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Retrospect

“Number, Please” No More  

John Conway
Posted 8/20/21

It was August of 1961, and what was called “the most complex project of its kind ever undertaken by New York Telephone” was just getting underway in Sullivan County.

By March 21, 1965, …

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Retrospect

“Number, Please” No More  

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It was August of 1961, and what was called “the most complex project of its kind ever undertaken by New York Telephone” was just getting underway in Sullivan County.

By March 21, 1965, the project would be complete, and dial telephone service—long taken for granted in most parts of the country—would finally become a reality for the majority of residents here.

Prior to that, callers in most of Sullivan County could complete calls only with the assistance of an operator at the local telephone office who would typically respond to the lifting of the receiver with a curt, “Number, please?” That system, which dated back in some places to 1878, had been replaced in many parts of the country with automated calling—using a rotary dial phone-- beginning in the 1920s.

Sullivan County was a little behind the times in this regard, but after considerable planning, the first mile of the more than 120 miles of new cable necessary to implement the innovation here was completed in early August, 1961 along Route 209 in Kerhonkson. A small slice of Ulster County around the village of Ellenville was also included in the upgrade.

“The program, which will take about three years to complete, will also include the construction of new dial telephone central offices in Fallsburg, Ellenville, Liberty, Monticello, White Lake, Livingston Manor, Jeffersonville, and Callicoon,” the Liberty Register newspaper reported in its August 3, 1961 edition. “Construction on these buildings is slated to begin this fall and in the early spring of 1962.”

According to Victor J. Rutzky, New York Telephone manager at Monticello, the already existing dial facilities in Kerhonkson, Grahamsville, Roscoe, Narrowsburg, and Lake Huntington would be modified to become part of the new dial system.

Rutzky said that Monticello would be “the heart” of the new dial system, and pointed out that the motor vehicle garage at the rear of the telephone building on St. John Street in the village had already been torn down to make way for a new two-story structure on that part of the property.

Prior to the final implementation of the dial project, Rutzky said, telephone company employees would be visiting more than 22,000 customers and installing 44,000 new dial telephones to replace existing equipment.

By February of 1965, most of Sullivan County had the dial telephones installed, and testing had begun in anticipation of the changeover. More than 250 telephone company personnel had been involved in the project up to that point.

Finally, at 2 a.m. on Sunday, March 21, 1965, a little behind the original schedule, the big changeover occurred, and for the first time Sullivan County customers were able to dial their own calls to more than 88 million telephones in the United States and Canada. Operators were needed only for long distance or certain other special calls. Their “number, please?” greeting would be heard no more.

“In addition to dial service, the company plans to eliminate toll charges for a number of calls in the area by extending local calling areas,” the Liberty Register reported in its January 28, 1965 edition. “The new calling areas and the proposed rates for local service are on file with the Public Service Commission.”

When the big day arrived, telephone customers in Sullivan County, Ellenville, and Kerhonkson began using new seven-digit telephone numbers, a new telephone directory, and a new, expanded local calling area. Large newspaper ads ran for weeks prior to the final changeover, preparing customers for a different kind of calling experience.

“Even with the speed and convenience of your new dial service, you’ll still have the services of your helpful telephone operator,” the ads promised. “She’ll be there—now with modern electronic equipment to help you.”

The ads also included simplified instructions for placing local and long distance calls, as well as person-to-person, collect, and credit card calls.

The changeover to the new, mostly automated system was further implemented in December of 1965, when Sullivan County customers were advised that they could find phone numbers not listed in their directories by dialing 411 for local numbers, 555-1212 for numbers in another part of the 914 area code, and the area code plus 555-1212 for numbers outside the 914 area.

Operators were required for this innovation, and it would be many more years before they were almost completely phased out.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com. On Monday, August 30 from 6 to 8 p.m., he will take part in Movement Mondays on the Milk Train Trail in Hurleyville, providing historical narration for the walk, which will begin at the east side trailhead by the basketball courts just off Main Street.

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