Friday, March 31, 2017

Heroism of the 'Hello Girls'

Amidst broken glass and rising floodwaters and despite risks to their own lives, telephone operators stuck to their switchboards night and day, connecting victims with emergency aid and informing the world. Their heroism in 1913 put telephone technology on the map.

“I am from Dayton and doing research for personal history,” reader Bonnie Stalter wrote to me in March. “My husband’s grandmother Goldie Toman Miller was a long distance operator.  It had been reported that she was with John Bell on a rooftop for three days helping with emergency calls to the governor, Red Cross, National Guard etc. Can you verify that information?”
Could this be a sketch of Goldie Toman Miller in Dayton? The only description is: “The lone operator, her switchboard submerged, her companions gone, the building crumbling, mounts to the roof and, cutting into the single remaining circuits, sends out her dire news to a waiting world. This, or its equivalent, occurred not in one, but in many places throughout the afflicted region. Deeds of heroism were performed by telephone employes of both sexes…”
Telephony , April 5, 1913 , p. 1, 27.
Pursuing the elusive trail of Goldie Toman Miller on behalf of Bonnie Stalter sent me deep into exploring tantalizing allusions and snippets in newspapers that I’d been running across for over a decade.

John Bell’s legend
During the nightmare depths of the Great Easter 1913 flood in Dayton, Ohio (the city that put a human face to the multistate natural disaster), John A. Bell was District Plant Chief of the Central Union Telephone Company in Dayton. On Tuesday, March 25, after levees gave way and released devastating 10-foot walls of water through the streets of Dayton, Bell was at Central Union’s Main Exchange on West Third Street.

According to the May 1913 “Flood Edition” of Bell Telephone News, muddy floodwaters invaded the basement of the Main Exchange, putting most batteries out of service. But Bell and toll wire chief W. B. Stowell (Stowell’s initials are also given as M.B.) rescued a test magneto telephone before the rising waters could submerge it, and carried it up to the upper stories and the roof of the building. There they rigged up the test phone to get a solitary line working to Phoneton, Ohio, a tiny crossroads town eight miles north that played a huge role in the burgeoning telephone network of the new American Telegraph and Telephone Company (AT&T).
The Great Easter 1913 flood had reached halfway up the first story of the Dayton Main Exchange of the Central Union Telephone Company (gray building in the center) when someone with a small Kodak camera photographed it from the YMCA building across the street. It was from the roof of the Main Exchange that telephone personnel kept Ohio Governor James M. Cox in Columbus apprised of flood and fire in Dayton, via an emergency line patched out to Phoneton. (Floodwaters ultimately topped out well above the tops of the second story windows.)
Bell Telephone News, Flood Edition, p. 7.

In 1913, the telephone was still relatively new technology. The telegraph was still king for getting messages quickly over either short or long distances; barely one home in four had a telephone. AT&T was competing with dozens of independent telephone companies, all vying to convince the public that talking live with another human had value for both residential and business customers.

Through pure luck of geography, two farm roads crossed property somewhat elevated above Dayton right where the expanding AT&T network needed a repeater station to amplify signals in wires between Chicago and Pittsburgh. So there in the midst of farm fields, AT&T built a major communications hub in its long-distance network; supporting businesses and homes sprang up around it and came to be called Phonetown, quickly shortened to Phoneton. And so there, above the worst of the 1913 flood, Phoneton had lines and emergency circuits.
Was this romanticized drawing for an ad “Why They Stick” in the April 1923 issue of AT&T’s Long Lines magazine on the tenth anniversary of the 1913 flood meant to depict John A. Bell? It’s possible, but it would be inaccurate. Although Bell did not man a switchboard and was not an operator, the March 26, 1913 issue of the St. Louis Star said he was “chief operator” and “sat on a chair surrounded by water, working the only wire he could command;” in fact, Bell patched that line together using a lineman's test set from the roof of Central Union’s Main Exchange building.

And so, contend both newspapers and enduring legend still alive today in Dayton, Bell was able to stay on the line for three nights and days with Ohio Governor James M. Cox, keeping him informed of the outbreak of fires and other emergencies around Dayton, as well as getting news out to the rest of the world (see “The Governor’s Ear”). For his yeoman service, Cox presented Bell with a medal.

The courageous ‘hello girls’
But Bell was not the only dedicated and fast-acting telephone employee who announced news to the world and saved lives. Nor was Dayton the only city from which Phoneton relayed crucial information to Governor Cox. Nor were men the only heroes.
“Some day an epic will be written about the heroism of the telephone operator,” declared the front page of the March 29, 1913, issue of Telephony. The next week’s issue (April 5) assembled many of the press dispatches into this two-page collage.

Accounts abound about the selfless bravery of the highly trained female telephone operators—dubbed “telephone girls” or “hello girls” despite the fact that many were mature women with families—who ensured that emergency communications got through despite clear and present danger to themselves. Unfortunately, too many were anonymous, so the identity of the specific women is not always known (men, however, were usually identified by name).

About 4 AM on March 25 in northeast Ohio, operator Mrs. Harry Robbins in Gates Mills was wakened by the signal from the telephone exchange behind the grocery store across the street. (Many operators in small communities had such a signal so they could connect midnight emergency calls; some rural operators even had a switchboard  in their own homes.) When Mrs. Robbins discovered floodwaters pouring into her own basement, she began calling all the telephone subscribers in Gates Mills to warn them to get to safety from the rising Chagrin River.

In Peru, Indiana, operator Katherine Gilbreth stayed at her post for 48 hours surrounded by floodwaters eight feet deep, warning, informing, and calming telephone subscribers.
Coshocton Daily Times, March 25, 1913, p. 1.

In Warsaw, Ohio (northeast of Columbus), telephone operators stayed on duty as long as possible, despite the fact that their office was filling with floodwaters, forcing them to kneel on their chairs.

Splintered glass + unconsciousness
Meantime, several states west and two days earlier as part of the same mammoth storm system, the Great Easter 1913 Omaha tornado—still the deadliest single tornado ever to strike Nebraska—roared through the city at dinner time Sunday evening, laying waste to a track blocks wide and miles long and killing more than 100 souls (see “‘My Conception of Hell’”). The Omaha tornado directly struck the Webster Exchange of the Nebraska Telephone Company. In the moving words of an official report written by C. W. Hall, the company’s vice president and general manager within 48 hours of the tragedy (quoted in the Flood Edition of the Bell Telephone News),

The Omaha Bee, March 29, 1913, p. 7.
Webster exchange, in the center of the storm’s pathway, stood the shock well. Its windows were blown in and the glass globes from the chandeliers fell on the heads of the operators and crashed on the key-shelves. The girls themselves were blown away from the [switch]board. This was only for a moment, however. They returned at once, some bruised and many cut and bleeding. Thus injured, they worked on through all the trying hours… [T]hrough it all the poor, bleeding hands nimbly flew; the question ‘Number?’ rang out clear and distinct. Only when they had to say, ‘They don’t answer,’ did their faithful voices falter.
Some of the 176 women remained because their own homes had been destroyed, so they had nowhere to go; others stayed because of the pure call of duty and dedication. Adding to their tribulations, tornado victims rendered suddenly homeless began flocking to the Webster Exchange for aid, as the building was one of the few solid structures left in the track of the tornado. The telephone operators’ locker room was turned into a temporary first aid station and hospital, with some of the operators themselves acting as nurses; another room became a temporary morgue.
Omaha Evening World-Herald, March 26, 1913, p. 2.

Off-duty telephone operators also suffered ordeals. According to the March 27, 1913 issue of The Omaha Bee (“Telephone Girls Heroines,” p.7), one operator was walking to her job at the Douglass Exchange when the tornado roared past scarcely a block away. The strong winds picked her up bodily and blew her between two trees, knocking her unconscious. Two police officers spotted her perilous position and chopped away part of the trees to free her. She regained consciousness, but still insisted on finishing her walk to the telephone exchange, where she worked all through the night and the following day.

What about Goldie Toman Miller?
Returning to the original query from reader Bonnie Stalter: During the 1913 flood, was Goldie Toman Miller on duty working with John A. Bell to maintain connection with Phoneton? “More clarification,” Bonnie Stalter wrote. “Goldie was a chief night officer at the telephone exchange as per census record,” referring to the occupation given for her in the 1910 U.S. Census.
Head shot of Goldie Toman Miller,
courtesy William and Bonnie Stalter.

Evidence strongly suggests that John Bell was not the only person working a line to Phoneton and to the Ohio State House from the Main Exchange in Dayton. Numerous newspaper articles plus a paragraph in the April 5, 1913 issue of Electrical World  (p 701) recount how “M. B. Stohl, wire chief of the Central Union Telephone Company at Dayton” reached the exchange Tuesday morning, March 25, just before the levees broke and flooded Dayton’s streets. After the ringing generators and storage batteries were flooded, “he quickly connected a lineman’s test set to one of the outgoing toll lines and made his headquarters on the roof of the local telephone company’s buildings. Over this improvised line he held conversation with Mr. C. D. Williamson at the telephone test station at Phoneton.”

Now, in the Bell Telephone News Flood Edition’s list of employees trapped in the Main Exchange during the flood (p. 13–14), there is no M. B. Stohl. There is, however, John A. Bell’s colleague M. B. (or W. B.) Stowell with the right title who did the same things. So, clearly, most press accounts almost uniformly misspelled Mr. Stowell’s name, even in a trade journal. Not only that, but in at least one newspaper account, C. D. Williamson is shortened to Williams, and Phoneton is said to be in Kentucky rather than Ohio. So during the depth of poor communications during the frantic worst of the Great Easter 1913 natural disaster, reporters could not always nail down every detail.

Bell Telephone News, Flood Edition, p. 9.
Other short articles recount how Governor Cox was in direct communication with a “young woman telephone operator” at the Dayton exchange, who described witnessing the collapse of the flood-weakened Leonard building opposite City Hall, taking many people with it. At least two articles say that the first news of Dayton’s disaster was flashed to the world by a “girl at the main office at the long distance board” in Dayton, who communicated through a Phoneton relay operator named Mrs. Rena White Eakin (or Eaken). The unidentified Dayton operator “on her own responsibility” got messages not only to Cox but also “to officials at Cincinnati and Columbus.”

Regardless of inaccuracies and discrepancies, it is apparent that over the 48+ hours of being trapped in the Main Exchange, multiple people at Dayton were relaying essential information from the flood zone through different people at Phoneton to the governor and other necessary personnel. The most likely explanation is that during the marathon ordeal of keeping the single line open and functioning, they were relieving one another  in shifts.

Tantalizing mystery: could that unidentified Dayton operator at the long distance board have been Goldie Toman Miller?
Bell Telephone News, Flood Edition, p. 13-14 (reformatted from the two pages to fit in one graphic)

In the Bell Telephone News Flood Edition’s list of employees trapped in the Main Exchange during the flood, there is no Goldie Miller; there are only a Mary Miller and a Bessie Miller—but Miller, of course, is a common last name. Could Goldie have been at a different exchange? Could she have been overlooked? Or could she actually have been off duty before the Main Exchange was surrounded by floodwaters? The census record said she worked nights. If so, then had her shift had ended and had she gone home after work just before the first levee collapsed around 7 AM Tuesday morning, followed by another half an hour later? Possibly, but once the levees collapsed and the streets started surging with floodwaters, it is doubtful she could have made it across the swollen Miami River to her home west of Dayton.

Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. According to family history, Goldie Toman Miller was on duty for three nights and three days, even though she was seven months pregnant (gave birth do a daughter two months later). Even though definitive verification is not readily turning up in publications, might another reader have an account of a chief night operator serving heroically even though obviously pregnant, perhaps through letters or a journal from another Central Union employee at the Main Exchange in Dayton those fateful days? If so, please contact Ms. Stalter by emailing me.

‘…put the telephone on the map!’
And the larger picture for the comparatively new and still struggling-for-market-share technology of the telephone?

“Telephone companies, too, were terribly damaged” during the tornadoes and multistate flooding of the Great Easter 1913 natural disaster, reflected J.C. Kelsey in a round-up of “Lessons from the Flood” in the April 19 issue of Telephony. “But there is a compensating feature. The flood put the telephone on the map!”
Telephony, April 19, 1913, p. 27

“The public is so accustomed to telegraph wires that they can’t imagine getting news any other way,” the magazine reflection explained. But “this time the news came by telephone… A disaster is impending—the news to flee to the hills comes by telephone!… The telephone bids fair to be the most permanent public utility, because it fits so beautifully into human crisis.”

©2017 Trudy E. Bell
Next time: Brink of Disaster?

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