City of Silence – The day the phones went silent

By Bob Boldman - Contributing Columnist



“Firemen arrived too late to save the house of Robert Nutter and his aged parents near Portsmouth. Their telephone was dead because of the labor-management battle in the Ohio Consolidated Telephone Company. In another part of town a woman was awaken in her bed, listening now, automatically reaching for the husband who was a hundred miles away on business. She heard the twins toss in their cribs in the next room. Then it came again, the intruder’s sound at the kitchen door, the soft slithering of metal against wood. She padded downstairs to the telephone. “Police,” she whispered even as she dialed. But there was no dial tone; the line was out. For a moment she slumped down against the wall, holding the dead phone against her side. Then she walked slowly to the front door and snapped on the porch light. Waiting there, her finger still on the switch, she heard the sudden silence at the back door, and then the soft tread of retreating feet. Minutes later, she crept into the kitchen, flicked the switch of the porch light, than tested the door. It was still locked. She dropped into a kitchen chair and waited for dawn.

It was 1:30 a.m., October 16, 1956, in Portsmouth, Ohio. A mile away at Smith-Everett Hospital, a 71-year-old man died in his sleep. A nurse pulled a sheet over his face and went to notify his relatives. But the telephone was out of order. Relatives were informed twelve hours later. This was the morning that every telephone in Scioto County, Ohio, went silent.

For 61 consecutive days 17,428 telephones did not ring and approximately 110,000 persons in Southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky could not telephone for a doctor, a policeman or a fireman. For two months they were desperately, sometimes frantically, without a service that most Americans take for granted.”

“Trouble had started July 15, 1956, when the Communication Workers of American struck against the Ohio Consolidated Telephone Company after two months of futile negotiations. Most of the region’s telephone users could sympathize with both sides. Only recently the General Telephone Company had acquired Ohio Consolidated, a company had acquired Ohio Consolidated, a company which for 14 years had operated under a union-shop agreement. Now the new parent company proposed that maintenance of membership and no-strike clauses are included in the new contract.

The unknown vigorously shook its head about both proposals, but it was the union-shop fight that was to prolong negotiations. But a month later, the strike was no longer an impersonal dispute; it was involving every householder, reaching into his home through the copper wires of his telephone. Strikers under police surveillance picket the Portsmouth telephone exchange. The often violent feud dragged on from July 1956 to February 1957 over the issue of a union shop.”

“Nighttime vandals knocked out 13,000 telephones by severing cables. At night, vandals were chopping, sawing and burning telephone cables; utility poles were being axes down. Daytime repair crews were losing ground to nighttime saboteurs. Police were unable to make arrests and increasing numbers of residents were unable to use their phones.

On August 16, 1956, the company closed two small county exchanges because of violence. By September 3, there had been 67 cable cuts; some lines had been slashed three times. By October 15, vandals had slashed 290 cables. And that night a mob stormed the telephone building, smashing windows, hurling stones at the shadows of emergency operators. Police, unable to control the violence, recommended evacuation of the frightened supervisors, and the main switch was pulled for 61 days. Within hours, Portsmouth was on emergency footing. Twenty-three auxiliary policemen were deputized to patrol city streets all night in their private automobiles. A police cruiser was rushed to Mercy Hospital, where it was parked at the curb. When nurses needed a doctor or a drug, they rushed outside, talked over the radio to police headquarters, where the message was relayed to patrolling city police, highway patrolmen or sheriff’s deputies. Within minutes an officer was pounding on a doctor’s door, waking a druggist to take him to the pharmacy or alerting an undertaker.” (Story in part from “The Saturday Evening Post,” June 8, 1957, pages 32, 33, 108, 109, 110, By Evan Hill)

Imagine if all of sudden all the cell phones stopped working, I wonder how we would react? My thought, panic in the streets, hmm, I wonder?


By Bob Boldman

Contributing Columnist

Bob Boldman is a local historian. He can be reached by email: [email protected]

Bob Boldman is a local historian. He can be reached by email: [email protected]