June 1, 1908


Experimental Line Ran From Main
Street to West Bottoms -- Hard
Time to Find a

The first telephone in Missouri was built with fence wire, with knobs from dresser drawers for insulators on the housetops over which the line ran, and that Kansas City's first telephone was of much the same construction, running from Main street to a coal office in the West bottoms, is told in the reminiscences of a pioneer, written for "Public Service," a telephone publication, by E. A. Woelk. Mr. Woelk operated the first line built in Kansas City, and aided in capitalizing a corporation to sell the stock of this half mile of wire. The company became the second Bell Telephone Company in the West, the first one of the name having been operated from St. Louis to the old fair grounds in the suburbs, and was the nucleus of the present great Missouri and Kansas Telephone Company.

Passing though St. Louis with his family on a trip to Europe, Mr. Woelk, then living in Springfield, Mo., heard of a new "fake" out at the fair grounds, and went out. He found men talking over a fence wire. That was in 1877. When he returned from Europe Mr. Woelk was still thinking of the "fake," and disposed of his other business, that he might become an agent in the West for the Eastern corporation, having "wagon tracks" for sale. The wagon tracks turned out to be of value, and Mr. Woelk built a line over the housetops from James Kirby's saloon to Jim Straughton's livery stable, in Springfield. They city council made him take down the line, because citizens heard vile language vibrating from the wire by night, and gossiping ladies believed they easily heard all the doings at Kirby's by listening to the "buzzing" of the wire above the housetops. Here is Mr. Woelk's story of how the first line was built in Kansas City:

About July 1, 1878, I received a telegram from Boston to go to Kansas City and take with me a half dozen telephones and some insulated wire and two magneto bells, to meet Mr. Madden for the purpose of demonstrating the new invention which was to elevate the telephone from a mere toy to an instrument of great commercial value.

I met Mr. Madden, who brought with him in his hand satchel two wooden boxes -- the Blake transmitter. While Mr. Madden was busying himself among bank directors and presidents and railroad magnates with the object of the organizing of a telephone company I set out to find a place to demonstrate the new telephone. A short time prior to this the Western Union Telegraph Company, the only wire-using company in Kansas City in those days, had started to build an exchange.

My difficulties here began when I found that this new instrument, the transmitter, required a battery. Nothing of that kind could be bought in Kansas City then. I went to the Western Union people to borrow two cells of crowfoot battery, but as soon as the telegraph operator discovered that it was to be used for a telephone -- the instrument which he thought would drive him out of business -- I was refused.

I set out to find a chinaware store, and bought two crocks and two flower pots to go inside of these; next I went to a drug store for the blue vitrol and some sulphate of zinc, and then to a tinshop for some zinc, and soon rigged up a battery. In the meantime Mr. Madden had secured the keys to a store, on one of the main streets, which was newly plastered and vacant. Remembering the M. M. Buck line in St. Louis, I found an old telegraph line running from near the store to a coal office in the bottoms, about one-half mile distant. I borrowed this line and equipped it with a magneto bell and telephones, including the transmitter, at the coal office, and at the store end with a call bell and about a half a dozen receivers, the transmitter being located in the rear of the store and the receivers about forty feet distant in front.

About 3 o'clock in the afternoon the prospective shareholders assembled and Mr. Madden began to demonstrate. It was suggested that I go to the coal office and speak to Mr. Madden at the store. This, for some reason, the visitors did not approve of and sent one of their own men down to make the test. A call was made and Mr. Madden spoke to the coal office in an ordinary tone of voice and the reply came promptly while the visitors alternately listened with the receivers. The transmitter was then adjusted very sensitively and I would speak in a whisper which could not be heard at the front of the store but was promptly answered by the representative of the prospective investors.

It was then and there agreed to meet at the hotel after supper, and it was then and there that the second Bell Telephone Company was organized in the Middle West, St. Louis having the first. The capital was $10,000, and out of this organization grew the existing Missouri and Kansas Telephone Company.