Once upon a time, an operator’s voice would say, “Number, please,” when you wanted to make a call. That all changed in Lewiston-Auburn at midnight on Saturday, Dec. 13, 1947.
That was the exact minute when well over 100 local employees of New England Telephone & Telegraph Co. accomplished what was called a “cut-over” from the manual system to dial telephone operation. The first dialed call in L-A was placed at midnight by Lewiston Mayor Louis P. Gagne to Auburn Mayor Rosaire L. Halle.
For months, the phone company worked to bring this vital phase of communication modernization to nearly 17,000 phones in the Twin Cities. The hub of the $3 million project was a new brick NET&T building at 60 Ash St., Lewiston. It replaced the facilities at the old central office at 94 Park St., where calls had been routed through the state’s largest manual switchboard.
Stories and photo spreads in the Lewiston Daily Sun and Lewiston Evening Journal outlined the initiation of a new era telephones. It was a highly-anticipated event, and more than 12,000 calls were placed through the Lewiston exchange between 10 and 11 a.m. that Sunday morning. It was a record number for a single hour, surpassing even the mark of 11,000 at a peak hour set almost two months earlier when forest fires scorched wide swaths of Maine. Actually, activity began promptly at 12:01 a.m. as area residents decided to give the new system a try.
The midnight “cut-over” required some precise timing on the part of dozens of participants. In the Park Street building, one group of men pulled from their moorings thousands of fuses, or “heat coils,” to disconnect the lines from the old system. Almost simultaneously, another group in the new Ash Street building “pulled the shims” to connect lines with the new location. The newspaper account said operators at the old and new switchboards kept watchful eyes on their equipment, ready for any emergency.
The newspaper account said the Ash Street headquarters of NET&T held the most modern developments.
“In the basement are the motor-driven machines . . . the exchange’s telephone bells and . . . the various tones which telephone users will hear on their lines, such as the ‘hum-m-m’ of the dial tone and the ‘buzz-buzz-buzz’ of the busy signal." Huge batteries provided power for the whole system, with diesel generator back-up.
The switchboard on the third floor is well remembered by my wife, Judy, who was an operator there about 12 years later.
“It was always very busy for almost 20 operators who were still employed for long-distance calls and information services,” she said.
Judy recalled that the volume of calls always shot up on Sundays because of lower rates and calls from L-A’s Franco-American community to their families in Quebec.
It took a bit of education for the public to become ready for the changes. NET&T ran an ad that advised everyone to use their new directories beginning Dec. 14.
“Do not call from the old book or from memory,” it said. The phone company also emphasized that “Dialing Is Easy.”
Although efficiency was certainly a priority for the change-over, the Auburn Fire Chief, Ralph B. Harnden, urged citizens not to dial the fire department number in case of fire. He said time lost in looking up the number in the new phone books might be disastrous.
“Whoever sees the fire should merely dial ‘Operator,’ and say ‘Emergency - Fire’,” he said.
A photo of the Lewiston Sun-Journal’s new telephone dial was featured with those first-day stories, and it clearly showed 4-5411, which is still the newspaper’s number more than 60 years later. It may be remembered that the prefixes for Lewiston (STate) and Auburn (STerling) were added around 1959. The numbers on the dial for “ST” were 7 and 8, so both prefixes were the same, but residents and business in each of the Twin Cities wanted their own prefix.
Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and is a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to email@example.com.