May 1, 1999

Building a shrine to bureaucracy
Here's why part of the original transcontinental telephone line still stands.

By Art Brothers

In 1914, the first transcontinental telephone line was completed. By 1930, major upgrades (which included more pairs on new crossarms and poles) in eastern Nevada had been performed. In World War II, the buried K cable assumed much of the heavy carriage. And in the 1950s, microwave came online for heavy haul, including TV. The first transcon lines were then sectionalized and began to slim down to single crossarms with just four pair. Here and there, segments of the route were scrapped out.

Some 15 years ago, Ma Bell sold me a 75-mile segment of that line, which was parallel to Interstate 80 in eastern Nevada. Calls to any of the seven subscribers were possible only by having the operator press a lever on her switchboard to 'ring down' the line with the desired ring intervals so the called party could answer the phone.

The line included one 20-mile tap, using No. 9 iron wire built generations before by a local rancher with guidance from the Montgomery Ward catalog. Subscribers included a highway maintenance station near a mountain that I-80 crosses with a phone at the office and one at the home of the resident maintainer. A gas station and business at Oasis had three, with the seventh at the Big Springs Ranch 5 miles south. All calls were long distance and manually handled by the operator office of CP National, the serving carrier at Elko, Nev. As long as there was zero growth, the Ma Bell line with No. 8 copper and poles every 150 feet required very little maintenance.

Growth, however, was a different matter. A trailer court sprung up. Angry people talked to the Nevada public service commission. Four telcos were talked to.

Still having not learned, I agreed to take over the line and upgrade service.

The Penitentiary
A new digital switch got installed at the end of the 70-year-old Bell line. The Bell guys were so happy not to drive the 450 miles to fix things that they gave me salvaged Western Electric "O" carrier, which I installed end-to-end for trunking. More subscribers came when Nevada established a miniprison along the freeway. The Highway Department was amused at my pushing a pipe under the two freeway segments -- it was a water-lube rotating pipe, pushed by a backhoe. Open-wire stuff could not be bought, so recycled Lenkurt subscriber carrier was used over one pair for the prison's local loops.

Branch Cox helped me by plowing new fiber to replace the hard-to-maintain segment over a mountain. The inmates then helped scrap-out that chunk of the open wire.

A few years later, I got another dozen miles of fiber to Wells. The open wire had shrunk to 50 miles. A couple of years ago, with the successful placement of fiber, the last of the old transcontinental line came down. There were a few exceptions, such as some wire crossing I-80 and iron still on the poles for a ranch 7 miles from somewhere.

The Catenary
Eventually, all of the wire crossings were removed but one, called the catenary -- a wonderful, big, maybe 800 ft. span from hilltop to hill, going across the freeway. Steel cables were anchored at each end, supporting layers of crossarms and multipair cables that the local telco had placed to cross the freeway. The many crossarms are supported off this catenary array. Chuck and some of our guys, plus off-duty power company folk, were prepared to take it down earlier this year. The highway patrol would stop traffic for the five minutes max it would take to chop the lines at both sides. We'd then chop the lines in the middle, pull the wreckage to either side and let the traffic go. We had a written fax "OK" from the right-of-way guy at the state highway office.

Then, someone said the local highway chief had not signed off. And what about electric warning signs, traffic cones, flaggers and the other stuff the book says is needed to work on the interstate? Seeing the chance for a buck, a local contractor said we could rent the required signs from him for $4,000. All this for five minutes with the cops blocking the highway.

So, the catenary is not coming down in my lifetime! We're going to connect the wires to a memorial telephone. Folks from all over the world can dial a special number to our system and be looped across the catenary. The callers can experience having made a call that will partly route through the first transcontinental telephone line in America. We get minutes of use and access.

A true historical artifact will be retained, mostly as a monument to bureaucracy at its finest.

When Art Brothers isn't impeding traffic flow in the desert, he operates Beehive Telephone Co. (Wendover, Utah). Readers may send comments to

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Copyright 1999 Advanstar Communications.