Tom Ross: Crank the phone and call me |

Tom Ross: Crank the phone and call me

Tom Ross

— I was hiking down Blackmer Drive from the quarry on Emerald Mountain on Saturday evening when I fielded a business call I’d been anxiously awaiting. The call — which turned into an email — allowed me to add a missing name to a Sunday newspaper story and reminded me how we’ve come to take cellular technology and smart phones for granted.

Imagine what it was like when old-fashioned crank telephones first began to link the early ranches in the Routt County countryside to neighboring towns and eastern cities beyond. Those were the good old days, when it was impossible to check on the progress of one’s fantasy football team via a handheld device.

I found all of the answers I sought about early telephone service here in a book written by my late colleague and Steamboat Pilot editor Dee Richards. Dee’s book, “Steamboat Round the Bend,” began as a series of in-depth newspaper articles about the community’s history. She was motivated to take the project further and wrote a book with the support of her publisher, Chuck Leckenby.

Richards tells us that the telephone arrived in this remote valley in 1900, and once the first few wires were strung, the system expanded rather quickly.

Still, it was 25 years after James Harvey Crawford built the first cabin here in 1875 that settlers, desperate for more regular news from the outside world, could avail themselves of the telephone.

Richards wrote that cattle companies, desiring to be in touch with neighboring ranches and with railroad shipping points, installed the very first phones in the area. Those early phones were battery operated, using a magneto (a type of electrical generator) to produce the ringtones at the other end of the line, Richards wrote. Each crank of the phone handle produced a single ring and each rancher knew to answer to a specific number of rings.

In October 1900, the long-distance phone line that first linked Steamboat to Rifle and the Denver & Salt Lake Railroad was completed. The line also brought phone service to stations along the way at Hayden, the Cary Ranch, Craig, the Wood Ranch, Axial and Hamilton. It wasn’t long at all before a branch line to Hahn’s Peak was strung. Next, Steamboat businessmen including F.A. Metcalf, F.E. Milner, D.W. Whipple and Charles Seymour raised $1,500 to run a line to Wolcott representing a shorter link to Denver.

That investment attracted West Slope Telephone and Telegraph, which contracted to run the system. Work began on new lines to both Wolcott and Hahn’s Peak in May 1901 and by June the system was operational. By September, a telephone exchange was in operation in the building that housed the post office in Steamboat Springs.

In June 1904, A.G. Maasdam organized the Elk River Mutual Telephone cooperative. It linked Deep Creek, Elk Mountain and portions of the Bear River Valley to a phone exchange in Steamboat Springs.

Suddenly, ranchers and farmers in those areas could get the latest information on grain and cattle prices, rural residents could summon emergency medical help, and peoples’ social lives were enriched.

Maasdam incorporated the company in 1905 with promises of building a first-class exchange in Steamboat. He charged users 50 cents a month per telephone.

At the same time, Richards reported, the Colorado Telephone Company offered to furnish switching facilities and purchase the old West Slope Telephone and Telegraph while cooperating with the local cooperative phone system.

The Steamboat Pilot quickly caught on to the benefits of telephones for news gathering and began publishing a new column entitled “Telegraphic Briefs,” which carried “news notes from around the world, direct to the people of Steamboat Springs via the telephone.”

All of these years later, you can read this newspaper column on your phone, and you don’t even have to turn the crank.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email

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