Heidi Crabtree | Special to the Fort Leavenworth Lamp
At the end of the 1870s, a scientific miracle, the telephone, was the talk of Leavenworth, and that talk consisted of more than just Alexander Graham Bell and technology. Etiquette, ghosts and proper grooming had all been connected to the telephone quicker than the time it took for people to learn to use it. Of course, the U.S. Army took notice, too.
One of the early telephone lines in town connected the home of Leavenworth Times editor Col. Daniel R. Anthony and the Times office. The controversial publisher and newly appointed postmaster took pride in letting people into the office to see the device.
Citizens were fascinated, but one out-of-town visitor was not very impressed. Chief Joseph, at the time the Nez Perce were at the fort, was taken to the city along with three other chiefs to see the sights.
On June 19, 1878, Chief Joseph, Yellow Bear, “Charlie,” Cool-cool-ste-mikt, and an interpreter went to the Times offices and heard Anthony’s voice say he would be there shortly, at first not understanding that the voice came from his home several blocks away at 417 N. Esplanade. Later that day, they were shown a phonograph and heard their own voices recorded and played back, possibly making Leavenworth the location of the first sound recordings of Native Americans.
The Leavenworth Times and other local papers often reported telephone news, whether it happened in town or not. In 1878, recent converts to Spiritualism were likely entranced that a phone line in New York between a cemetery superintendent and the cemetery itself would ring when no one was at the graveyard, and the Leavenworth Weekly Times gladly passed the story on to readers.
Local writers noted that women fixed their hair before answering phones and a Bible student who worked at the telephone exchange answered by saying, “Gehenna,” an Aramaic word for “place of misery.” Leavenworth folks became concerned about a habit that hurried people were getting into: dropping the second syllable when answering, “Hello.”
Back on post, the earliest phone on Fort Leavenworth is said to have been in Quarters No. 1 in 1879, and the telephone exchange was later located on Arsenal Hill.
By 1881, Leavenworth had about 120 telephones, with the central telephone company office at 319 Delaware St. Lists of businesses with new phones were occasionally published in the papers by M. M. Joyce, chief telegraph operator on Fort Leavenworth. One of the early 1881 lists included the fort itself.
Joyce lived on post and had worked at the Headquarters since 1868. He was well liked and lived with his wife and children in a house behind the old U.S. Disciplinary Barracks. He took to the new technology with excitement. He was made secretary of the new Leavenworth Telephone Company, established in January 1881.
The following year, more telephone connections were installed on post at the prison, hospital, sutler’s store, quartermaster’s office and stables. Phones were added fast, and exactly 100 years before the breakup of “Ma Bell’s monopoly” would make headlines, the Leavenworth Telephone Co. was bought by the Kansas and Missouri Telephone Co., adding to the latter’s growing ownership.
M. M. Joyce did not live to see this post expansion-by-wire. In autumn of 1881 he went to Colorado for health reasons and died at Fort Garland, at only 32 years old. He was later reinterred to the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery where his marker stands a bit taller than those nearby. The young tech man was gifted posthumously with a memorial poem, sprinkled with references to his profession. It read:
Over the wire the news may flash but it matters not to thee:
A message from the courts above – Has set thy spirit free!
Others may guide the lightning’s flash as they lightly touch the key;
And news may come from distant lands – Across the dark blue sea;
But messages of good or ill – What is or is not to be;
It matters not! Thy form is still – We weep to night for thee.
We weep as only loved ones weep – For a voice and form now gone;
And we weave our grief into tearful lines – Nor deem that we do wrong;
Although our sad and plaintiff strain – unknown, unheard by thee;
Thy work of usefulness is done – Blest may thy spirit be.
The poem was submitted to the Leavenworth Times and signed only “Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Sept. 29, 1881.”