Instances of Steadfastness and Daring That Besprinkle Telephone History
Consider the Telephone Girl
Instances of Steadfastness and Daring That Besprinkle Telephone History
IN the terrific snowstorm of last winter
that demoralized the transportation system of New York City for days, the telephone exchange was in operation. Sherman Rogers heard of the determined effort the telephone girls had made to get to work. The argument that there was no way to get there did not weigh with them; they felt that they must get there all the more because of the increased burden that the tie-up would impose on the system.
Considering some instances that came under his observation, interested Mr. Rogers, and he made some investigations regarding the history of telephone girls that was published in the Outlook, New
First, last, and all the time in the great mass of individual cases that I went over during the several days of solid reading the telephone girl had always kept her head, manifested a wonderful initiative, and in case of emergency she never lost any time waiting for instructions from those higher up or requesting authority, but with that intuition which only a woman possesses, invariably performed the right service at the right time.
It would be useless to try in one magazine article or, for that matter, in a hundred, to give honorable mention to the hundreds of cases that deserve a Carnegie medal.
But deeds of heroism paralleling great sacrifices and bravery in military history are only one of the manifold attributes of the telephone girl. She has proved her sterling quality in a great variety of valuable services to entire communities. When great storms strike cities, and average office forces remain at home, we always find that the telephone girl is on the job, if there is] a way under the sun to get to that job. In instances too numerous to mention girls have walked miles, through rain, sleet, and; snow, to get to the switchboard when all other means of communication had been put out of commission. When scourge! have struck the country, like the great “flu” epidemic, the telephone girls, hall ill, have managed some way to stick td their job until relieved, and then, in many cases, have collapsed; but as long as there was enough vitality left in their loyal bodies they have remained on duty.
The writer then goes on and tells of telephone operators who have played the part of heroines in catastrophes of various kinds —fire, flood, and storm. Invariably, he finds, when tornadoes or other raging storms have swept down on cities, towns, or hamlets, the telephone operator has stayed on the job and performed her duty with coolness and despatch. He cites a few instances:
A cyclone struck Bardwell, Ky., and carried away one side and the roof of tiré telephone building. It left the operator
Miss Alice Howells, at the switchboard, under the canopy of heaven, with the wind and rain heating about her. However she notified other districts in the path of the storm and stuck to her post until her duty was finished.
During the great storm that swept over Texas in August, 1915, telephone operators played a very conspicuous part. Literally thousands of people were called from points of danger by the operators, who passed the word ahead of the wind. Afterward, with the gale shrieking about them, amid the crash of collapsing buildings, and working in water above their ankles, they remained steadfast, directing assistance; none of them flinched. At Beaumont, after the cyclone had passed, Miss Daisy Neal, the operator, could not be found, but the following day, sitting before a lifeless switchboard, they found her, and she explained that she was just waiting for the lines to come in. Others had fled, but not she. In.Texas City during the storm that swept across the State fully three hundred people had crowded in the telephone exchange building. Miss Pearl Wilma Nash, chief operator, and Miss Nina Cox, night chief, were at the switchboard. In the terror and confusion of that awful night no telephone work ever surpassed the task that befell these two brave women. At nine o’clock the roof was blown off the building, but they still held their places. The girls were ordered to cease their efforts, but both refused. At 9.15 a terrific crash was heard above the howling of the wind and the shrieks of refugees, when a newly constructed building close at hand collapsed. Only a few local telephones were still working, but over these lines the two heroic operators flashed their calls for help. At 9.40 there was little left to do at the switchboard, and these two women immediately went to work and turned their attention to the injured and dying. Undergarments were torn up to make bandages, painful injuries were dressed, and the eyes of the dead closed. For twenty-four hours after the telephone lines were dead they remained beside the wounded who needed assistance.
The gale that swept across Nebraska in March, 1913, and struck Webster brought out the sterling qualities of the local exchange girls. When the windows were blown in and glass chandeliers fell on the heads of the operators, for a moment everything was in darkness; the girls themselves were blown away from the switchboard but only for a moment; they returned at once, some bruised and many cut and bleeding. Thus injured, they worked, however, on through the trying hours, while their locker room was filled with the dead, dying, and badly injured. While the darkness settled down on the town and through the broken windows came the cries of the injured, the wails of the forsaken, and the hoarse shouts of the rescuers, through it all the poor, bleeding hands nimbly flew; and when the storm was over and other districts had been notified of the impending danger and every possible help summoned, they found one of the girls at the switchboard plugging calls with one hand—the other had been broken when the crash struck earlier in the evening.
Whole towns have been saved from fire by the quick wits of telephone girls, we are told. Some cases of presence of mind and resourcefulness are given:
In 1913, when fire destroyed the Hartford Hospital, Miss Pauline Hopp stuck to the switchboard, although it was in flames. Those who escaped that dreadful night were deeply indebted to the courageous operator. When fire struck Liberty, Mo., in 1914, telephone girls stuck to their posts, warning people of the danger, until the burning building was enveloped in flames and remained at their posts until they were carried away by force. Miss Irene Handle proved herself a heroine in the Castle Shannon fire in Pittsburgh in 1915. When the flames broke through the floor of the Deer Building she immediately put all the plugs in the switchboard and began ringing bells on all telephones in residences and business houses in Castle Shannon. She remained at her post until she was overcome by smoke.
In a fire in an apartment house at 204 Manhattan Avenue, New York City, the telephone operator warned everyone in the house, though her room was enveloped in flames. She was. still swiftly plugging at her switchboard when the firemen arrived. In Jamesburg, N.J., in October, 1916, Miss Belle Mathews remained at her post, summoning aid from near-by towns until the flames had eaten through the floor and ignited her dress. She was carried, un-
conscious, down an outside ladder. In an recent fire at 412 Broadway, New York City, Miss Ruby Dwyer remained at her post of duty until everyone else had got out of the building, although fire was all about her while she was notifying everyone in the place.
A characteristic switchboard incident occurred in the Decorators’ Supply Company fire in Chicago. With a muffled roar the flames shot through the building and enveloped the entire first floor. There were many people in the building who were in danger. Everyone in the office grabbed his hat and made for the nearest exit. Miss Nellie Deutsch, the telephone operator, immediately started in plugging every department in the plant. As the employees went filing past the switchboard the operator was repeatedly begged to flee for her life. Finally when someone reached over and tried to pull her away from the board, the complacent operator swung around and exclaimed: “Get out; you’d better get out while you’ve got time or there will be nobody home but the remains. I’m going to stay here until I’ve called everybody, and I’ll get along much faster if you quit pulling at my sleeves.” And with fire, smoke, and water pouring into the room, she stuck at her post until everyone had been notified, and then, with her eyes red with smoke, she put on her hat and coat and walked out past a group of firemen, who gazed at her in open-mouthed astonishment.
Standing out in bold relief among the hundreds of press reports is the story of Tessie McNamara, an operator at the Kingsland, N.J., munitions plant, who saved several thousand lives by her quick wit and iron nerve. Miss McNamara happened to glance out of a window which overlooked a long avenue of concrete and iron one-story buildings of the munitions plant, and noted a wisp of smoke curling from the eaves of a building stored with two hundred gallons of gasoline. Right close to this building were six cars stored full of TNT in bulk. In a shed just next to the tracks over seventy-five thousand shells were packed ready to be shipped to the Russian Army. All of these buildings were only a few yards apart. Miss MeNamwa galvanized to action; she knew full well that she still had time to reach safety; she knew what was going to happen when the fire reached the TNT and loaded shells; but she didn’t hesitate; her nimble fingers flew up and down the switchboard, notifying the workmen in the various sheds to get all the men out at once. This brave operator saw the fire leap from the gasoline shed toward shed 28, and it required all the nerve she could summon to stick to her post, because she knew what would happen. Nearly ten minutes had passed since she saw the smoke curling from the gasoline shed. In that ten minutes her fidelity and courage had got warning to every building of the thirty-six in the twenty-acre plant. Nearly four thousand men had either reached or gone through the gates to the open roads and meadows—then shed 28 let go. As Miss McNamara sent in her final calls red-hot fragments of steel ripped from the bursting shells and, flung high in the air, descended on the roof of the headquarters building, a few feet from her head. One just grazed her, and then she fainted. They carried her out to safety. It was all over in a few minutes, yet during that time she had saved four thousand lives.
The telephone girl had a chance to reveal herself as a flood heroine during the great Dayton flood which swept Ohio a few years ago. It is said that in this emergency the girls all stuck to their posts, abundant testimony to that effect being forthcoming from all the towns in the affected area. Specific cases of individual heroism in flood emergencies in other places are also given, from which we quote the following;
Certainly no individual in the world’s history is deserving of more credit than Mrs. Rooke, the telephone operator at Folsom, N.M., who stuck to her post when a terrific flood swept down Cimarron Creek, engulfing the town. This brave woman received word that the flood was sweeping down the valley, and was advised to flee for her life. However, she did not flee. She started plugging every line on the board, and kept at her task until everyone within reach had been notified. While still sending out calls farther down the valley the full force of the raging torrent struck the exchange, and they found the lifeless body of the heroic operator twelve miles down the canon, with her head-piece still strapped to her ears.
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