Tourists, residents and all-around museum hoppers in the City of Destiny know all about the “big four” museums: Museum of Glass, Tacoma Art Museum, Washington State History Museum and LeMay: America’s Car Museum. Fewer know about the next tier museums like Children’s Museum of Tacoma, Foss Waterway Seaport, Fort Nisqually and Tacoma Historical Society. And the city has a collection of niche museums, too, including the Buffalo Soldier Museum, Job Carr Cabin and Karpeles Manuscript Library.

But there is one museum that ranks above them all as a “hidden gem.” The Tacoma Telephone Pioneer Museum is only open one morning each week, but offers some interesting finds and deepens the region’s rich history just as much as its bigger siblings.

Tacoma telephone museum
Long-distance calls once required a personal touch, and a connection through an operator. Photo courtesy: Kim Golding

The Tacoma Telephone Pioneer Museum is a must-see for people in search of energetic docents and information about the evolution of communication technologies.  Located on the first floor of the downtown AT&T Building at the corner of 9th and Fawcett, the Tacoma Telephone Pioneer Museum is run by retired telephone company operators, switchboard workers and account managers, after all. The all-volunteer crew tells visitors all about the different designs and procedures involved in telephone calls from the earliest models to the present. Remember when calls involved hand cranks, party lines, operators, switchboards and cords attached to walls? It’s all on display at the donation-funded museum. But the museum is only open from 8:00 a.m. to noon on Thursdays, so visiting it might take a bit of calendar shuffling.

Tacoma telephone museum
Cellular technology changed telephones forever. Photo courtesy: Kim Golding

The museum has no admission fee and opened in 1991 when a gathering of former telephone employees and communication historians answered the call for a display of the history of telephones in Tacoma, and AT&T provided its storefront space to house the collection of telephones, switchboards and telephonic equipment of all sorts and eras. Alongside wooden, hand-cranked phones and teletype machines is the first cordless telephone ever made that was used at the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962. A deeper dive into the displays in the 2,000-square-foot space uncovers employee photos, procedure books, directories and operations manuals…oh so many manuals.

“It’s a lot to fit into one museum,” visitor Kim Golding said about her trip through the museum.

She and her fiancé, Vince Kueter, visited the museum after years of driving by it, but never being able to have a Thursday morning free of work or errands. But then that day came, so they jumped at the chance.

Tacoma's Telephone Pioneer Museum
It only seems fitting that Tacoma’s Telephone Pioneer Museum is located in the AT&T Building. Photo credit: Steve Dunkelberger

“It was sort of like a field trip in our own home town,” Golding said, noting that they were not disappointed, other than the fact that parking in the area expires after two hours. “You get a lot of individual attention. They are so appreciative of having an audience. We definitely had that feeling that we should come again.”

Adults of a certain generation can relive their youth by viewing the collectable phones, while children can curiously explore how those darn dials works – maybe just maybe hear that crazy thing once called a busy signal or even an operator-assisted call.

The museum is a great spot for locals and visitors alike who are in search of lesser-known museums, exhibits filled with switches, plugs, dials and knobs or information about communications evolved during the last century.

The Tacoma Telephone Pioneer Museum is located at 757 Fawcett Avenue S, Tacoma, WA 98402. For more information, stop by or visit their website.

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