A historical look at the development of telephone lines in the Bethesda area



Photographic illustration by Alice Kresse; photo of the switchboard courtesy of the Library of Congress

In 1876, Alexandre Graham Bell got the first US patent for a device he called “the telephone”. His miraculous invention sparked a revolution in communications that would radically change America.

Bell marketed its first telephone in 1877, and telephone lines were soon deployed throughout Washington, DC. An 1878 telephone directory, the city’s first, listed 187 telephone lines. Ask the switchboard operator for number 1, and she will put you in touch with the White House; line # 2 went to the US Senate, according to the 1878 telephone directory.

The network of telephone lines gradually extended to the suburbs from the city’s Central Exchange. In 1893, a line was drawn along Connecticut Avenue, following the streetcar to Chevy Chase and the offices of the Chevy Chase Land Co., which was busy developing its exclusive subdivision there. New lines were soon installed around Bethesda, from the Chevy Chase Inn near the District Line to the Cabin John Bridge Hotel on MacArthur Boulevard west of Glen Echo.

These early telephone lines served mainly businesses in the area, but new lines were installed in private residences in 1895. The Dunlops of Hayes Manor, now located on the grounds of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, south of Jones Bridge Road , were among the first to have a telephone installed in their home. Community leaders H. Bradley Davidson, Amanda Counselman and John E. Beall and other residents followed around the area.

Within a decade, the number of telephone lines in Bethesda had grown to over 1,000, which was large enough for the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. to establish a telephone exchange specifically for the area, but not in the area. its own building. The first Bethesda Central Exchange standard was installed in the guest bedroom of Ada Cunningham’s house on Melrose Avenue (now Cordell Avenue) in Woodmont Triangle. The telephone company paid Cunningham $ 30 per month to operate the switchboard.

Cunningham and his daughters worked on switchboard home sockets until the 1920s, when the number of telephones in the area rose to over 2,000 and a more permanent arrangement was needed. In 1928, a new Bethesda Central Exchange opened in an impressive stone building on Wisconsin Avenue at Stanford Street. The building, which still stands, was constructed of stone sourced from the Stoneyhurst Quarries on River Road, near its intersection with Seven Locks Road in Potomac. The mica schist quarries were operated by Lilly Stone, a pioneering businesswoman from the turn of the 20th century whose stone would be used for several buildings in downtown Bethesda.

By 1940, the number of telephone connections in the area had grown to nearly 12,000, and the size of the original exchange building had doubled to accommodate the growth. By the mid-1950s, the number of phones managed by the Bethesda Central Exchange would skyrocket to over 45,000.

Finally, the advance of technology at the beginning of the 20th century will lead to the elimination of switchboard operators and the automation of the central office. And in the late 1940s, the first numbering service was introduced in the Bethesda area. According to local historians, the first call was made by Montgomery County Commissioners to Gilbert Grosvenor, the influential editor of National Geographic, in his family’s estate along present-day Grosvenor Lane. Gilbert’s wife, Elsie, was the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, who regularly traveled to Bethesda to visit his daughter and son-in-law.

Presumably he called first.

Author and historian Mark Walston (markwalston@comcast.net) grew up in Bethesda and lives in Olney.


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