This 1922 photo featured the new modern Ponoka Telephone Office located at the west end of Chipman Avenue. Staff members Pearl Conrad and Esther Wagen are shown on the front step and over the years would be joined by many others during the long and colourful history of our rapidly expanding town and county telephone system. Photo courtesy of the Fort Ostell Museum

Reflections: When Ponoka got water, power and phone lines

This week’s Reflections looks at when Ponoka got utilities

With all the modern technology that we now have at our fingertips we still get a little disgruntled when the power goes out, the water pipes freeze up, and the telephone lines are down after the storm.

Just for fun let’s go all the way back to the first years of the 19th century when a sudden invasion of new pioneer families and individuals began moving into this area to settle, but in order to survive and succeed they would have to make do with what Mother Nature had provided…at least for a little while.

A great challenge for our first town council

Following the milestone celebration of Ponoka being officially incorporated as a town in 1904 our first Mayor John D. McGillivray, secretary treasurer, Mr. C.C. Reid and the town council would face the monumental task of planning and building for the future of what would quickly become a vibrant and thriving community in the heart of central Alberta.

The first telephone pole to be installed in Ponoka along the Bell Telephone Company Calgary to Edmonton phone-line was set up across the street from the present Royal Hotel in 1903. A hot item of interest in the Sept. 9, 1906 edition of the Ponoka Herald would report that Bell and the local town council were now involved in a ‘heated scrap’, as the telephone company had gone to work erecting poles on almost every street and back alley of the new town without getting permission from the city fathers. Thankfully this little spat was settled quite amicably and the first telephone office was opened that same year at the back of Dr. Campbell’s Drug Store in the Baadsgaard Building along Chipman Avenue. In the beginning the first rural phone lines were being handled by toll stations at the Water Glen and Asker Stores for 10 cents a call, and then later Mrs. Laurie Goodman would become the first telephone operator here in Ponoka. Her daily duties included dashing into the back room when the buzzer rang and putting the call through for the 35 local phones and two country lines on the system, and then going back up front to wait on customers in the busy drug store. As the system quickly expanded she was later assisted on the switch board from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily by Amy Turner, Esther Wagen, Pearl Conrad, followed over those very hectic years by a long list of congenial and talented ‘switchboard wizards.’

It is interesting to note that the first four phones installed on the Ponoka system were the Bank, Mike Brady, the Hardware Store, and the Algar family. As soon as the new telephone agent Dan Campbell began avidly promoting the new service and Mr. O’Brien and his crew kept building the phone lines in and around the town and out into the country districts, the Ponoka Telephone Exchange by the 1920s had expanded to fourteen operators serving six boards. A fancy new brick building at the west end of Chipman Avenue was opened in 1922 would serve as the telephone office around the clock, as well as handling all the emergency calls for the Ponoka Fire Department, ambulance, and the town police. In the early days there were only two telephones at the huge Ponoka Mental Hospital complex, one for the doctor as well as an extension, but later a new 23-line switchboard was installed at the facility, all under the direction of its own operators. In 1929 a Private Branch Exchange (P.B.X.), which was the first of its kind in the province was installed in the community, where the entire Ponoka telephone system would be eventually taken over by the Government of Alberta.

Some amazing highlights of the early progress in Ponoka

• In 1912 the power for the few lights around Ponoka was supplied from the Provincial Mental Hospital system for 17 cents per kilowatt hour. In 1928 the electric power was purchased from the Calgary Power Company, and up until 1937 all the power was shut off at 12:30 a.m. It was in 1939 that the Town of Ponoka began to replace the old wooden light posts with steel posts and this first stage was completed in 1941. In the 1970s the Town of Ponoka began purchasing electric energy wholesale from Calgary Power.

• In 1928 there was a by-election fought between Mr. Pendleton and Mr. Gordon over whether or not there should be free pasture for cows in town, which was approved, but in later years due to rapid expansion became impossible and was cancelled.

• By the 1940s the Town of Ponoka’s fire equipment was valued from $4,000 to $6,000, which included three fire trucks: the chemical unit which is the first to the fire, the hose truck with 250 feet of hose, and a small Ford truck which transports the men. There were 18 volunteer members in the department, who were covered by a $2, 000 insurance policy, with each member receiving $2 a practise, $1 for a false alarm, and $2 an hour and down for fire fighting. The water for the local hydrants was supplied by the CPR water reservoir. By this time the town had already committed to 25 blocks of storm sewers, as well as miles of wooden sidewalks and hard packed dirt streets.

• Natural gas was piped into our town in 1946, and to celebrate a flare was lit next to the train station, and then in 1948 the water and sewer works installation was completed throughout town with a gala bonfire and celebration was held in the CPR lot where the PFD burn all the local biffies. By the 1950s the Town of Ponoka had 25 miles of paved streets, nine miles of storm sewers, ten miles of gravelled streets, and four miles of gravelled lanes.

From those humble beginnings in 1904 with a staff of a secretary and a combined handyman and policeman the Town of Ponoka has come a long way, facing all the challenges and growing from a population of 473 in 1906 to 2,574 in 1951. With the ongoing strong direction of many dedicated town councils and staff and the support and enthusiasm of several generations of families and citizens along the way, many successes have been achieved and the future is bright.

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