Dallas County Pioneers Association
Dallas County Pioneers Association Homestead House in Downtown Dallas

Stories of the Pioneers »

Historical Stories

Communication in  Dallas

The First Toll Building

101 N. Haskell - 4027 Main


Before the telegraph was invented or a line was constructed to Dallas, the quickest way to communicate with another location was either smoke signals or probably a fast horse.  This changed after the Civil War, because about the same time the Houston and Texas Central Railroad extended its line from Houston to Dallas in 1872, this area was connected to the outside world by telegraph wires.[i]

 Communication changed quickly because at the United States Centennial Convention held in Philadelphia in 1876,  Alexander Graham Bell exhibited the device that he and Thomas Watson had worked on for years.  This was just the beginning of electronic communication in Dallas, because in the same decade, less than three years after telephones were first invented, two locations in Dallas were linked together by this newest method of communication in 1878. It was strictly business - between the pump house at Browder Springs, the water supply for the city, and the firehouse at Harwood and Main where it was supposed there would always be someone on duty to answer the "phone."[ii]

 At this stage of the communication business, the telephone was considered a "toy" and anyone who understood enough about the process, could piece together some equipment from whatever was at hand and "install a telephone."  One of the first telephone installers in Dallas was Daniel M. Clower, a Civil War telegrapher, who had been commissioned by the Confederacy to build the first telegraph line to Texas from the Mississippi during the Civil War.  [iii]

 Another telephone first in Dallas was a line installed by John M. Oram (1845-1914) from his home on Cottage Lane to his jewelry store on Elm Street on the south side, the second door west of Poydras.  Oram, who has been described as an electrical genius arrived in Dallas County with his family from Indiana when he was twelve years old.  They lived in Lancaster while he was growing up.  Because of his mechanical ability, he had worked at the Confederate Arms Factory in Lancaster during the Civil War.  After the war he had gone to Indiana where there were still family members, to learn the trade of watchmaker and returned to Dallas in 1871. Oram was a good business man and beginning with his trade as watchmaker, in ten years had built the "largest" jewelry store in Dallas.  Later he reared an orphaned nephew, Arthur Everts, training him in the jewelry business. [iv] There was an Arthur A. Everts Jewelry Store in a prominent location in Dallas until the 1980s.

 As for his mechanical ability Oram set up the first switchboard operation in Dallas and extended the first telephone line to connect Dallas and Ft. Worth.  He also installed the first light bulb ever seen in Dallas. [v]  In 1885 John Oram invented and sold the first telephone time signal to American Bell in Boston.

 Another early telephone customer was John C. McCoy, one of the first attorneys in Dallas, who had his telephone installed in the hall of his residence at the corner of Lamar and Commerce.  Alexander Sanger was also among the first to have a telephone.  He was president of the volunteer fire department and had a line installed in the Sanger Brothers store so that he could get in touch with the volunteer firemen in a hurry.[vi]  The first telephone central office was established in Dallas in 1881 on the second floor over Oram's jewelry store.

 A group of Arkansas investors including Jasper Keller had invested in the franchise from Southwestern Telegraph and Telephone Company and Dallas was among the first five towns to have a new exchange opened.  This was a magneto office with 40 customers who could talk to each other and the lines were grounded circuits.[vii] The telephone poles that were erected were cut from trees in the Trinity lowlands around Five-Mile and Ten Mile Creek. [viii]

 The central office moved in 1882 to the second floor of a building located at Main and Murphy.  By 1885 competition arrived as the Dallas Pan Electric Company established a central office, too.  Local units evolved in a haphazard fashion without a vision as to how all the pieces would blend.  After two years, this company was closed due to a lawsuit brought by Southwestern Telegraph and Telephone Company charging an infringement of patents.  The parent Company of Southwestern was eventually to be a monopoly known as American Bell.[ix]

 In 1887, Southwestern’s central office moved again to the third floor of the Juanita Building on the south side of Main opposite Stone Street.  The local manager was James A. Chambers who lived at 414 Wood  Street an address within walking distance of the office.   In 1889, Mr. George W. Foster the General Manager of Southwestern Telegraph and Telephone Company boarded at the Oak Cliff Hotel which had just been completed on the corner of Jefferson and Crawford.  He probably rode the newly constructed elevated railway connecting downtown Dallas and Oak Cliff. [x]

 In its infancy a few other communication companies were formed to try and serve the public, but due to patent infringement and other problems financing the tremendous (at the time of the pending 1893 depression) cost of installation to connect all these companies together with their various forms of equipment, this proved prohibitive.  The Erie Telegraph and Telephone Company was listed in the Directory for Dallas in 1888 and 1890.  By 1891 they were no longer listed.  They had been bought out by Southwestern Telegraph and Telephone Company.

 It was not until 1897 that the first purchase of land was made for a lot on the southeast corner of Akard and Jackson Street. [xi] During the last half of the year a two story and basement building was constructed of brick and reinforced concrete.This is where the Main central office and general offices for the State of Texas and Arkansas were located.  This building was constructed in an Italian Renaissance style with an American Eagle on top. This central office was a common battery design and was the first of this type south of St. Louis.  In 1901 the telephone numbers ranged from 0 to the 1900s.  Four years after the Red Brick Building was erected,  the growing telephone company added two floors - and an Otis elevator.[xii]  

In December 1898, this fast growing business, Southwestern Telegraph and Telephone Company, purchased lots 7 and 8 in Block 4 of the Fairview Addition which was on the northwest corner of Haskell and Main for a much needed Toll Building.[xiii].   This site was within the corporate limits of what had been the town of East Dallas (1883-1890).  Immediately a one story and basement red brick building was constructed and completed by the latter part of 1899.  In this building was located the "Toll Relay" office in which all toll calls originating and terminating in Dallas as well as toll calls switched through Dallas.[xiv]  The equipment consisted of four turret type with two positions each - a combination of toll switching and telegraph sections.  The four toll switching positions and four telegraph monitoring positions were set back across the room.  Western Electric was not able to furnish the needed equipment in time, so Tom Milburn, Superintendent of North Texas built and installed the equipment.   The basement contained the furnace.  In 1905 a second floor was added to the building. This was the link that connected Dallas to the entire nation and eventually the wider world.

 By August 4, 1905 this Toll Relay office was abandoned and the equipment removed soon after.  All toll activities having been transferred to the new, much larger building at Bryan and Haskell.  Although altered, the original Toll building is still standing having fulfilled its function in the communications industry that started in Dallas.

 The growth of this industry can be shown by the following statistics.  By 1900 there were 2459 telephone subscribers in a population of 42,638.  In 1901, the cost for residential service was from $1.00 to $4.00 per month.  Business service was more, from $1.50 to $5.00 per month. The large advertisements in the city directories the next few years establish the advent of long distance service to Dallas.  The half-page ad in 1903 called attention to the fact that additional copper metallic circuits in Arkansas and Texas could provide quicker and better service than ever.[xv] By 1904, the half-page advertisement claimed "upwards of 3000 cities and towns and 70,000 subscribers" in Arkansas and Texas with long distance lines reaching points throughout the country. [xvi]  In 1905 the telephone company advertised the wonderful convenience of having an extension telephone in residences.

 For over ninety years the vacated Toll building has been adaptively reused.  It was first occupied by the University Military School ,  Mr. John B. Dodson,  president and founder, which lasted for three years.  Deed records reveal the Southwestern Telegraph and Telephone Company was a Corporation organized under the laws of the State of New York when the  original Toll building was sold to John B. Dodson for $5200.00. [xvii]

 .By 1910 the building was vacant for a short time until the Hardin School for Boys was organized in 1911 by John A. and Roy H. Hardin. This school lasted until 1916 at this site.  In a brochure describing the school facility it was described as being about two miles from the business center and convenient to both the North Belt and Elm Street cars.   The building was described as being red brick, two stories and basement, is heated by natural gas, and is planned with reference to light and ventilation.  The basement contains furnace rooms, lavatories, printing room and a well equipped laboratory for physics.  The brochure added that the assembly room and office are on the first floor.  The class-rooms and library are on the second floor. The brochure describing the school noted that the building is a most substantial one.[xviii]  In 1917 the Hardin school moved to the Greenville and Belmont on a portion of land that had been a thirty- acre farm of W.W. Caruth.  When Hardin's School closed on the farm, this same site was later the home of Miss Ella Hockaday's School for girls.

 The Toll building did not stay vacant long since the location was so desirable and transportation was nearby.  From 1919 until 1921 the A.M. Automotive School Association occupied the building.[xix]

 For the next fifty years the building was occupied by various companies in the outdoor advertising and sign business.  Beginning in 1921 the building was occupied by the United Advertising Corporation of America and other affiliated businesses such as Dallas Poster Advertising Co., Dallas Sign Co. and Dallas United Sign Co.  In 1941 a major addition was added to the original Toll Building.  The building permits reflect the change with the front entrance and the addition of air conditioning. [xx]In 1949 the records show a name change to the United Advertising Corporation of Texas. The Packer Corporation of Texas was also officed here.   These companies also produced some of the backdrops used on the stages when Vaudeville was in its heyday!

 By 1975 the Birmingham Construction Company occupied the property for the next two decades.  During those years, this company expanded across the street  on the southeast corner of Main and Haskell for the manufacturing of cabinets in that building.  A small non-descript service station was built on the southwest corner of Main and Haskell and stood for many years until finally demolished.  Across Haskell to the east is the complex now owned by the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Company (DART).  Since the turn of the century this has been the site of the "car barns" or the end of the line, a stopping place for street cars, later buses and now trains for DART.  Transportation in Dallas is another story waiting to be told.

 In 1994, the property at Main and Haskell was purchased by Stage Right Audio and their large amount of sound equipment is stored in the auxiliary buildings erected by the sign and construction companies.  The current owner has carefully and proudly returned the original Toll building to its high quality.  The small building was so well constructed that, even now, a little paint was all the repair work that needed to be done.  The original windows, molding, and doors with brass hardware are still in use.  On the second floor the hardwood floors that had been covered for many years have been carefully restored. Through the years various features had been added and removed to fit needs of the various owners.  Many years ago in one of the subsequent additions, the bricks were not carefully selected and the entire complex was painted.  The addition is easily identified by the difference in the brick and mortar and stonework.  The new owner has tastefully re-habed the structure and cleaned the stone trim and facade of the basement which has windows to the outside at ground level.  There are other tenants in the building, one is a designer of children's clothes utilizing the space surrounded by the large windows.  There is an apartment in the basement and one on the second floor occupied by the owner. 

 This one small Toll Building is left to recall the communications industry that started over one hundred and twenty five years ago in Dallas evolving from primitive steel wire and batteries to cellular phones, fax machines, worldwide internet connections, and even into space. The inscription on a Texas Historical Marker placed on the corner of Main and Haskell in front of this original Toll building denotes the importance of the communication industry in Dallas County and in Texas.

 Compiled by Frances James






© 2019 Dallas County Pioneers Association
Privacy Policy