Jacksonville’s Great Telephone War



John W. Cowart

Frost in Cuba.

Snow in Tampa.

The winter of 1885/86 proved to be one of the coldest ever.

The Jacksonville Signal Office, a forerunner of the weather bureau, recorded temperatures in Jacksonville as ranging between a low of 15 and a high of 23 degrees.

The Signal Office received a telephone report of six inches of snow in Tampa and frost in Cuba.

Ice coated and broke telephone lines -- yes, there were telephones in Jacksonville back then, the first was installed in 1859 -- so the Signal Office could not issue up-to-date reports but printed bulletins as soon as information became available.

National news reports of the day covered:

* A sex scandal during Grover Cleveland's campaign. The President admitted that he "had once formed an illicit connection with a woman, and a child had been born and given his name... although there was no proof that he was the father since other men had been involved".

* A Philadelphia Federal Court's decision in a patent infringement case brought by Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone; the court found in Bell's favor and awarded him one dollar in damages.

But weather dominated Jacksonville's local news:

“Several pigs and fowls were found frozen in their pins around the city yesterday...

“John Long left a barber shop late Saturday night for home and was found frozen dead Sunday morning not a quarter of a mile from where he started...

“There were no Northern mails yesterday owing to the failure of the fast mail train from the North to make connections...

“A large number of water pipes split during the night allowing water to escape, which soon afterward froze solid...

In 1886, pigs, plants and pipes concerned Jacksonville newspaper readers.

So did paving.

Jacksonville streets in those days were mainly dirt roads turning to mud in wet weather; paving streets was a major civic issue.

Opponents of paving cited the expense and  claimed that paved streets caused Yellow Fever.

Proponents observed that dogs, horses pulling carriages, and ox teams moving freight were not subject to emission controls.

The freeze put the paving controversy on the back burner -- almost.

"Today Bay Street is frozen as hard as it can be," the newspaper said, "In fact, it could not be more solid if it was paved with stone... Mr. Jack Frost has taken on the contract,  removing it from the hands of the Mayor  these days".

 Finally the cold snap broke. "Yesterday morning the Florida sun came up bright and smiling, but a little groggy from his fight with King Cold...”

The newspapers turned back to the usual civic issues: street paving and the telephone war.

An editorial commented, "Bay Street even has thawed out for a considerable extent and now in place of hard frozen earth, we encounter, in passing up and down, only the usual dust and sand and mud..."

An outstanding headline read:


Telephone Rates -- The Big Kick Against Them

Yes, during 1885/86 Jacksonville and the telephone company had declared war on each other.

The first phone had been installed in Jacksonville in 1878. By 1885 the city had 170 telephones. As  leader in the 1880s communications industry, the Florida Times-Union boasted of having two telephones!

Months before the great freeze, the newspaper started running a few paragraphs here and there about a local situation which finally developed into a front-page article headlined:

Business Men Will Not Stand For Proposed Raise In Prices

The Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Company had entered Jacksonville in 1880. The company leased telephone instruments to customers for $51 a year -- payable in advance.

In May 1885, Southern Bell announced a price increase of $9 a year. This was during a time when people earned less. Lower prices reflected lower incomes; back then, quality blue jeans sold for 60¢ a pair and men's dress shirts cost only 47¢. The phone company's rate increase represented a considerable dip into people's wallets.

Two items in the national news distracted people's attention from the telephone rate increase for a time:

* Chief Geronimo and his band of Apache Indians daily eluded capture by the U.S. Army's 4th and 10 Calvary units.

* Popular French novelist Victor-Marie  Hugo, author of Les Miserables, died. His funeral generated news coverage in 1885 like Princess Diana's did more recently.

But the telephone company's rate increase galled people.

A local businessman complained that everybody in Jacksonville was being "contemptuously treated by a scornful small agent of an autocratic monopoly".

At first, citizens of Jacksonville responded to the price hike with grumbling and complaints and many, many special meetings. The Board of Trade wrote a letter protesting the rate hike to Mr. Corson, Southern Bell's general manager in New York.

His answer?

"The company has been in business long enough to know how to make its own charges," he said.

"The telephone company is willing to part regretfully with any subscriber who does not care to pay the company's rates,” he said.

Public relations was not Mr. Courson’s strong point.

Jacksonville's mayor said Corson's letter, "refers with expressions of disrespect" to Jacksonville and it's Board of Trade.

This snub outraged citizens of Jacksonville.

The Board of Trade issued a statement saying, "The (present) rate of $51 per annum for the rental of the Southern Bell Telephone Company's instruments provides that company sufficient remuneration for the service performed. The advance in rate now demanded is oppressive and extortionate!"

The Board circulated a petition:

  In reference to telephone rates, we the undersigned subscribers to the Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph, pledge ourselves not to renew our subscriptions to the Jacksonville Exchange of this company after the expiration of our present lease if any increased rental over fifty-one dollars per annum is demanded.

Citizens lined up to sign the petition -- Florida Savings Bank, John N. Stockton, First National Bank, S.B. Hubbard, James Bowden.

Even the Times-Union vowed to give up both of its phones rather than pay the outrageous  $9 increase.

In retaliation, the phone company began removing phones from Jacksonville homes and businesses.

"Against the proposed rate increase we pledge ourselves to resist by every means in our power," Jacksonville said.

The Board of Trade opened negations with the Taylor System For The United States And Canada, a rival phone company, which offered, "a complete system of telephone transmitter, receiver, bell call, and switch... The Taylor System includes a simple carbon telephone transmitter, needing no adjustment, operated by a battery current."

The existing phone company legally squelched the competition:

 The phone company wrote an open letter to the citizens of Jacksonville saying, “The Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company has exclusive patent right of the Bell patent to the Southern States from Virginia to Mississippi inclusive...

 “ The rate has been universally raised from $51 to $60 in all the cities in the company's territory. There is not the slightest prospect that the company would lower its rates if the whole city of Jacksonville withdraws its patronage... The company is better prepared to lose the whole of (Jacksonville) than to lose the $9 per annum per box in those other cities.”

Jacksonville citizens still refused to pay what they called "superfluous and absurd" telephone bills.

The Board of Trade contacted other southern cities urging united, determined resistance to the giant monopoly.

The company removed more and more telephones.

Jacksonville citizens endured the inconvenience.

Because of Corson's haughty letter, the Board refused to negotiate with him; Southern Bell sent John D. Easterlin, company superintendent, from Charleston to present the company's non-negotiable demand for $60 a year.

Easterlin said he had come to offer "an accommodation which had never before been granted to subscribers; however, the new rate will be insisted upon in the end".

His compromise was that Jacksonville subscribers could pay their phone bills for only three months in advance at a time, instead of paying the entire year's bill at once -- but they still had to pay $60.

That seemed to be the best deal possible.

Jacksonville citizens knuckled under -- sort of.

The Board of Trade conceded:

 “That we are being discriminated against and heaped with more than our share of a much resented burden seems plain. Such redress as lies within our power, however, should not be neglected. If we cannot save a part of the new extortion to our private pockets, we may nevertheless direct it from the coffers of a foreign corporation to the pressing needs or our city treasury”.

After all, the city needed money to pave  those dirt streets, so ...

The Jacksonville City Council imposed a new communications license tax of $500 per annum on the phone company!

Later the license fee was reduced to $300, but Jacksonville citizens continued to feel that their resistance to intimidation had paid off.

The prevailing attitude was:

That'll Show The Rascals! No phone company will ever dare impose an outrageous increase like that on Jacksonville again... Or will they?


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