February 12: Walter Van Brunt starts Duluth’s first phone company

Walter Van Brunt, Duluth pioneer, founder of the Duluth Telephone Company, and editor of a three-volume history of Duluth and St. Louis County published in 1922.

On this day in Duluth in 1881, Walter Van Brunt, H. C. Kendell, and C. H. Graves established the Duluth Telephone Company. Van Brunt, whose name Zenith City readers may recognize as a Duluth historian, had attended the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 where he saw a display of “electric speaking telephones” by Alexander Graham Bell. Van Brunt worked for C. H. Graves, a founder of Duluth Board of Trade, and his duties included insuring grain in Duluth’s elevators. It was ten blocks from his office to Elevator A at the base of Third Avenue East, and he had to walk there and back twice a day, first to gather receipts and then to deliver insurance policies. In 1880, he installed a telephone in his office and another at Elevator A. Word was passed, and others were soon clamoring for a connection; soon he had to add an eight-point switch. But the line to the grain terminal was too often in use, so he told his friends, he’d had enough—they’d have to walk. Graves saw an opportunity, so along with Van Brunt and Kendell started Duluth Telephone. They hit the ground with 15 customers and $10,000 in capital; a year later they had 30 customers. As the century ended, Duluth Telephone had 753 customers and a competitor, Zenith Telephone; ten years later, there were 8,000 phones in Duluth. In 1918 both companies were purchased by the Northwestern Telephone Exchange Company, which became Northwestern Bell in 1921.

3 Responses to February 12: Walter Van Brunt starts Duluth’s first phone company

  1. So here’s how Dex makes $ they sell cover inside and out ads plus listings for business in the yellow pages and white page business.Also have a coupon section for retail business. I pay about $150 monthly for business listings plus I do my own web site, does it bring any business, that’s the big?Even though more folks don’t have land lines it’s still exposure, they also have everthing they do listed on the web.

  2. I wonder why they even print phone books anymore—there must be money to be made, perhaps selling the advertising and “yellow pages” entries?

  3. How times have changed, yesterday I received the 2014 edition of the Duluth Dex phone book, (not sure why so late.) I also was in the Northwestern Bell museum yesterday. The phone book I received yesterday is 1/5 the size of the 2001 directory, (that’s when many people had a second line for “dial up” internet,)and I noted the 2014 edition is smaller then the 1938 edition of the same book.

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