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History often presents seemingly impossible to answer questions. W. J., a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, visited the logging camp of Winfield Scott Gerrish in 1878 and his report was published in the Clare County Press on June 21, 1878. In the report W.J. notes as to Gerrish’s logging railroad from Lake George to the Muskegon River that “The main road [RR] has . . . a telephone line running its whole length . . . .” For years this writer has wondered if Gerrish really had a telephone line as opposed to a telegraph line. Then in October, 2019, an article was in the Wall Street Journal about Thomas Alva Edison and the proverbial ‘light bulb’ went on in that the article mentioned Alexander Graham Bell, credited with ‘inventing’ the telephone. The pun is totally intended in that in 1879 Edison presumably ‘invented’ the light bulb. Research followed –
March 7, 1876 – Patent issued for ‘telephone’ to Bell [Wikipedia]
June, 1876 -Bell demonstrates telephone at Centennial Exposition
Summer, 1876 – Gerrish visits Centennial Exposition [Boomer, October- November, December 1996, Muskegon Heritage Assoc. Newsletter]
November 30, 1876 – Farwell Register on November 30, 1876, reports Gerrish & Hazelton “building a railroad on the Muskegon river, running back [to the East] to their timber” and a locomotive being “forwarded to Evart.” [Grand Rapids Eagle, March 29, 1878]
July 9, 1877 -- Bell Telephone Company founded [Wikipedia]
December 29, 1877 – reported 9.3 miles of track on Lake George & Muskegon Railroad [L GAZ, December 29, 1877]
February 15, 1878 – reported that 2 newspaper reporters (one from Cadillac and the other from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania) walked 14 miles to the railroad’s camps; saw 3 locomotives in use; and, “they are now erecting telephone lines which will be used by Mr. Stafford, who holds the title, Train Dispatcher.” [M. Chronicle, February 15, 1878] [ NWL, March 16, 1878]
June 21, 1878 – W. J., a reporter for the Detroit Free Press visits the logging camp of Winfield Scott Gerrish in 1878 and his report was published in the Clare County Press on June 21, 1878, and notes the use of a telephone line -- “The main road [RR] has four switches, two train dispatchers, and a telephone line running its whole length, by which the engineers receive their order at each switch . . .”
November 6, 1878 – S.C. Alek writes in a letter in October 1878, that dispatcher uses a telephone to control the trains coming and going on the single-track system.” [Newago Republican, November 6, 1878]
The upshot is that historians must might have missed an important connection. While admittedly Gerrish made ‘history’ with his successful logging railroad, it was also the implementation of the telephone line along the railroad that made for a successful logging operation. And, Gerrish most likely made two historical connections at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia – a railroad engine and a telephone line.
It often seems that ‘great people’ connect – and it is most probable that Alexander Graham Bell and Winfield Scott Gerrish connected in the Summer of 1876. Even if they did not, clearly Clare County had an early successful logging railroad; perhaps the first telephone line utilized in a logging railroad operation; and perhaps the first telephone line in Clare County.
Jon H. Ringelberg
Member, Clare County Historical Society