History of Telephone Service in McDowell
by Don Orlander and John Caldwell

The General Telephone Company of the Southeast, whose service antedated the commercial telegraph in the McDowell coalfields of southern West Virginia by several years, was a trailblazer for the diversified utility services which are so indispensably interwoven into the business and social life of the people today. The nucleus of this vast network of wires, which today weaves this whole section of WV into community intercourse, dates back to the very beginning of this area, which at that time was no more than villages. Elkhorn, McDowell County, was then the western terminal of the Norfolk and Western. The territory beyond to the Ohio River yet remained a wilderness.

The telephone company was chartered June 1893, with a small capitalization for the purpose of installing telephone communications in several villages and neighboring towns. The first commercial wire instituted under this plan was from Bluefield to Pocahontas and Bramwell in 1894. It was in that year extension of the system was made to all the mining operations of the Flat Top Coalfields.

So here within the trade and industrial territory of McDowell County, taking into account the fabulous wealth of its developed resources, there is possibly no like area in the United States that has stepped forthright out of frontier settlements into the noonday sun of everything that is modern.

The first telephone exchange established in McDowell County was located at Elkridge WV, about the year 1896; the second exchange was established at Welch and the third in Keystone. In the year 1899, the Welch exchange was established, consisting of a six-line switchboard, located in a furniture and undertaking store near the railroad. About 1901, an exchange was established in the residence of a Mrs. Johnson, which consisted of 50 lines. In 1906, the exchange was moved to the third floor of the McDowell County National Bank. This was a three-position switchboard. The exchange office remained in the bank building until the present exchange building was erected in the year 1928.

Welch, the county seat, now has 3,500 telephones as compared with 900 telephones twenty-two years ago.

The General Telephone Company of the Southeast has completed plans for further extention, enlargements and improvements in its communication services for this area.


Published in 1992 for the 135th anniversary of McDowell County, and for McDowell County Day, February 20, as designated by the County Commission; Welch Daily News.


Contributed by: Barbara Cassell

McDowell County