on display until Dec. 1.

Objects and photos are from the museum’s permanent collection, said Dara Lohnes-Davis, the museum’s curator of collections and exhibitions.

“I started by going through our research collection and references, going through the collections database, seeing how many things I can find related to telephones, and kind of going from there,” she said.

A couple of people have brought items in, including a former telephone company worker who provided a glass battery used to power equipment, which is currently in storage until the paperwork allowing it to be displayed can be processed, Lohnes-Davis said.

John Staub looks at a decades-old rotary-dial telephone that was in use at his home until a couple of years ago when he discontinued his landline service. He recently lent it to the Juneau-Douglas City Museum exhibit “Switch and Exchange: A Brief History of Telephones in 20th Century Juneau,” which Staub and dozens of other people attended the opening of Friday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

John Staub looks at a decades-old rotary-dial telephone that was in use at his home until a couple of years ago when he discontinued his landline service. He recently lent it to the Juneau-Douglas City Museum exhibit “Switch and Exchange: A Brief History of Telephones in 20th Century Juneau,” which Staub and dozens of other people attended the opening of Friday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Many people attending Friday’s opening were telephone company employees and/or users of obsolete technology ranging from party lines to rotary-dial phones. One rotary-dial phone displayed at the museum’s front counter, however, was one of the household phones used by John Staub and Stephanie Hoag until a couple of years ago when they decided to cut their landline service.

Staub said he bought it many, many years ago in Ketchikan from a hotel selling some of its equipment — and it turns out the ringer was broken and never fixed — but otherwise it worked fine despite the vast changes in telecommunications technology in Juneau, largely because the couple kept the old-fashion phone jack at their house working.

“We did away with it when we disconnected the landline,” Hoag said. “I didn’t even know where to put it. One more thing to take up table space if it wasn’t going to be used.”

The phone sat in a closet until a friend helping put the museum exhibit together asked for some pictures of the phone, which led to it finding a more prominent retirement space, Staub said.

A 1928 photo of Telephone Hill in downtown Juneau. (Photograph by Winter Pond, PCA87-833 Alaska State Library)

A 1928 photo of Telephone Hill in downtown Juneau. (Photograph by Winter Pond, PCA87-833 Alaska State Library)

Other equipment, photos and storyboards revisit Juneau’s history with the telephone, which goes back more than a century and is responsible for the name of one of the city’s oldest historic neighborhoods.

“The name Telephone Hill became firmly attached to the southern end of Court House Hill when Edward Webster, owner of the Juneau and Douglas Telephone Company, located his business on the summit of the hill,” notes a historic site and structures survey of Telephone Hill published in 1984 by the Alaska Archives Resource and Records Management. “In 1915 Webster built an addition to his house, located on the corner of West Second and Dixon Streets, combining his residence and business.”

The business remained in the Webster house until the 1950s. Now known as the Edward Webster House, it is the oldest house currently in use in Juneau.

The Edward Webster House (top center in grey), named for a former owner who located his Juneau and Douglas Telephone Co. there for decades beginning in 1915, is the oldest house still in use in Juneau. (Photo courtesy of the City and Borough of Juneau)

The Edward Webster House (top center in grey), named for a former owner who located his Juneau and Douglas Telephone Co. there for decades beginning in 1915, is the oldest house still in use in Juneau. (Photo courtesy of the City and Borough of Juneau)

Telephone Hill has become notorious in other ways in the modern era, beginning in 1984 when the state purchased land there with the intention of building a new state Capitol. That failed to happen — and residents continued living in the historic houses still standing — but the area’s future became the subject of renewed debate when the city acquired ownership of the land from the state. A redevelopment plan, with the city currently seeking public input on four mixed-use alternatives, is pending.

Kim Metcalfe, an operator who worked on Telephone Hill as well as another nearby office starting in the 1960s, said the old-fashioned switchboards were still in use at the time.

“It was just a little two-person switchboard, the cord board,” she said. “And people would call from all over the U.S. looking for somebody’s number. And the story I tell is that they called looking for somebody or other, and I said ‘Well, I can give you his number, but if you want to get him he’s at a party at so-and-so’s house,’ because you knew where people were and what they were doing.”

It was also possible to do occasional “favors” for family members and friends by connecting a long-distance call, but not writing it down in the billing log, Metcalfe said.

“It was very expensive to call long distance,” she said. “If you were making a long-distance call — even in the ‘60s — it was because somebody was dying, or somebody who’s being born. It was a big deal.”

Joe Buck, a former city engineer who moved to Juneau in 1967, explains how an item displayed in an exhibit of local telephone history is similar to what his uncle worked on many decades ago. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Joe Buck, a former city engineer who moved to Juneau in 1967, explains how an item displayed in an exhibit of local telephone history is similar to what his uncle worked on many decades ago. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

There were about 15 to 20 operators during the day, and about 10 at night, Metcalfe said. She said the call volume varied, getting busier during periods such as when the Alaska Legislature was in town.

Everyone interviewed at Friday’s opening owned a mobile phone and, while some agreed there might be disadvantages by making it harder to disconnect from the world, nobody said they would prefer the simpler system of many decades ago.

“I’m absolutely hooked on my cell phone,” Metcalfe said. “In fact, I was thinking a New Year’s resolution would be to try and do a ‘dry’ cell phone month. Like years ago when I smoked cigarettes and the first thing you did in the morning was have a cigarette. Well, first thing I do in the morning is get my cell phone and start looking at it for the news, and then I do Wordle and I do all these word games, and it’s ridiculous.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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