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

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 reader’s may recognize as a Duluth historian, had attended the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1880 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 quickly began 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.

The telephone patented in 1881 by Alexander Graham Bell.