Fire! … Please send help — there’s been a car accident! … We found our son in the pool … please help us! … We need an ambulance … I think my husband’s having a heart attack! … My wife can’t breathe and she’s turning blue! Many of us have experienced terrifying moments like those at one time or another. In modern times, amazingly quick responses are the norm from fire and EMS personnel directed by information received at county emergency service centers.
Until several decades ago, those positions were nearly all filled by men. But for much of the twentieth century, most rural areas lacked coordination of services. A vital cog in emergency situations back then was the local switchboard operator, who was nearly always a woman. In almost every instance where policemen and/or firemen were needed, the telephone operator was key to obtaining a good outcome. She was the de facto emergency services coordinator of yesteryear.
Her importance during times of crisis was often overlooked, with most of the glory going to policemen and firemen capturing criminals, rescuing victims, and saving lives. But emergency personnel and telephone-company executives were aware of the vital role operators played on a daily basis.
After the death in 1920 of Theodore Newton Vail, legendary AT&T president, a memorial fund was established in 1921 by his widow to honor “conspicuous acts or services” performed for the public good by company employees. (If you’ve never heard of him, it was once said and often repeated: “Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and Theodore Vail invented the telephone business.”) Medals and monetary awards were thereafter periodically given (until the Bell System breakup in 1984) to deserving men and women for actions that ranged from extremely helpful to heroic.
Among the early recipients was a North Country woman, Ida M. Blanchard. Ida and her twin sister were born in Natural Bridge, New York, in Jefferson County, in September 1883. For many decades, the two were civically active and very involved in the local Grange. Ida was hired as switchboard operator in Natural Bridge in 1913, and in June 1920 found herself the subject of statewide attention, including mention in a trade magazine, The Telephone Review.
The telephone office in Natural Bridge was on the second floor of a building, and while Ida (who lived there) was working at two in the morning, she heard noises from the first floor directly below, where the general store and post office were located. To investigate, she grabbed a gun kept nearby, but found that her door had been tied shut with a strong rope. Knowing that something evil was transpiring, she put the switchboard to good use, calling several local men to report that a robbery was in progress.
The noises she heard were, in fact, made by thieves, who subsequently used dynamite to blow the door off the post-office safe (a fire also resulted from the explosion). The men she called arrived on the scene, put out the fire, and chased the robbers amid an exchange of gunfire. One of the thieves was injured and captured hours later, leading to the eventual arrest of his accomplice. Their booty consisted of two packs of cigarettes, roughly $12 in stamps, and a small sum of money.
Ida’s quick work was cited as critical to their capture. The regional superintendent for the telephone company submitted her name to the federal government, which offered reward money to those assisting in nabbing post-office burglars. As a result, she was praised for bravery and presence of mind, and awarded $200 (equal to about $2,500 in 2017).
Nearly five years later, Ida was still living in the same building and working the night shift. On December 22, 1924, shouts of “Fire!” alerted her that the store-post office-telephone building was ablaze, and the entire business block was in danger. She began phoning residents of adjacent properties, warning them to flee, and placed many calls for help, bringing in firefighters from Carthage, ten miles distant. Remaining at her post, she continued calling area residents to help fight the fire lest the entire village go up in smoke.
Ultimately, the building’s stairs were blocked by flames, and Ida found herself trapped on the second floor. As her own property burned in the apartment and all the telephone equipment was lost, she made it around to a balcony at the front of the building, where she escaped the blaze by climbing down a ladder placed there by firemen.
In the end, no lives were lost, largely because of her courageous efforts. Six months later, she became the first northern New York operator to receive the Theodore N. Vail Medal for Heroism. The ceremony, held in October 1925 in Plattsburgh, was attended by company officials and public dignitaries, several of whom offered high praise for Ida’s “bravery, alertness, and loyalty” in the face of great danger.
Press releases told why she was chosen as the recipient of a silver medal and a $250 cash award: “Miss Ida M. Blanchard — Heroically defying flames which were eating their way through the walls of a room where she sat at a switchboard, Miss Blanchard telephoned warnings and calls for assistance which materially lessened the damage caused by a serious fire at Natural Bridge, New York.”
Her acceptance speech said a lot about Ida’s character: “In accepting this medal, I feel that I am accepting an honor that does not really belong to me; that I have done nothing that would merit the presentation of such a medal. I only did my duty as anyone would have done under the circumstances. It is a wonderful honor and a wonderful distinction. It was always a great pleasure to do what I could for each and every one in the time of need, and I never thought that I should be singled out for such a great honor.
“Words are not sufficient to express my feelings. It has been wonderful and I shall never forget this day. I am proud of the medal, and I am also proud to be an employee of the Northern New York Telephone Corporation, and I thank you most heartily for what you have done for me. I assure you that I will try to prove myself worthy of the wonderful distinction that you have conferred upon me.”
Ida still had a long career ahead of her. She eventually became chief operator at Natural Bridge, and when the village converted to the new dial system — obviating the need for switchboard operators — she transferred to the village of Philadelphia, about twelve miles northwest.
After 35 years as an operator, she retired at age 65 in 1948, the same year that Philadelphia introduced the new dial system. Ida continued attending company functions and anniversary celebrations, and belonged, appropriately, to the Telephone Pioneers of America. In 1965, she turned her medal over to the company, which put it on display in the Watertown office.
While her twin sister Ina died in 1959, Ida Blanchard remained well-known as a telephone operator until her death in 1976 at age 92. The Pioneers of the New York Telephone Company answered the call and were bearers at her funeral. Although they were simply labeled telephone operators, together they were the forerunners of today’s 911 dispatchers.
Photos: Ida M. Blanchard (1925); the Vail Medal (Worthpoint.com)
A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.