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Connecting Fall City: Businesswoman built town's first telephone company
Thousands of people drive by the Fall City totem pole every day, but few people may know the person to whom the colorful carving is dedicated.
Approach the pole on foot, however, and you’ll find a half-hidden plaque dedicating it to the memory of Julia Harshman, who pioneered the local telephone company.
As head of the Harshman Telephone Company, Harshman held tremendous respect in Fall City for her efforts tying the community together.
“You can imagine that in a little unincorporated town, the telephone company was the center of the world,” said Fall City Historical Society President Ruth Pickering. “She had such integrity that if somebody was going to know anything that went on in the town, she was the person who did.”
Julia Harshman came to Fall City in 1903, with her husband Newton and their 7-year-old daughter Gertrude. In 1908, Harshman became the owner of a small telephone company with about 30 paying customers. She had loaned Fall City grocer Emerson Neighbors about $300, a considerable sum at that time, to set up a phone company and run lines from Tolt, as Carnation was called in those days, to the Northern Pacific depot at Fall City.
Neighbors created the network, but ended up taking a new job in Seattle.
“He hadn’t been able to pay back the money, so he just gave her the telephone company,” Pickering said.
Later that year, Newton sold his interest in a local mill and joined Julia as supervisor of equipment for the company.
But Mrs. Harshman was unquestionably in charge of the company.
“I’m sure she had quite a few employees,” Pickering said. “Half the people in town worked at the switchboard at one time or another.”
The Harshman Telephone Company served Fall City, Tolt and surrounding areas.
In 1912, the Harshmans acquired the house at 33429 Southeast Redmond-Fall City Road, where they installed the telephone switchboard and their family.
After Newton’s death in 1929, Julia changed the name of the company to the Fall City Telephone Company, and daughter Gertrude and her husband George Satterlee and their children helped run the company. Julia died in 1933 after an extended illness, but the Fall City Telephone Company continued to operate from the Prescott-Harshman House (which became a King County Landmark in 1984) until 1947, when the business was purchased by Cascade Telephone.
When Julia died, she was cremated. Her daughter scattered her ashes from the bridge at Fall City. After her death, the Fall City Totem Pole, installed in 1934, was dedicated to her memory. There are two signs at the pole. One tells the history of the carving itself, while the other honors Harshman.
Pickering said Harshman was just one of many women who worked, ran businesses and made a difference in Fall City’s history.
“The wives made the town work,” Pickering said. “But not all of them were as much in evidence as she was.”