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LVRR cell phones - more like cells than phones

  • AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Railroad historian Mike Bednar demonstrates how the Block Phone was used when it was introduce a century ago. The phone user wore a headset to free his hands for writing.
    AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Railroad historian Mike Bednar demonstrates how the Block Phone was used when it was introduce a century ago. The phone user wore a headset to free his hands for writing.
Published September 04. 2010 09:00AM

"If they had to build one at a time, they would still be building them," quipped Joe Bundra

"They were the cell phones of their day," explained Bundra of the reinforced concrete phone booth that he and his team of volunteers installed along the Ironton Rail Trail in Coplay.

Looking more like a cell than a phone booth, these turn-of-the-last-century, 3,000-pound hexagonal structures were, at the time, considered as state-of-the-art, heralding the railroad industry's transition from telegraph to telephone communications.

The thousands of concrete phone booths were once so prevalent they doubled as track mile markers. A rescued concrete phone booth, also called a Block Phone because it served to communicate within a railroad area called a Block, can be seen along the Ironton Rail Trail. It is painted with its mile marker "99.6."

"This Block Phone was locate 99.6 miles from Lehigh Valley Railroad's Liberty Street Ferry Terminal in New York City," noted Bundra.

Bundra explained that, for safety reasons, all the railroads were shifting to the new telephone technology and needed these Block Phone Booths to protect and secure their electrical equipment. He believes the LVRR must have converted a railroad yard into a temporary factory to produce the concrete phone booths.

"They needed communication booths. Communication was just coming in and was very important for safety," Bundra explained. "They had to mass produce them because they had to put them in so many places. If they had to build one at a time, they would still be building them."

"The LVRR started putting them in around 1903 and by 1910, they began dispatching by telephone," said railroad historian Mike Bednar. "In my youth, I spent all kinds of time riding the Cementon Drill from Cementon to the Biery Yard. They used this very phone booth for permission to come out. See it here, it's like my youth remembered."

Of the thousand booths that were in operation, Bednar doubts that 10 remain. "They were classified as structures, and taxed as structures," Bednar explained. "When CONRAIL came along, they destroyed as many of them as they could, so they wouldn't be taxed.

"The Block Phones eliminated the need for a telegrapher. A train could stop, call the tower man on each end and get orders to go out. They didn't have to have a telegrapher with them to attach wires and a telegraph."

Offering the advantages of safety and efficiency, the phone booths began being churned out by the railroads using a mass production technique that favored a hexagonal shape, probably so that the forms could be assembled like a beehive. The pored booth included five walls, leaving room for a door, and a thick floor to serve as a foundation.

"This phone booth was in the woods since I was a small kid," said Bundra. "It was completely torn apart - bullet holes all through it. The cement was missing in the front. They had fires in it. It was used as an outhouse. I didn't want to see it get any worse."

Twelve years ago, the Ironton Rail Trail was opened. Bundra thought that it would perfect along the historic rail-trail trail if it could be relocated and restored.

The property owner agreed to donate to the IRT and hauled it to the Trail in an industrial backhoe where a local crane operator volunteered to offload it onto the prepared excavation.

Bednar had an original telephone, which was used as a model to recreate a scenario inside the booth. Inside the Block Phone Booth visitors will see: a phone, a ballast scraper-typical of tools stored in the booths, and various paperwork: a track map, a permission authorization slip, and a Train Sheet of the movement of the Ironton Railroad on Feb. 20 1960.

"I get all kinds of great comments," noted IRT Commissioner Ray Bieak. "People really appreciate it. Bieak will be giving a historic tour on Oct. 19 and a trolley tour on Oct. 16.

When asked what does it all mean? Bundra replied, "If only the booth could talk."

For information, see: irontonrailtrail.org.

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