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30th Year Recognition of Telephone Operations Background Material of NTC Benefactors
Written by David Bouker
January 16, 2005 marked the 30 th anniversary of Nushagak Telephone Cooperative, Inc. (NTC), a telephone company which later was merged with Nushagak Electric Cooperative to become part of the current entity known as Nushagak Cooperative, Inc.
NTC took over operation from Interior Telephone Company, which had been operating the system for North State Telephone Company for approximately eight months. North State Telephone Company was one of the very few utilities that had been de-certified by the Alaska Public Utilities Commission due to the very poor telephone service they had provided. A group of ladies, led by Dorothy Anderson here in Dillingham, started a newspaper called the Bristol Bay Bylines; they actually began the decertification process by publicizing the quality of the telephone service and supporting local efforts to start our own telephone system. At that time there were approximately 200 telephone subscribers, with almost everyone on a party line. Some lines, such as one on Woodriver Road, had as many as 10 parties on a single line.
The outside physical plant took essentially two forms. Part of it was attached to the Nushagak Electric Cooperative (NEC) power poles, in some notable cases by rope attaching the telephone cable to power poles. The line across the flats to Windmill Hill and out to Kanakanak was a 50 pair air-filled cable lying exposed on the ground. Approximately every thousand feet there were signs posted to warn people of “exposed telephone cable.” One of these signs still exists in the bushes near Orville Braswell’s old house but the wording is no longer legible.
Long distance service at that time consisted of two working toll trunks (compared to 179 at this time!) that were switched out of the FAA maintenance building at Kanakanak, from there to King Salmon and in turn over the White Alice (military warning and communication) system to Anchorage.
Unfortunately, the management at NEC had difficulty communicating with the owners of North State Telephone Company; as a result, attempts to get the service improved and the system cleaned up were largely a losing effort. Additionally, REA who financed NEC was really not too interested in financing the startup of a small rural telephone system that was apparently not even marginally profitable.
Fortunately, Albert Ball, a long-time resident of the area and president of the newly formed NTC, did have a good line of open communication with the president of North State Telephone Company; his efforts saved the day in coming to an agreement to purchase the assets of NST. This agreement or transaction was formalized on a napkin provided at a breakfast meeting at the Anchorage Westward Hotel (later known as the Anchorage Hilton Hotel.) The purchase price was $140,000 plus the deposits (just under $5,000) of the existing customers.
At last we were in business! But we had no money. All efforts up to this point had been financed by NEC, although we did borrow $25,000 from the local branch of the National Bank of Alaska. We then had to take over operation from Interior Telephone Company, the operators of the system after North State had been decertified eight months previously. As previously mentioned, that takeover date was January 16, 1975. To further complicate matters, Interior Telephone Company was owed approximately $22,000 from the NST customers for local and long distance services rendered; needless to say, NTC didn’t have that kind of cash available. We had to gear up overnight, hire a technician, and perform countless other tasks pursuant to getting into the telephone business (about which we knew next to nothing!)
The biggest problem was a lack of money and other resources. NEC Board of Directors went out on a limb to support NTC’s new operation, but we really had to get an infusion of cash and hire a competent technician quickly in order to maintain operations and improve the service; this meant essentially rebuilding the system from the ground up. We had promised the membership this and we had to show something for their trust. For this, we really put the arm on REA. Since they were not really overjoyed at our efforts, they decided to make some rather onerous requirements of us that would either make us or break us. One of their requirements was that we had to enlist 358 members (when there were only 200 existing customers) and that we had to collect a membership fee of $10 from each one of them. The only way we could get 358 members was to get all the families in Aleknagik to sign up as well. At that time, there were only 11 telephones on the Lake Road and these were served by a cable lying across the bushes and driveways extending up to Lars Nelson’s house.
This meant that the funds needed from REA would have to cover the cost of extending service to Aleknagik and over to the North Shore and Island. We approached George Ilutsik concerning the problem. He was advised that if the people of Aleknagik signed up for telephone service we would extend the service to Aleknagik and over to the North Shore and Island; delivering the service at the same price the residents of Dillingham would be paying. George took us at our word and he delivered every family in Aleknagik as members, which enabled us to meet the REA requirements. What made this unusual was that the economy in the mid seventies was not very good. In fact, President Nixon proclaimed this area an economic disaster area in 1974 (I think just before he resigned).
The $10 membership fee was double that of NEC and it had to have been a financial burden on some of the families in Aleknagik at that time. The suspicion was that George Ilutsik may have paid some of the fees himself. At any rate, that helped us immeasurably in getting started. If it were not for Albert Ball and George Ilutsik, we would not have a member-owned telephone utility today.
To complete the saga of getting the system going, we had made a promise to extend telephone service to the North Shore and to the area that we call the Island. This effort was achieved in August or September of 1976. The contractor that we had utilized to build our outside plant refused to do that part of the job because of what he termed “technical difficulties.” After some head scratching, we came up with a workable plan and buried, three feet below the river bottom, a 50 pair cable to the North Shore; subsequently, we laid a 25 pair cable to the Island. Several of the local folks helped us implement the plan; among them were Pavela Chuckwuk (using his fishing boat, the Lilly Ann), Moses Jacob and Wassillie Chukanuk. There were others, whose names we cannot recall at this time, who also provided the time and energy to help us do a job that the contractor was afraid to tackle.
In closing, it was a concerted effort by a few public minded individuals who donated their resources to help make this telephone system a viable entity that is owned by the very people it serves.
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Click here to read more about the improvements (PDF).
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|Aleknagik means “Wrong Way Home” because Natives returning to their homes along the Nushagak River would sometimes become lost in the fog and find themselves swept up the Wood River with the tide, inadvertently arriving at Aleknagik Lake.
|The point originally had an Eskimo name, “Saguyuk”, yet there is no evidence of a settlement at the site prior to the Nushagak Packing Company cannery, established in 1888. The community was named for John Clark, who was the manager of the Alaska Commercial Company store at Nushagak.
|Dillingham is the economic, transportation, and public service center for western Bristol Bay. Historically, the area around Dillingham was inhabited by both Eskimos and Athabascans and became a trade center when Russians erected the Alexandrovski Redoubt (Post) in 1818. Local Native groups and Natives from the Kuskokwim Region, the Alaska Peninsula and Cook Inlet mixed together as they came to visit or live at the post. The influenza epidemic of 1918-19 struck the region and left no more than 500 survivors.The town was named after U.S. Senator Paul Dillingham in 1904, who had toured Alaska extensively with his Senate subcommittee during 1903.
|The word Ekuk means “the last village down,” reflecting that Ekuk is the farthest village south on the Nushagak Bay. The village is mentioned in Russian accounts of 1824 and 1828 as Village Ekouk and Seleniye Ikuk. The North Alaska Salmon Company opened a cannery at Ekuk in 1903 and today the cannery’s watchman’s family are the only year-round residents.
|Manokotak is one of the newer villages in the Bristol Bay region. It became a permanent settlement in 1946-7 with the consolidation of the villages of Igushik and Tuklung. Manokotak residents depend heavily on subsistence activities, and many families move to fish camps in Igushik or Ekuk during the summer.
|Portage creek is located at the mouth of Portage Creek, a tributary of the Nushagak River. The site was used by the Yup’ik Eskimos as an overnight summer camp. Portage creek was so named because it was used to portage boats from the Nushagak River to the Kvichak River. In this way, travelers could avoid the open waters of Bristol Bay and the long trip around Etolin Point. The village was permanently settled in 1961 by some families from Koliganek and other villages up the Nushagak River.
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