September-October 2021

Answering the call

The stringing of phone lines in the Bethesda area rang in a new era

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Photo illustration by Alice Kresse; switchboard photo courtesy of Library of Congress

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the first U.S. patent for a device he called “the telephone.” His miraculous invention set off a revolution in communication that would radically change America.

Bell marketed his first telephone in 1877, and phone lines soon were being strung throughout Washington, D.C. An 1878 telephone directory—the first for the city—listed 187 phone lines. Ask the switchboard operator for No. 1, and she would connect you to the White House; the No. 2 line went to the U.S. Senate, according to the 1878 phone book.

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

Those initial phone lines primarily served area businesses, but new lines were being run into private residences by 1895. The Dunlops of Hayes Manor—located today on the grounds of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, south of Jones Bridge Road—were among the first to have a phone installed in their home. Community leaders H. Bradley Davidson, Amanda Counselman and John E. Beall and other residents followed all around the area.

Within a decade, the number of phone lines in Bethesda had grown to more than 1,000—large enough for the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. to establish an exchange specifically for the area, but not in its own building. The first Bethesda Central Exchange switchboard was installed in the spare bedroom of Ada Cunningham’s home on Melrose Avenue (now Cordell Avenue) in Woodmont Triangle. The phone company paid Cunningham $30 a month to manage the switchboard.

Cunningham and her daughters worked the plugs on the home-based switchboard until the 1920s, when the number of phones in the area grew to well over 2,000 and a more permanent arrangement was required. In 1928, a new Bethesda Central Exchange opened in an impressive stone building on Wisconsin Avenue at Stanford Street. The building—which is still standing—was constructed of stone 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 in the early 20th century whose stone would be used for several buildings in downtown Bethesda.

By 1940, the number of phone connections in the area had risen to almost 12,000 and the original exchange building was doubled in size to accommodate the growth. By the mid-1950s, the number of phones handled by the Bethesda Central Exchange would skyrocket to more than 45,000.

Eventually the march of technology in the early 20th century would lead to the elimination of the switchboard operators and the automation of the exchange. And in the late 1940s, the first dial service was introduced to the Bethesda area. According to local historians, the first call was placed by Montgomery County commissioners to Gilbert Grosvenor, the influential editor of National Geographic, at his family’s estate along present-day Grosvenor Lane. Gilbert’s wife, Elsie, was the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, who would regularly travel to Bethesda to visit with his daughter and son-in-law.

Presumably he called first.

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