Remembering: The month Ferndale & Custer went without phone service

scene of train car derailment that left 1 caboose inside the Ferndale ConTel building 1979-09 photo Ron Willand
Scene of train car derailment that left 1 caboose inside the Ferndale ConTel building (September 1979). Photo courtesy of Ron Willand

According to those in the area at the time, phone service was lost early in the morning of September 17, 1978 and it was not until October 18th before it was restored. The cause was the derailing of several train cars including 1 that crashed into a building at 2nd Avenue and Vista Drive. That building housed the essential equipment for handling all telephone calls in and out of the Ferndale and Custer areas.

According to local businessman, Ron Willand, the crash occurred just before he arrived at work at 6:30am. Had he gotten to work any earlier his truck would have likely been crushed according to Willand. Willand’s business, Willand’s Auto Repair, is next door to the building housing the phone switching equipment. At the time, the building was occupied by Continental Telephone (ConTel).

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Willand said he was told the train’s engineer thought the train was on the main line but it was actually on a dead-end section of track used for loading and unloading cars at the granary located at 3rd Avenue and Washington Street. The train was backing up when 4 cars, including 2 cabooses, plowed through the bumper at the end of the track and continued rolling across the dirt and gravel, stopping only after 1 caboose had crashed into the ConTel building.

Jim Quist was a communications switchman for ConTel at the time and said ConTel employees were on strike when the crash occurred which was fortunate as that meant no one was inside the building.

ConTel brought in a emergency communications trailer, Quist said, and set up a phone booth outside the building for people to use. Quist said it was not unusual to see a crowd around the trailer looking for the latest news and information.

According to the Ferndale High School 1979 yearbook, the phone outage continued until October 18th. “In the weeks that followed, students relied on decisions made in school or spent extra money on gas to get together with their friends,” according to the yearbook.

Ferndale native, Linda Blunt, said she remembered when a Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office deputy came to their home during the telephone outage to let them know an out-of-town relative had passed away. “Family had no way to call us with the news,” Blunt explained.

Willand noted the bumper that was pushed aside during the 1978 incident has since been replaced with a pile of dirt, rocks and timbers several feet high and wide.

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The ConTel building is now used by Frontier Communications.

 

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