The Panama Canal Review - May 1967

Canal Zone history does not state whether Col. George Washington Goethals, builder of the Panama Canal and the first Governor of the Canal Zone, ever listened in on a teenager's telephone conversation; or tired to contact someone by telephone only to receive a continuous busy signal.

There's no doubt, however, about his order issued July 12, 1912: "Telephone conversations will be limited to 5 minutes." In this same order, unlimited service - telephone calls to anywhere in the Canal Zone - was restricted to heads of the four Isthmian Canal Commission divisions and their chief clerks, who were also exempt from the 5-minute time limit.

The Canal Zone's telephone history dates from 1882 when the first conversation, in French, crackled over the newly installed lines. La Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama, successor to La Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique, was proud of the installation of this new invention, and reported on the arrival of the apparatus in an 1882 issue of a French Canal publication.

The first models to arrive on the Isthmus consisted of a walnut case mounted on an adjustable stand to make one of the earliest desk sets.  Shortly thereafter, the instrument was encased in oak and was one of the first side-winder models on which a crank turned to signal the operator. The Isthmian Canal Commission inherited the Canal's telephone system in 1904 when President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Adm. John G. Walker first chairman of the First Isthmian Commission for the construction of the Panama Canal.

Only a few telephones were permitted to be installed in residences when the building of the Canal began. They were for the ICC chairman, the chief of the Health Office, the superintendent of the Panama Railroad and a few officials who were on call for emergencies. By that time, there were probably about 2 dozen telephones in the Canal Zone and all were free. In 1909, however, Colonel Goethals permitted the installation of residential telephones at the expense of the applicant and a residential rate of $2.50.

All telephone and telegraph facilities of the ICC were turned over to the Panama Railroad in 1909. The telephone system was operated and maintained by the Electrical Division thereafter and in 1950 possession of these facilities went to the Panama Canal organization. It now forms the Communications Branch of the Electrical Division.

Beginning in April 1914, applications for installation of telephones had to be made by letter to the employee's department head, who referred it to the general manager of the railroad. The applicant then was furnished an estimate of the cost, which he had to pay in addition to the $2.50 monthly rental.

Personal phone calls, Governor Goethals ordered also in 1914, were not to be made during working hours. At this time, Class A (residential) and Class B (official) telephones were established. Class A cost $2.50 per month with a 25-cent additional toll charge for trunk calls, and Class B cost $7.50 per month for unlimited service. Both classes were restricted for 5-minute conversations during working hours.

The Electrical Division took over the cost of all official telephone installations, changes and removals in 1915. No charges were made to subscribers for installation of private phones unless the cost was excessive, but residence phone calls continued to be limited to 5 minutes during working hours.

A monthly rate of $3 was set for residence phones in 1917 when all residence phones were granted unlimited service privileges. The congestion of trunk lines caused by long distance calls across the Isthmus became so troublesome, however, that 3 months later all phone users were requested to confine social calls between the hours of 4pm and 9am and 11am to 1pm.

With the opening of the Canal, the telephone system began to expand.  Telephones were provided to all executives, pilots and local personnel on call, followed by utility workers on call for emergency service. There was still an air of adventure in the use of Canal Zone telephones in 1925 when the dial telephone system was installed. This converted the Panama Canal system from a manually operated system to the dial telephone and to use of automatic telephone exchanges.

Today's maze of wires, automatic switches equipment and microwave installations make almost instant service possible. To call a number by means of a dial, to have the telephone being called continue to ring until answered, to be notified instantly if the line is busy and to have a connection kept throughout a conversation, are all taken for granted.

Currently there are more than 10,200 official and residence telephone instruments in service in the Panama Canal telephone system, excluding the Armed Forces. The telephone system has 6 automatic telephone exchanges, the 2 major ones being in the Administration Building, Balboa Heights, and in Building 1907 at Cristobal. Four remote-controlled exchanges are located at Gamboa, Gatun, Coco Solo and Pedro Miguel. The Locks Division and Pedro Miguel, Miraflores and Gatun has its own telephone system, which is linked to the regular Panama Canal automatic system.

The Panama Canal telephone system is manned by 63 employees, including 18 information operators -4 are regular, 3 are relief operators and 2 are night operators on each side of the Isthmus. Panama Canal information operators still provide the personal touch in many areas that, elsewhere, have been taken over by automation. Dial 112 and a pleasant voice gives the time of day; dial 114 and the same pleasant voice may help find an elusive telephone number or help establish a telephone contact; 110 emergency calls to the Canal Zone Police and 119 emergency calls to the Fire Department are monitored until the operator is certain the contact has been made.

Despite the fact that the Poison Center telephone number is in Page 1 of the telephone book, the information operators continue to receive desperation calls on 114 from persons who have found Johnny eating some strange berries, or Suzie chomping on frothy leaves.

The information operators have to be mind readers sometimes, too. One day a frantic woman dialed information and cried: "We need a vegetarian. Quick!" She actually wanted to contact a veterinarian and the correct connection was swiftly made by the alert telephone operator.  Not all the calls for help come from people needing the police, fire department, poison center, or a doctor or ambulance. Mrs. Lillian E. Ryan remembers one call for help from a couple who wanted to get married. The prospective bridegroom had received his overseas military assignment orders sooner than he had expected and all offices were closed for the day. Mrs. Ryan had never played Cupid before, but she provided the right answers and wedding bells soon rang.

Panama Canal telephone operators have "the voice with a smile" and all the espirit de corps and personality that goes with it. They are the "unseen people" in the organization and except for coming to work and departing for home, seldom leave their work area. In the Administration Building in Balboa Heights, unlike other employees whose 1-hour lunch in the building's cafeteria or at home, the information operators have only 20 minutes for lunch. Every 2 hours they have a 5-minute break. The operators on duty at the Cristobal telephone exchange have the same 20-minute lunch period and 5-minute breaks. Few know the Canal operators by name, but there's scarcely a person in the Canal Zone or Panama City who hasn't had contact and received assistance from them.

Typical of the efficiency of these operators is an incident which occurred in 1962 when a Canal organization employee had placed an official telephone call to New Orleans via Tropical Radio. The call concerned the purchase of some medicine and was urgent.  The caller asked that he be reached at his residence upon completion of the call because the hour was late. Arriving home, he found his telephone out of order and used a neighbor's phone to report it. Before service was restored, his call from New Orleans came through to Balboa Heights exchange. The operators on duty, Mrs. Mary W. Hall and Mrs. Lillian T. Sieler, held the Tropical Radio operator on the line and determined the location of the telephone nearest to the caller's home where the man making the call was reached.

A subscriber can call to anywhere in the Canal Zone or to the cities of Panama or Colon without an extra charge, regardless of the distance.  This is an advantage over telephone service in the United States where you must pay extra for calls outside an exchange area.

Presented by CZBrats
December 21, 1998

builders.gif (2150 bytes)MMbl.gif (2156 bytes)