1963: Not Digital, But Lots of Digits for Local Phone Service

Source: Island Album/ Down The Shore Publishing 1940: The Beach Haven telephone exchange switchboard was located in a brick building between Coral and Amber streets.

Fifty years ago the Island was assigned its own telephone area code: 609. Our writer reminded us, if we complained about having to dial – that’s dial, not press – too many numbers, we should remember that not so long ago we had to wait our turn for a telephone line. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that families could get a party line with only four other homes on the same circuit. Back then if you were nosey you could listen in to your neighbors’ phone conversations.

Before regular telephone service became available in Southern Ocean County, the first telephones in what AT&T called the Barnegat area were in Tuckerton, from where a trunk line connected the area with the outside world. Atlantic City to Toms River was on one circuit and each town in between had a certain number of rings so the operator at each office knew to pick up. In 1902 the first central office opened in Tuckerton and consisted of a one-operator switchboard that served about 20 customers. The office was open from 8 to 8. Any later calls were routed through the board to Samuel Bartlett’s general store.

By 1912, about 60 area families had phones and the switchboard office moved to Clay Street; three operators controlled the switchboard. (The first telephone operators were men, but when they marched off to war in 1918, the girls took over, and it became a plummy job for a young woman.) In 1930, phone bills were mailed to 345 homes in the area. By 1963, there were about 9,000 accounts on the Island alone.

Back in the day, maintaining service was often difficult. Towns were separated by undeveloped land and some of the pole lines became known as “bean pole lines” because of their flimsy construction, plus the iron wire snapped with the slightest provocation – like wind or wet snow. One storm in 1913 snapped all the trunk lines and it took weeks to restore service. (Some things don’t change.) Repairmen bundled themselves in heavy clothing, grabbed coils of wire and rope with other necessary equipment dangling from their bodies, and rode horses to the job site. In many places the circuits followed the railroad tracks and when trouble occurred on the Island, equipment and men could come from Manahawkin by the twice-daily train. Later, before graduating to trucks, telephone repairmen used motorcycles. But to get going on a cold day the servicemen had to use blowtorches to warm up their engines.

On June 5, 1927, the Beach Haven “3” exchange opened; ten years later the central office moved to Ship Bottom. Not until April 1941 could Islanders call each other direct, without routing through an operator. The mainland had the same direct dial service, but to call back and forth across Barnegat Bay, you still had to use an operator to get that call over the water. About the same time, the Island got the new “4” exchange. (I can still remember our family’s phone number, 4-6329. I just dialed it, but not in service.)

I had owned The Beachcomber just a year when in April 1956, telephone manager Jim Noble got the idea to promote the new HYacinth exchange by gifting a hyacinth plant to businesses, banks and post offices up and down the Island. This was the reminder that beginning April 15th, we had to dial HY4 and then the number.

Barnegat got MYrtle – but no reminders to call MYrtle went out. It wasn’t too long before the Island added the HY2 exchange for Beach Haven. (HY4 and HY2, of course, still exist today as the Island’s 494 and 492 landline exchanges.)

The ability to direct dial off the Island was followed by direct dial everywhere – but not yet to Europe.

In the early spring of 1963 the first steps were taken to lay a transatlantic telephone cable 3,344 nautical miles from Tuckerton to Cornwall, England. A joint project of AT&T and the British Post Office, it was projected to cost about $7 million. Giant coils of cable were off-loaded from Beach Haven’s public dock and the first connection was made under the bay from Taylor Avenue to the AT&T terminus in Tuckerton. Later in the summer, the specially built 511-foot ship Long Lines began the drop. The first stage laid about 2,400 miles of cable, the end of which was attached to a very large buoy, where it awaited the Long Lines second trip. In 1970 the first direct dial calls were made between here and London.

A half century ago, on July 1, not to be outdone by advances in phone service, the U.S. Postal Service assigned LBI its ZIP code. Beachcombings gave the reader careful advice on how important it was to add 08008 – or if you were in Barnegat Light and didn’t want home delivery, 08006 – to your address. “Clerks sorting the mail would glance first at the ZIP code number and less handling would be necessary.”

That’s when clerks, not machines, were sorting the mail. And there was no talk of cutting Saturday delivery.

Margaret Buchholz is the former owner of this newspaper and author of Josephine: From Washington Working Girl to Fisherman's Wife, Shore Chronicles, New Jersey Shipwrecks, Island Album and co-author of Great Storms of the Jersey Shore. Comments welcome at lbipooch@comcast.net.


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