Robert L. Adams Sr.: Early Telephone Pioneer in Gadsden


 Last week The Vagabond talked about R.A. Mitchell and Robert L. Adams Sr., who were involved in Gadsden’s first car accident on Lookout Mountain.

This week there’s more on Robert Adams, who was a son of a pioneer Alabama family and one of the early developers of the state’s telephone service. He lived to be 87 and was a native of Montevallo. He was a son of James Adams, one of the original settlers of Selma.

Adams went to work for the Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Co. in Gadsden in 1892 and left that organization to form his own phone system in Northeastern Alabama. Adams sold out to Southern Bell in 1906 and in 1915 moved to Atlanta, where he made his home since.

There is a book written by Adams called Pioneering Highlights in the Telephone Field Before and at the Turn of the Century. It was dictated by Adams to his son Arthur Foreman Adams.

He writes:

“I was a six-year old boy on the train with my mother (Nancy Elizabeth Greene) en route from our hometown Montevallo to Selma to visit my brother. The train had stopped at Randolph, and my mother was talking to an old friend who had just returned from the Centennial at Philadelphia. He was telling her of a fellow he had seen there named Bell, who had a contraption [that] you could hear a person’s voice talking over half a mile away.

“As a 10-year old boy, I saw the actual operation of the Selma exchange in 1880.

“The Western Union Te-legraph Company and the Southern Bell were closely allied in those days, with both companies occupying the same office. The switchboard was flat on top of a table and not straight up like the present ones.

“I learned telegraphy during my 10th year, and when I was 16 I became manager of the Western Union at Stanton, Ala.

“John D. Easterlin, [the] Superintendent of Southern Bell Telephone Co. in Atlanta, was advertising in a telegraph journal that the Bell Company would rent telephones. I figured on building a short two-mile line out to a mill. I ordered two phones, and when I received them, they looked like ‘yo-yo’ paddles.

“I found myself skipping around from one telegraph job to another until I was 20 years old. I married Ophelia Foreman, of Auburn, [who was the] daughter of a famous Civil War surgeon. We were together 56 years. She is waiting for me now on the other side.

“In the year 1892, I found myself [as the] Western Union Manager at Tuscaloosa. I was promoted from there to Bessemer as manager.

“From Bessemer I was promoted to Gadsden in 1894 as both Manager of the Southern Bell and Western Union. Both companies occupied the same office, which was a little room 12 feet wide, eight feet high and thirty-five feet in length, built of corrugated tin. I held these two positions for 13 years.

“Next door to this office was a vacant lot adjacent to the beautiful Printup Hotel. I bought this lot and built the Adams Office Building, a three-story structure, and moved in the Telephone and Telegraph Companies as my tenants.

“At the same time I took over at Gadsden, a young man named Gardner Nicholls, [the] only son of a Boston millionaire, came down from his home. He came into my office and wired his father of his arrival. He spent about a week looking around, no one knowing his business. 

“Then one morning the old town went wild – he had selected Alabama City, a suburb of Gadsden, as a location to build the great Dwight Cotton Mills for his father. The mills and several hundred fine homes were completed wi-thin two years.

“Young Nicholls and I, both being new arrivals in Gadsden, became fast friends. He spent his evenings with me in my home and office, and we planned many things together for the city. Among them were ‘rural’ telephone lines to buy cotton over for their mills. He was accidentally killed in the mills a short time later. He was a lover of the South and its people. His parents had me come to Boston to visit them.

“Returning from my visit to Mr. and Mrs. Nichols in Boston, I stopped over in New York City and called on Mr. C.H. Wilson, [the] President of the Bell Telephone Company. I talked over my plans about building long distance lines and exchanges in the North Alabama territory not already covered by the Southern Bell Company. 

“I found Mr. Wilson a very fine man. He carried me out to his home as his guest and made my visit most pleasant. Mr. Wilson told me that ‘other telephone companies are fighting us in the South,’ and said, ‘I will be very glad to see you develop this new territory, as the Southern Bell cannot do so at this time.’

“My first line was from Gadsden to Walnut Grove. My next line was from Gadsden to Birmingham, and then to Boaz, Albertville and Guntersville, then from Gadsden to Alexander City through Talladega and Sylacauga.

“I built the first telephone exchanges at Piedmont, Sylacauga, Alexander City and Albertville. I built and owned nearly 300 miles of long distance lines at that early period, including one from Gadsden to Oxford and Anniston.

“In the interest of my further telephone development, I visited and prospected in Mexico and in Panama. The exchange at Montereigh (Monterey) Mexico was in the city market, and the operators were all men.

“I secured a 60-day option on buying the exchanges at Panama City and Colon, and a line connecting the two cities. I offered this option to the President of the American Bell Company at Boston. He wrote me that he had arranged for Mr. W.T. Gentry, President of the Southern Bell in Atlanta and one of my closest friends, to visit Mexico and look into the matter. He said in one of his letters to me, ‘We have great faith in his (Mr. Gentry’s) judgment.’ 

“Mr. Gentry immediately made reservations to visit Mexico but was taken suddenly very ill, and during this time the option expired and the trip was never made. 

“My lines and telephone property were all later sold to the Southern Bell Telephone Company in Atlanta in 1903.

“As a matter of historic interest, I owned the first automobile in Gadsden and one of the first in the State of Alabama. It was a Stanley Steamer.”

Robert Lee Adams wrote in his diary:

“Oct. 23 around 12:50 p.m., 1952. In my room at 980 Rupley Drive and a beautiful day. Thinking of my long life and God’s goodness to me. I will be 83 years old month after next, Dec 5, 1952. Was born at Montevallo, Alabama, Dec 5, 1869 about 7 a.m. My first recollection is of my father James Adams who died when I was nine years of age. He was a Confederate veteran. As a boy of seven years, I picked cotton.

“When 10, I hung around the depot taking grips to town. I learned to be a telegraph operator. Ran on the train as a news agent. When 15, I took the job as night telegraph operator. When 18, I was train dispatcher at Selma for the ETV&G Railway. Memory is a great gift. I bring to view scenes in my life just as it happened.

“I left Selma and took a job with the Western Ry of Alabama at Montgomery. From Montgomery I went to Columbus. Ga., as train dispatcher on the Central of Georgia RY. Looks like the good Lord had me in hand steering me to a life of happiness with the sweetest girl in the world, my wife. She was Ophelia Foreman of Auburn who had come up for dental work. We married at Auburn by Rev. Rice at her mother’s plantation about four miles in the country. It was June 4, 1890, about 8 p.m.

“Left on our honeymoon the next evening for Rome, Ga., where I was a train dispatcher for ET Valley Ry. We stopped at my sister’s home, Mrs. Ed Nelson, in Rome. The RR transferred me to Selma. From Selma we moved to Paducah. Ky., with C&O Ry.

“My mother died at Montevallo. I quit railroading and took a position at Tuscaloosa as manager of Western Union Telephone Company. Promoted from there.”

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