The Telephone Comes to Whiting

By Anthony Borgo February 2019

Telephone service in the city of Whiting dates back to 1895.  At that time, there were 18 telephones that only served the Standard Oil refinery.  According to a Times-Grafic article, all of that changed in March, 1897. “A significant historical telephone event took place when the Chicago Telephone Company established a new exchange in Whiting.” 

Mr. L. Drew, a representative of the company, informed the Whiting Town council that the money to extend telephone service to Whiting had already been appropriated.  According to Drew, the Chicago Telephone Company initially only wanted to establish a pay station in the city limits.  However, according to City Ordinance No. 23, if “fifteen responsible people demand it, and agree to pay responsible price for the same” a telephone exchange must be constructed in Whiting. 

Four months later, Robert Lincoln, president of the Chicago Telephone Company and son of Abraham Lincoln, affixed his signature to an order establishing telephone service to the citizens of Whiting.  According to the August 14, 1897, Whiting Sun, two telephones had already been installed with more to come. “One is in the residence of Standard Oil Superintendent William Burton and the other in the office of Dr. Street.”  The switchboard was located in a rear room of the Whiting Drug Company with George Henthorn serving as manager. 

A year later the number of telephones installed grew to forty-four and by 1900, with a city population of 4,000, another forty contracts were secured.  As the population steadily grew, so did the demand for telephone service. By 1905, 204 more phones were established. 

According to a December 15, 1960 Times-Grafic article, “Making a call on one of those early telephones was a lot different than today.”  All phones were of the “crank” variety.  When someone wanted to make a call, they first had to listen in to hear whether one of a number of parties was using the line.  Then they signaled the operator by turning the crank, and waited. 

The operator would then call you back and you would ask the operator to connect you to the person you wanted to phone.  Phone numbers did not come in vogue in most places until sometime later.  The operator would then crank the other party and inform them that someone wanted to talk to them.  Then both parties would pick up their receivers and hold their conversation.  Once the parties were finished talking, they would have to crank the operator to signal their call was over. 

In the early 1920s, the exchange headquarters began renting a room from the Health Commissioner.  Then in 1929, the office was moved to the second floor of 1860 Indianapolis Blvd.   By 1930, Whiting had 2,300 telephones. At the outset of World War II, there were 3,245.  In May, 1944, the business office moved to the first floor of 1858 Indianapolis Blvd. 

By 1950, there were 6,142 telephones installed in Whiting homes. As a result, in 1953 additional switchboard equipment needed to be installed.  Two years later the telephone business office was moved to 1409 119th Street.  In 1955, telephone service grew to 7,445 customers.  That year Whiting telephone employees worked long hours during the Standard Oil fire.   

Thirty minutes after the initial blast that rocked the Calumet Region, all positions on the switchboard were filled by either volunteers or telephone employees.  According to the Times-Grafic, “Telephone operators worked at a terrific pace. Some calls were delayed during the panic filled hours, but after that, service was rendered in a normal manner.”  The press, radio, and telephone service were grateful to the fine work of the telephone employees during this time of crisis. 

Ground breaking ceremonies for a new dial building took place on October 2, 1959.  The new building housed the most modern telephone equipment available.  The construction of the new building, located at 1861 Indianapolis Blvd., was a result of the transition from operator service to direct dial.  The switchover was scheduled for 1 a.m. on December 18, 1960.  There were nearly 9,000 telephones in operation at this time. 

Direct Distance Dialing was developed by the Bell Telephone Laboratories after World War II.  To make the system possible, the United States was divided into over 900 geographical calling areas, each with its own three-figure code.  This is how northern Indiana received the 219 area code. 

 The new office building featured an Automatic Message Accounting System.  According to the Times-Grafic, “The amazing machine keeps track of thousands of dialed telephone calls.  It records from what number you make a call, what number you call, and how long your conversation lasts, then adds up and records the information required to make out your bill.” 

In addition to making calls, modern telephones are used for sending and receiving text messages, taking pictures, accessing the Internet, downloading applications, sending and receiving emails, recording audio and video, and playing songs. But, for Whiting’s early residents, the idea of just communicating via wires had to seem farfetched.