COMMUNICATION WIN: Working Payphone Still Exists in Downtown Eau Claire
First, a short history. The first payphone was installed on a street corner in downtown Hartford, Connecticut in 1889 by William Gray, the son of Scottish immigrants. As the story goes, Gray’s wife had fallen very ill, and he needed to use an agent-operated telephone pay station to call the doctor. These telephone pay stations were usually few and far between, so odds are Gray had to run all over Hartford looking for a station and beg to budge in line for it. He got increasingly frustrated with the inconvenient design of these stations, and thus, to alleviate this frustration, the idea for the first payphone was born.
Eventually the payphone rose to prominence, but (as you surely know) has slowly fallen into near-obscurity thanks to landlines and cell phones. According to the FCC, there are only about 100,000 phone booths left in the United States.
And some of them are close to home.
One of the last, working payphones in Eau Claire just happens to be on North Barstow Street, which is in walking distance of Volume One World Headquarters – so naturally, they sent a twenty-year-old intern (me) to suss it out.
I didn’t know exactly where the payphone was, so my plan was to just walk around North Barstow until I found it. Luckily, it wasn’t hard to find. It was standing tall and forgotten in the afternoon sun right across the road from Star Cup (316 N Barstow St.), and I nearly got run over by a huge beverage delivery truck as I took the picture you see above. It does indeed work, but the “interface” was not immediately user friendly to me. I assumed I could pick up the receiver, drop in two quarters (for what I thought was a local call), and the dial tone would just sputter out of the speaker. But I soon learned how inexperienced I really was.
As it turns out, the receiver needs to be hanging from the cradle when you insert your coins or nothing will happen, and the delivery truck driver who nearly ran you over will try to chat with you about payphones as you stand there, confused and upset that this machine ate your quarters. It took me about three tries until I got the steps right.
As it turns out, the receiver needs to be hanging from the cradle when you insert your coins or nothing will happen, and the delivery truck driver who nearly ran you over will try to chat with you about payphones as you stand there, confused and upset that this machine ate your quarters. It took me about three tries until I got the steps right. After I was confident it was working, I stood there for another few seconds waiting to hear my roommate’s phone ringing on the other end.
I did not hear said ringing.
At this point, I became a little frustrated, and I almost threw in the metaphorical towel, but then I heard the voice. There was a faint, womanly voice coming out of the receiver in my hand, and I had to crush my ear with the speaker to better hear it, and what she said was this: “Please insert one dollar.”
What?! One dollar? But, my roommate lives in Eau Claire! That’s a local call, isn’t it?
Begrudgingly, I fished around in my purse for another two quarters and fed the greedy payphone one more time. I was able to call my roommate (who is very patient with me), but the number was unfamiliar so she declined to answer. I left a message.
I felt extremely stupid dialing her number from a payphone as I had my cell phone with all her contact information in one hand and the very quiet receiver pressed to my ear in the other. It was like the old and the new worlds colliding on that corner of Barstow and Madison. But hey, it worked.
And for the low, low price of fifty cents for a local call (one dollar for a non-local cell phone), you too can interact with history.
The idea for this adventure was inspired by an Instagram post from the Chippewa Valley Museum, which is looking for more local payphones. If you know of one, let them know!