When telephones were a luxury | AspenTimes.com

When telephones were a luxury

Tim Willoughby

Thin and small, the 1904 phone directory covered the entire Western Slope of Colorado. (Willoughby collection)

Fewer than a hundred pages were needed for a phone book for all of western Colorado and part of northern New Mexico. Aspen’s listings filled five pages.

I don’t know why a member of my family saved a 1904 phone book. No family member is in it. Even so, I am grateful for the book because its contents are convenient. It is a who’s who list of individuals and businesses near the turn of the century.

Although Pitkin County had a population of around 5,000 in 1904, only about 50 individuals had telephones and most of them were business owners who also had business phones. Home phones enabled them to manage their stores from home. Otherwise, a telephone was a luxury few could afford. Telephone pioneers endured faulty service and enjoyed profits and prestige.

The Colorado Telephone Company directory includes a map of connecting cities. Before microwaves and satellites, every town had to be connected by wire. Aspen was situated in a loop that extended from Leadville to Twin Lakes over the divide to Aspen, and then down the valley to Glenwood Springs. From Glenwood, the line looped back to Leadville, through Glenwood Canyon, then to Minturn over Tennessee Pass and finally back to Leadville. Leadville connected to Denver through Alma, Fairplay and on down the old railroad line.

The Western Slope line stretched from Glenwood to Grand Junction, then on to Delta, Montrose and the mining towns of Ouray, Silverton and Durango. The line ended in New Mexico, where it served Aztec and Farmington.

Grand Junction topped out with the most listings at 504. Aspen quartered that at 125, 17 of which were ranches. Carbondale’s 49 listings split with 13 in town and 22 ranches. Basalt, Emma and Peach Blow, up the Fryingpan, were listed in the Carbondale pages.

Recommended Stories For You

At least 20 percent of all the directory listings were ranches along the phone line route. During this rural period ranchers clearly saw the value in connecting via phone. A call to do business in Aspen was much more convenient than hitching up the buggy for a 10-mile trip to town from Watson. Rancher listings included Gerbaz, Jacobson, Fred Light and the Chisholms.

As one might expect, Aspen’s mining industry dominated the phone lines with leading mines like the Durant, Percy-Lasalle and Smuggler listing multiple phones. Twenty-one listings were mines. Related businesses such as assayers added to the mining total.

The second largest listing category was food distributors. Fourteen groceries and meat markets were listed in Aspen. There were also 11 liquor-related businesses and three drugstores.

Compared to present-day Aspen, there were few attorneys ” three. The four real estate offices that had phones doubled as stock sellers and insurance businesses.

Horse travel prevailed alongside the telephone technology breakthrough. Aspen boasted five listings for livery stables, blacksmiths and horse-feed stores. Telephones at Wells Fargo Express, the Railroad and Globe Express Co. allowed people to check if their packages had arrived.

Restaurants are so packed with cell phones today that proprietors consider banning them. In contrast, at the turn of the century Veza’s was the only restaurant with a ringing phone.

Government was barely represented. The city of Aspen had only one telephone for all services including the police and the fire departments. Pitkin County had two: one for the clerk and recorder’s office and one for everything else.

Phones did not seem to be popular with retail businesses. Kobey’s on Hyman Avenue, the major general dry goods store, held a listing, as did the undertaker who, as was the custom in those days, also served as a furniture seller.

Doctors made themselves available for house calls in those days so Doc Twining, who also served as mayor, was listed in the book. He could call Citizen’s Hospital to check on patients.

The phone company awarded priority to calls for the four doctors by instructing, “When using the telephone and a call is given for a doctor, subscribers are requested to give up the line and resume the conversation after the doctor’s call is put through.”

Remembering your phone number required that you memorize only two or three digits, unless you were in Grand Junction where you might have to commit four digits to memory.

The introduction to telephone technology was simpler than the multi-page instruction books required for today’s television remote controls. Here is nearly the entire set of directions:

The 1904 directory reveals that much has changed except the advice printed at the bottom of every page, “Whenever you call persons who are out and you wish them to call you when they return, leave your name as well as your telephone number.”