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Western Union : Punta Gorda’s telephone history

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09/20/2017 | 08:28am CEST

Good day to all! As they say, we dodged a bullet on the 57th anniversary of Donna. However, there are folks in the eastern part of the county and farther north who did not fare so well and severe flooding continues in rural areas. Keep them in your thoughts and prayers.

Did you know telephone service came to Punta Gorda in 1901? At the time, small town communications were easily handled face to face, while out-of-town communications were by telegraph. However, Western Union Telegraph, acknowledging the Bell Telephone Company’s growing competition, encouraged local telegraph managers to also establish telephone exchanges.

Bell Telephone was first formed as an Association in July 1877 by Alexander Graham Bell’s father-in-law, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, and formally incorporated the following July. Interestingly, and to its eventual detriment, Western Union rebuffed Hubbard’s offer in 1878 to sell it all rights to the telephone for $100,000.

Punta Gorda’s telegraph office was opened in 1887 by Ellison White in the Dade Hotel, located then at today’s Sunloft building’s Taylor Street corner. In 1901, a 50-line telephone exchange was added and wire time leased from the Florida Southern Railway. Batteries operated the system and turning a hand crank on wall-mounted phones notified the switchboard operator a call was being made. Soon after, Ellison formed the DeSoto Telephone Company (DeSoto) intent on linking nearby towns. Remember, at the time, Punta Gorda was still in DeSoto County.

By fall 1902, connection was established with phone companies in Arcadia and Fort Myers, with Punta Gorda enjoying all-night service. The line to Arcadia ran on poles through Cleveland, Glenn, Liverpool and Hull, while the line to Fort Myers followed a country trail and is said to have been hung on trees and fence posts. There was not much settlement between here and Fort Myers at the time, no railroad. Phone calls to Cleveland, just a few miles up the tracks, were 10 cents for 3 minutes, 15 cents to Liverpool.

In 1904, Florida Southern’s successor, the Atlantic Coastline Railroad, reached Fort Myers. Due to accompanying growth in telegraph and telephone service, DeSoto soon outgrew its Dade Hotel office, moving to space in the Punta Gorda Bank at the corner of Marion Avenue and Cross Street (U.S. 41 south), now a vacant lot. Albert Coup was manager and he hired Archie Bailey to set poles and string wire. New service hours were 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., reduced from “all night.”

Archie and Josephine Bailey were well-known in town with seven sons and two daughters. Six sons proudly served their country during World War II in the Army, Army Air Corp, Navy and Marine Corp. Their third son, Charles, flew a P-40 Warhawk of “Flying Tigers” fame and a P-51 Mustang in the European theater. He was Florida’s first Tuskegee Airman. Their youngest son, Carl, piloted an F-84 Thunderjet at the Korean War’s end. He was the second African-American jet fighter pilot from Florida. More on telephones in my next column.

Unfortunately, we had to cancel this year’s Lobster Bake. Look for it again next September. Hopefully the weather will be better.

This column appears every other Wednesday, courtesy of the Charlotte Sun and the Charlotte County Historical Center Society. The Society exists to help preserve and promote Charlotte County’s rich history. We’re always seeking new members, volunteers and interested individuals to serve as board members. If you believe our area’s history is as important as we do, please call 941-833-3828 for more information.

© Copyright (c) 2017, Charlotte Sun, source Newspapers

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