Can you hear me now? Telephones in the Smokies

Can you hear me now? Telephones in the Smokies

If you’ve ever tried to make a call from your cell phone in the Smokies, you know how nearly impossible it can be. If you don’t have the right service provider or if you’re not standing in exactly the right magical spot, you can’t get a signal for love or money. What if I told you that in the 1890s, if you were in Cades Cove at least, you could have made a phone call as simply as picking up a telephone receiver and turning a hand crank?

Though telephony wasn’t new in the last decade of the 19th century, it certainly was in its adolescence. Alexander Graham Bell was awarded his first U.S. patent for telephone technology in 1876, and the first telephone service between New York and Chicago, a distance of 950 miles, was established in 1892. But in the 1890s, thanks to Dan Lawson, one of the wealthiest residents of the Cove, a telephone system was organized. The system connected many of the homes in the Cove to each other, and eventually a line was run across the mountains and all the way to distant Maryville.

To see perhaps the only remaining remnant of this early communication system, you should plan a visit to the Tipton-Oliver house. Located in the kitchen on the east wall of the room are two depressions with a hole drilled into each. Through the holes passed the metal wires that connected the house to the adjacent blacksmith shop. At one point the lines also ran across the creek to a mercantile store that once existed there.

Photograph showing all that remains of the Tipton-Oliver telephone infrastructure. Photograph courtesy of Glenda Steel.
Photograph showing all that remains of the Tipton-Oliver telephone infrastructure. Photograph courtesy of Glenda Steel.

The wires were connected to a wall-mounted, hand-cranked telephone. The person making the call would turn the crank to alert the person on the other end that a call was coming through. In a local telephone network like the one in the Cove, a coded ring was used to identify who was being called; a long crank and a short crank might be for one resident, two shorts and a long for another.

While establishing an early telephone system in Cades Cove is no small feat of engineering, especially considering the system was primarily a large DIY project, it pales in comparison to an engineering test conducted in the park by the U.S. Army Air Force in October 1944.

According to a report filed by Chief Ranger John Needam, the first ground-to-air conversation over telephone line occurred somewhere between the Sugarlands CPS camp and Smokemont!

In order to test the durability of a new type of telephone wire, as well as the feasibility of using an aircraft to drop telephone line in a rugged mountainous area, the Army dispatched a Douglas C-47 Skytrain to the airport in Knoxville, TN, on October 14. With Assistant Chief Ranger John Morrell seated immediately behind the pilot, the plane approached the CPS camp at 1,600 feet and dropped the spool of telephone line connected to 20 pounds of steel chain and a parachute. The spool landed about 4,000 feet from the camp, and within three minutes the ground crew had attached a portable field telephone to the spool and was in telephone contact with the crew of the airplane for the next three and a half minutes, the entire time it took the plane to cover the 14 miles of its course.

Douglas C-47 Skytrain, courtesy Library of Congress
Douglas C-47 Skytrain, courtesy Library of Congress

The spool ran out with the end of the line coming to rest at the abandoned Kephart Prong CCC camp. The line was then connected to the telephone system at the CCC camp and incorporated into the park communication system, where it continued to function. The success of the test resulted in additional experiments over the next several weeks using smaller, more maneuverable aircraft. Though there were a few technical difficulties, the subsequent tests were successful as well.

The Army wanted to test their new technologies in the most mountainous terrain they could find, so they came to the Smokies. Whether this technique was later used in either the European or Pacific Theaters of operations, we don’t have any way of knowing. But that the Smokies was so involved with early telephone communications, well I had no idea!

Mike Aday is the librarian-archivist at the Collections Preservation Center, where artifacts from Great Smoky Mountains National Park are housed. The Collections Preservation Center existence was partly made possible through funding from Great Smoky Mountains Association. Email Mike HERE or call M-F, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 865-448-2247.