A Long-Distance Call for the Ages

A Long-Distance Call for the Ages

Transcontinental Phone Call

How Jekyll Island made telephone history

By Scott Freeman

It took 1,100 miles of copper cable strung up specifically for the occasion, but AT&T president Theodore Vail was determined to be part of the first coast-to-coast telephone call in U.S. history. Considered the father of the telephone business, Vail dreamed of establishing a transcontinental phone service and, at the dawn of 1915, oversaw completion of a line that stretched from New York City to San Francisco.

Vail planned to partake in the inaugural call from his office in New York City. But a leg injury forced him to remain on Jekyll, where he was wintering, so he ordered a special extension of the line to the island. On January 25, 1915, inside the Jekyll Island Clubhouse, joined by J.P. Morgan Jr. and William Rockefeller, Vail participated in the first coast-to-coast conference call.

The call included President Woodrow Wilson, who phoned in from the White House, and dignitaries from New York City, Boston, and San Francisco. It opened with two familiar voices reenacting a famed conversation: Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, speaking from New York City, told Thomas Watson, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.” The first time he had uttered those words was in 1876, on the very first telephone call; Watson had rushed in from an adjacent room. This time Watson was in San Francisco, and he quipped, “It would take me a week to get to you.”

Later in the call, Vail conversed with Watson, pointing out that their exchange set a mark for the longest long-distance call in U.S. history; the line from Jekyll to San Francisco by way of Boston spanned 4,750 miles. Before the call ended, someone proposed three cheers to Vail. “And all the way across the continent, the cheers were given,” wrote one observer. “And Theodore Vail at Jekyl (sic) Island plainly heard them.”

This article first appeared in Volume 2 Number 2 of 31•81, the Magazine of Jekyll Island.

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