Telephones all the buzz in late 1800s

On Main Street, looking east from Sixth Street, in 1883, the telephone poles and their multiple lines are prominent.


In 1879, the telephone was a modern invention, the newest technology that was going to revolutionize the world. In most of the United States, the telephone was not yet a common household instrument, but Miles City had telephones. Two of them. The telephones connected Colonel Nelson Miles’ house at Fort Keogh with his office.

However, Miles City soon had a real telephone exchange of its own. This exchange was located in the Bullard Block on the corner of Sixth and Main streets. At that time, the “Bullard Block” was just a one-room frame store. 

George Miles, the general’s nephew, had the first phone. There was no bell at the Miles house. If someone called him - and not many people could - the “sound box” at one end wire was struck with a hammer. This made the wire vibrate, and the other person would hear and answer. 

At first, only George and his brother-in-law, Charley Strevell, had phones, so when the sound box sounded, they knew who was calling. 

Gradually, the system expanded to include 25 local subscribers and the line to Fort Keogh. There were no out-of-town calls because there were no wires beyond the one to Fort Keogh.

Three years later, James Coleman, like Bullard a successful saloon owner, took over as agent for “Bell Telephone Co.” That soon expanded, and the new central office was located across the street from the original office in the A. H. Bertrand store.

Rates were $4 for a home line and $5 a month for businesses. 

As the system expanded, more telephone poles were added. Every telephone had a separate wire, so the further the poles were from “Central,” the more lines there were, creating a good deal of clutter. 

There was another problem with poles. “All parties are asked,” said Mr. Moore, the contractor in charge of installing the poles in 1884, “to refrain from using the telephone poles as hitching posts, since they are liable to be pulled out of line.”

Eventually, a line was installed to Glendive, which caused great excitement. Agent Frank Tingling of the Northern Pacific Railroad was able to talk to his brother, A. T. Tingling, in Glendive. The news reports said, “Voices were plainly recognizable.”

Eventually, the REAL telephone company made its way along the railway lines and Miles City became connected to the rest of the United States. As the town grew in the years after the arrival of Milwaukee Railroad, so did the number of phone lines.

Party lines and multiple line wires came into use, decreasing the net of wires through town. The city made the telephone company move its poles to the alleys, both decreasing the clutter along the streets and reducing the chance of horses being tied to the poles.

Every year, lines were extended. In 1911, there were 367 subscribers in Miles City alone. By 1914, there were so many lines, both in town and to all the outlying communities, that a formal phone company building had to be constructed. The building was added to the line of new modern buildings on Main Street.

Today, as it nears its 100th birthday, the old telephone company building is home to an accounting firm. However, if you look at the building at 908 Main St., you will still see the bells on the original canopy and on the front facade just above the canopy, giving a clue to the structure’s original use.

From 1879 and its two lines, to modern, high-tech phone systems, the telephone has long been woven into the history of our community.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Amorette Allison is a local historian and a columnist/reporter for the Miles City Star. She is also a former preservation officer for the city. Allison has authored several volumes on local history titled “The Way We Were,” which are available for purchase.