"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

Telephones Come to the Gold Rush

by Don Baumgart

They call it the first long distance telephone line and it came to be because of the Gold Rush. The Ridge Telephone line ran nearly sixty miles from French Corral in Nevada County to Sierra County.

A bronze plaque set into a short concrete pillar in the present day town of French Corral, 17 miles from Nevada City, tells the story in brief:

"First long distance telephone in the world built in 1877, connected French Corral with French Lake, 58 miles away. Operated by the Milton Mining Company from this building which was built about 1853."

The heavily weathered brown wood building behind the marker now has a double-wide garage door set in its front side.

The long distance phone line was created in the days of hydraulic mining, when companies used powerful steams of water to blast gold and gravel out of hillsides. Three of the larger hydraulic mining companies working on the San Juan Ridge needed fast communication to regulate water in the ditches feeding the giant nozzles, especially during summer when the supply of water dropped off.

The telephone was a relatively new invention and most messages in this country were still being sent over longer distances by telegraph. The new long distance line allowed the mining companies to quickly communicate with the higher ditch camps, conserving water and prolonging the mining season.

Sixty miles of line were put up by the three mining companies, which then formed the Ridge Telephone Company, delivering what is believed to be the nation's first long distance telephone service.

It opened for business with connection to thirty phones. the Western Union Telegraph Company, until then the primary long distance message carrier, recognized the development for what it was, and would become. They became part of the new system, connecting North San Juan with Nevada City, and from there by telegraph with the rest of the United States.

Audrey Welselsky wrote about the "speaking telephone" in the Nevada County Historical Bulletin.

She refers to a local newspaper article published in the spring of 1878 reporting considerable excitement when a telephone intended for the Blue Tent Gravel Mine was first put on display in Nevada City.

"A conversation was carried on with ease between parties located at either end of the road, and the practicability of the invention was demonstrated to the satisfaction of all who witnessed its successful operation."

At French Corral the telegraph office charged for calls, which patrons wrote out just as they did telegrams. A member of the office staff then placed the call, delivering the message. One of the telegraph office rules was, the line was not to be used for "idle talking" because that exhausted the batteries that powered the system.

In 1884 when legal action put a halt to hydraulic mining, the Ridge Telephone Line became useful in warning miners who were still doing business, telling them that government agents were on the way. As the agents, called "Slickers," passed through French Corral, local residents called ahead to the mines, sending a simple message: "The slickers are coming." The water was shut off, workers returned home, and the mines appeared to be dead.

Today, using telephone lines, the Internet gives any who want to do so an opportunity to send messages to any spot on the globe. And that had its start here in French Corral, during the Gold Rush, with sixty miles of wire.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2005


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