The Block Island Times

This week in Block Island’s history: April 20, 1957

Telephone numbers get an update on the island
By Robert M. Downie | Apr 20, 2013
In the years after Henry Dodge was forced to retire after 38 years as the nighttime telephone operator — due to the advent of dial-up phone service — he spent many pleasant days on the fishing boat of his friend Norman Dodge, as seen here on July 8, 1960.

This week in history: On April 20, 1957, Block Islanders were getting used to the newly installed  “dial telephone” system, and Henry Dodge was enjoying retirement after his 38-year career as the island’s nighttime switchboard operator.

All islanders had suddenly lost their old short phone numbers, and were given longer seven-digits ones as was common elsewhere.

When islanders called other phones on the island under the new system, at least they did not need to dial the first three digits “466,” which was the numerical representation of the telephone company’s randomly chosen  “HOward 6” as the exchange.

Other than Henry Dodge, islander Burton Dodge on High Street might have had his lifestyle altered most drastically. His telephone number changed from  “1” to  “2214.” Imagine being the number  “1” person on the island, then finding yourself merely number 2214.

William P. Lewis, whose family built the National Hotel — and who had the number  “6” since the inception of phone service on the island more than 50 years earlier — lost his single digit but received the somewhat appealing  “2600.”

Most islanders had two or three digits under the old operator-assisted system, some even had three-digits and a letter, as did James Maxfield, at the end of Corn Neck, with  “157-W.”

I wish I had asked Frank Payne Jr. how, a few decades after the island had telephone service, he acquired the phone number “2”, which he had to give up in 1957 for  “2325,” a number his family still uses.

The two-and-one-fifth pages of telephone numbers in the phone book of 1957 totaled 396 subscribers. Several of those newly issued dial-up phone numbers of 1957 are still with the original households. A casual check found the following names from 56 years ago that are still listed in the 2013 phone directory with the same family or business.

Congratulations to those families for outlasting the Vaill Hotel and the Ocean View Hotel. And, quite unexpectedly, they have greater duration than the old phone numbers of the Block Island School, the Seaside Market, and the US Coast Guard.

To accomplish this modernization feat in 1957, the New England Telephone and Telegraph Co. arrived on the island early in January with 23 linemen, 12 miles of telephone cable, 12 miles of suspension cable, a mile-and-a-half of underground cable, 67 new poles, and an array of trucks and trailers.

The office had already been moved a year earlier, from the Gables II building on Dodge St. to a new brick building across from the town hall. And a year before that, the microwave transmission system to the mainland had begun, replacing the underwater cable from Sandy Point to the mainland.

Henry Dodge was the last male telephone operator in Rhode Island. In 1957, he was only 55 and hardly knew how to retire. First though, he had a three-week vacation coming. Where would he spend it? On the island, of course.  “No better or quieter place,” he said.

When asked what he would do after that, he answered:  “Mebbe I’ll make myself useful instructing some of the older islanders on the use of the new phones, although, I know right now that they’re agin’ them, but they’ll get used to them.”

Henry died twenty years before the next big change, when New England Telephone Company invited all of us by mail to an open house on March 30, 1991, at the town hall:

“To celebrate the installation of a new electronic call switching system that’s bringing Touch-Tone service, Call Waiting, Call Forwarding and other information-age services to Block Island residents.”

That meant instead of dialing just four numbers to make calls on the island, we would now have to dial all seven digits. Not an improvement.

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