The 911 of 1889

On the afternoon of February 8, 1889, the alarm at telephone patrol box number 3 at Front Street between Main and Brady Streets was sounded by an officer on patrol.  It was the first alarm sounded on the week-old system that could be looked upon as a the nineteenth century’s version of 911. 

The Democrat-Gazette reported that same evening on the front page that within four minutes of the call, the police chief, the patrol driver, and two policemen arrived at the scene in the new patrol wagon purchased to go along with the system.  Upon arrival, the officers assisted in the arrest of a reportedly unruly and argumentative gentleman.  The speed of arrival was in part due to the talented horses purchased to pull the patrol wagon.  Driver Sherman Perry had trained the two horses to quickly move on their own into harnessing position upon hearing the alarm sound in the patrol barn.  This, according to the article, allowed the horses to be hooked up and ready within 90 seconds.

As early as July of 1888,  the Davenport City Council began working on implementing the new system.  The Police Committee  purchased the equipment in October for a cost of $45 per phone box.  An additional box was purchased the following month.   The committee also negotiated pricing with the phone company and found locations for all boxes.  A new patrol rig and two horses, as mentioned above, were then purchased.  A phone/alarm was also added to the stable area so the patrol driver (and apparently the horses) would hear the call sound. 

The call boxes were most likely of heavy cast iron and would have been mounted on a stand-alone pole or attached to an existing structure.  Keys were carried by officers on patrol.  If the officer needed assistance he inserted the key into the front of the box.  The door opened and the officer picked up a hand telephone, cranked the handle once and waited for the station to answer.  Other keys were given to local (and obviously trusted) citizens who lived near the boxes.  They were to assist individuals in need with the phone if a patrol officer was not available. The names of these individuals were printed in the newspaper along with the article.  Since help could be needed day or night, it makes one wonder if anyone thought twice before agreeing to be a citizen key holder!

Beside the eleven box locations and the names and addresses of the citizen key holders, the newspaper article also covered proper phone usage during an emergency call.  Pointers included standing with your mouth six to ten inches from the mouthpiece while speaking in an ordinary voice (no shouting please) and remembering to hang up the phone after use so the battery did not die.

What were the intrepid citizen key holders to report?  The list included disturbances, suspicious characters, tramps, nuisances, defective sidewalks, and fires.  I think we can see one item in particular that our present-day 911 operators wouldn’t appreciate being called about!

On a side note, there is at least one old patrol box still known to exist from the city of Davenport.  Kept by a local historical society, it unfortunately does not have a key.  Until it is opened, the date of the device cannot be ascertained.  If it ever is opened, maybe we will be able to get some pictures of the inside and add a Part II to this blog article!

(posted by Amy D.)

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2 Responses to The 911 of 1889

  1. Tim says:

    So, do or don’t call 911 about a defective sidewalk?

    • SCblogger says:

      No, defective sidewalks are no longer considered 911-level emergencies. I debated even putting that one in, but the desire to play that old Sesame Street game “One of These Things (Is Not Like the Other)” overcame me.

      Interestingly, the Davenport Fire Department had their own fire alarm boxes already in place when the patrol boxes went up. Makes me wonder if the police got a call on their box about a fire, did they then have to call the fire department to let them know? Thanks for reading!

      Amy D.

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