(WTRF) WHEELING, W.Va — When West Virginia became a state in 1863, the population was widely dispersed and most people lived in isolated areas, making communication very difficult, according to a story in West Virginia Archives and History.

In order for economic growth for Ohio and Kanawha Valley towns effective communication was essential in the late 1880s.

The telephone, invented by Alexander Graham Bell, was adopted by the Behrens brothers in 1879, by connecting two of their grocery stores in Wheeling, West Virginia.

Just one year later on May 15, 1880, the city established one of the first telephone exchanges in the country.

The switchboard, which was set up in the basement of the People’s Bank served 25 subscribers at first.

This allowed Wheeling customers to make local calls. Long-distance calls were not available until 1883.

In the fledgling days of the exchange, switchboard operators did not have a directory, only a list of subscribers.

The operators were expected to memorize the names and numbers of each subscriber before they were deemed capable of taking a position according to the Ohio County Public Library.

The building also had no lightning protection, so if lightning struck, the city would be without phone service for up to a week.

The switchboard moved from the basement to the third floor of the People’s Bank and was there until 1989, at that time they had 300 subscribers.

A new building was then built on Chapline Street to accommodate the growing demand for communication. The new location had a No. 1 common switchboard, a first for the entire state. By 1899, Wheeling had over 1,000 telephones.

Switchboards and lines were installed in Parkersburg, Moundsville, and Clarksburg during the 1880s, and by the turn of the century, much of northern West Virginia had been linked to the major sites of surrounding states.

Telephone technology developed more slowly in the southern part of West Virginia. Charleston and Huntington had telephone exchanges by the early 1880s, but long service did not begin until 1897.

In the early 1900s, Charleston became the hub of communication services, which played a crucial role in the state’s social and economic development, bringing West Virginians closer to each other and the rest of the world.

The building that held Wheeling‘s first telephone exchange still stands today and is owned and used by Truist Bank.