The Great Salmon River Old-Fashioned, Hand-Cranked, Party-Line Telephone War

Bryce Nelson, a Times national correspondent for 12 years, is a journalism professor at USC

MY PARENTS WERE not the first in my family who wished to live at the edge of the world. My great-uncle, Ed Gwyther, was so seriously wounded in the first World War that he no longer wanted to be around people. Hearing of land offered free to injured veterans, he put his large iron stove and his tools on a raft at the Idaho town of Salmon and floated down the boulder-strewn Salmon River 58 miles to Lake Creek, where he built a one-room log cabin.

Sixty years later, the vast area west of the North Fork of the Salmon River is still a sanctuary. Some months, you're as likely to see a herd of bighorn sheep or a bear and her cubs on the road as an automobile. From the tiny town of North Fork past the tinier town of Shoup and the place my great-uncle built, traveling west along a steep canyon for more than 50 miles, one sees no power lines, no operating schools, no churches, no libraries. Mail comes only twice a week, and there is no newspaper delivery. The nearest daily newspaper and large hospital are in Missoula, Mont., 140 miles north across the steep Bitterroot Mountains. Salmon (population 3,308), a 90-minute drive from my parents' place, is the closest town with a doctor or a store that amounts to much. In Shoup (population 2), the only post office or town in this part of the canyon, Don and Donna Myers still pump gas from old glass-walled gravity-flow pumps because the canyon has no electricity. On warm evenings, the Myerses and their friends sit out by the pumps and watch the few cars raise dust as they pass.

People come to this part of the world for white-water rafting and tranquillity. The Salmon is one of the last great Western rivers to flow freely, unhindered by dams. It is not always benevolent; boaters have been killed on what Indians once called the "River of No Return." In fact, the first white men to attempt it--the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805--found it so intimidating that after a few miles of this rocky, precipitous canyon, they gave up and retraced their steps to find an easier route to the Pacific. Travelers today are better equipped, and a small tourist business caters to the rafters.

Almost all the people who live along this section of the Salmon River, many of them retirees, once lived down on the flatlands in "civilization." Joan and Hod Groff are typical; they moved here from Montana for a slower life, one where a person can take the time to appreciate, as Joan says, "the different lights on the rocks as the sun changes."

Like most of their neighbors, the Groffs want peace and quiet but draw the line at isolation. That is why they and 16 other canyon families run what telephone experts say is the last hand-cranked telephone system in the nation, the nonprofit North Fork Telephone Corp.

In 1952, the families bought this antiquated "system" from the U.S. Forest Service for $1; it consists of a single line strung between midget telephone poles or riveted into sheer rock cliffs many yards above the river. The users maintain the equipment, an arduous task for 60- and 70-year-olds who must climb the cliffs to repair lines broken by lightning, forest fires, avalanches and the rockslides touched off by rambling bighorn sheep.

Without this primitive phone system, the 17 families would simply be 17 scattered outposts along 31 miles of canyon. "Our phone line is what ties the people up and down the river and makes us a community," says Jack Briggs, a subscriber for 25 years. It also ties them to the 10 women employed as operators in Salmon by Century Telephone Enterprises, a Louisiana-based holding company that acquired the Salmon telephone company in 1981. The women are the ones who must manually connect calls made to and from the canyon phones.

All of this teamwork is an oddity in a rugged area with few social institutions. The biggest event of the canyon social season is the annual potluck dinner and meeting to elect new officers for the North Fork Telephone Corp. When it was held in June, top executives of Century asked to attend. The families were pleased; some had heard rumors that Century was going to announce a system with dial tones, private lines and all that "modern stuff."

Women hugged each other in greeting as the meeting began at the old log school in Shoup. As the families spread out casseroles, potato salad, baked beans and chocolate cake over three tables, the five telephone executives gave them a fancy plate of cheeses. But the air of hopefulness evaporated after dinner, when the executives began to talk from the end of the table. Century had no choice, the executives were saying; it would have to close the operator facility in Salmon in mid-December. Century was pulling the plug on the tiny company: The 17 families would no longer be able to call anyone in the world except each other.

"It was," says subscriber Marsha Smith, "the shock of a lifetime."

CITY DWELLERS might be shocked to see what passes for telephone service in this canyon. The phones that hang on the walls of canyon homes are bulky black contraptions with headsets. They have no dials but are operated by turning a crank. This type of electric magneto telephone was standard in the early part of the century but was phased out in most urban areas before 1940. Frank Barsalou, Century Telephone's district manager in Salmon, calls them "1900 telephones in a 1990 system."

Kindness and patience help on this system. Only one party can use the line at any time. Each subscriber hears loud ringing every time someone makes or receives a call, so no one is supposed to call before 7 a.m. or after 10 p.m. except in an emergency. Calls are to be limited to a few minutes. Rain or hot afternoon sunshine can make voices inaudible, so people learn to make calls on cool, clear mornings. Natural forces close the line a dozen times a year.

"Our telephone is sort of a joke, but it's very essential for our being able to live here," says Hod Groff. When Groff calls out, he vigorously cranks the handle, generating a coded combination of short and long rings to reach one of his neighbors, or cranks one long ring to get the Salmon operator.

Calling in from the outside world is harder. When I want to call my parents, Herman and Jennie Nelson, I must first talk to a California operator. The operator often tells me to dial direct. When I explain that I can't because my parents' number is a combination of five digits and the letter "F," the operator sometimes says curtly, "Sir, there is no such thing as a non-seven-digit number in the United States." When subscriber Fred Porter tried to call his Owl Creek Ranch here from another state, he was told by an operator: "You're just drunk. There is no such number."

Only Salmon's sweet operators know how to reach those mysterious hand-cranked phones. The last local operators in Idaho, they are the linchpin in a system that requires human assistance at every level. The 17 subscribers have developed a special relationship with them. "They'll always stay on the line to help you," says Bonnie Porter. "I can't praise those girls enough. I take them in a box of cherries or candy when I go to town."

Jack Briggs, the affable man who runs the Indian Creek Guest Ranch, used to call the operator every night to get the baseball scores. And one night, years ago, when he was working temporarily as a miner in Leadore, southeast of Salmon, the operator called to say, "Jack, did you forget to call your wife tonight?" When Briggs said that he had indeed, the operator replied: "I'll ring her now for you."

It seemed as though half of Lemhi County turned out early this month when the families of the canyon telephone company threw a farewell party for the Salmon operators at the Outpost cafe and bar, owned by John Booker, vice president of North Fork Telephone. They washed down barbecue with beer and soft drinks while reminiscing about times the operators consoled children left alone at home or offered advice on baking a cake. After mid-December, their jobs--mostly assisting with long-distance and credit-card calls--will be performed by operators in Salt Lake City.

Century attributes the elimination of the Salmon operators to the changes that deregulation has brought among telephone companies. Earlier this year, Barsalou says, U S West and AT&T; notified Century that they would no longer contract with Century for operators in Salmon because their services could be performed elsewhere. And Century, with only 3,000 customers, couldn't afford to keep them on just for the North Fork families.

Because Century never asked the Idaho Public Utilities Commission for permission to serve the area covered by the hand-crank system, it has no legal obligation to serve it. Barsalou says it does so purely by a "gentlemen's agreement. There's no contract, no piece of paper." It can be argued that the Salmon phone company has carried the outside connection for North Fork as a public service for the past 37 years.

Without operators, the only way Century could continue to serve the canyon would be to lay a modern telephone cable down the river, which it estimates would cost more than $600,000--nearly $40,000 per customer. The cable would also require federal permission because this stretch of the Salmon is protected by Wild and Scenic Rivers legislation. All of this would be an unpromising investment in a phone system that earned Century revenues of $2,820 in 1987.

WHEN THE river folks were hit with the bombshell about the operators in June, at first they were at loose ends about how to proceed. People who some call "hermits" do not make sophisticated political manipulators. Nevertheless, they were upset and angry, so they pulled together and mounted a campaign, spearheaded by Marsha Smith, partly because she owned a typewriter.

Speaking over their crackly line to radio talk-show hosts in San Diego or Seattle and writing to television news directors and Idaho politicians, they made their case repeatedly: The phone is essential for residents and for visiting rafters, hikers, Boy Scouts, hunters and salmon and steelhead fishermen. Snow and rockslides sometimes block the canyon; the only way to get help is to call out and hope for a helicopter. Because the canyon is winding and mountainous, radio reception is impossible in many places, which makes it inefficient for reporting medical emergencies or the presence of criminals, who sometimes try to hide out in the mountain vastness.

My parents, who are both over 80, live across the river from the road to Salmon, a few yards from the one-room cabin Great-Uncle Ed built. They can get to the road only by pulling a tiny cable car, hand over hand, above the water. They worry that a crisis could leave them with no way to call neighbors or paramedics for help.

It looked at first as if the sole answer for the canyon people would be to hire their own operators, but the expense was out of the question. Most are senior citizens of limited means; many are on Social Security or pensions. "None of us are rich. We're just scrubbing out a living here," says Joyce Rinehart, who runs the tiny, and often empty, Ram's Head Resort with her husband, Bill. Eight other families operate small businesses, such as cafes, tourist cabins or fruit orchards.

Bonnie Porter, for instance, puts up 5,000 jars of chokecherry and elderberry jam every year to sell; she says her orders will wither if her customers can't call. Tipping back his cowboy hat, Jack Briggs explains that he needs the phone so that customers from as far away as California, New York and France can make reservations at his ranch. "At my age, I'm going to have to sell if I don't have a telephone," he says.

But Briggs and his neighbors, who have relatives and friends in other states, especially value the human links the telephone maintains. One day, I pulled myself across the river on the cable car to visit the Groffs. They were entertaining some of their eight children, five of whom live in Southern California, and grandchildren. All three generations agreed that they need a telephone. At times of birth, marriage, celebration, illness and death there is special need to talk.

"Sometimes you just have to talk to your mom to get advice," explained their daughter, Suzanne Bronkhorst, a Los Angeles physical therapist. "I believe it is the inalienable right of all Americans to be able to call their mothers on Mother's Day."

AS THE WEEKS wore on, the arguments and protests of the Groffs, Marsha Smith and their neighbors began to get through. The Idaho Public Utilities Commission called a hearing in Salmon in late August; the 17 telephone subscribers drove upriver to be there.

They felt a sense of victory when the commission said it would ask Century to maintain their link to the outside until an alternative is arranged. "In Idaho," explains Commissioner Perry Swisher, "we consider access to a telephone close to a constitutional right."

And then, a rescuer appeared. The Rural Telephone Co. of Glenns Ferry, Ida., declared itself willing to serve the area. Its owner, Jim Martell, says he can lay cable down the canyon for $300,000. The main trouble the canyon folks see in Rural's proposal is its greatly increased cost. Their basic monthly service charge would double to $14.75, and they would also have to pay toll charges for all calls to the Salmon area, calls that are now free.

If the canyon folk and the Rural Telephone Co. can come to an agreement, and if the Forest Service approves laying cable along the river, it will open the way for more than just modern telephone service with no party line. The canyon dwellers will have the option of paying extra for such frills as call forwarding, call waiting, conference calling and automatic redialing. As early as next summer, the Salmon River canyon's telephone service could pass overnight from the country's most antiquated phone system to one that couldn't be more modern. In the interim, says Century's Barsalou, his company intends to contract with a Salmon motel whose switchboard operator will connect the hand-cranked calls.

"We never could have dreamt this summer that this kind of improvement could happen," Smith says. The probability of modern telephone service has awakened the dormant desires of some canyon residents. Why not electricity? some are asking. What about paving the road? The death of the hand-cranked phone could turn out to be the first step in bringing people here into the modern world, a world they moved here to escape.

And while the new phones will put other states and other countries just a push button away, some here wonder if the cold efficiency of a computerized system can substitute for the warmth of human contact. There will be no more excuses to hold potluck dinners, no more tales of members roping themselves to cliffs to fix the line after bighorn sheep caused a rockslide, no more recounting the story of the former subscriber who hit her husband with her purse after he "voted wrong" at a telephone meeting.

"As I was saying to Bonnie Porter yesterday," my mother told me, "I don't think we will call each other as much if we have to pay for the calls. It'll be harder to keep in touch."

"That old telephone line is something we all have in common," says Theresa Briggs, who lives at the Indian Creek Guest Ranch with her father and who is secretary of the North Fork Telephone Corp. "It was our own; it was unique. I really hate to let go of that old telephone."

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