The early invasion of the telephone lines

This week's Reflections looks at telephone lines back in the day.

When the first telephone rang in the busy old workshop of Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, it would mark the humble but exciting beginnings of the amazing new era of communications that would spread rapidly across the urban and rural areas of our nation as well as throughout the world from the early 1900s and up to the present day.

As early as 1881, the newly formed Bell Telephone Company of Canada had grabbed most of the telephone interests in Canada, but many of these were declared void in 1885 and would open the door allowing several hundred smaller companies to acquire the rights to install and operate the vital services to all areas. Historical decisions in 1908-1909 included the purchase by the provincial governments to purchase all of the Bell Telephone Company operations in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

The formation of AGT

In Alberta, the powerful pressure of our first provincial government, under the leadership of flamboyant Premier-elect Alexander C. Rutherford would force the Bell Telephone Company to sell off all their holdings in the province for $675,000. The government then began to operate the telephone service as a public utility, which would be known as Alberta Government Telephones. At the time of the takeover, Bell had completed only a few lines between Edmonton and Calgary, but with rapid expansion and re-organization the AGT would hire many talented power line crews made up of young men from Canada, the USA and throughout the world to proceed with the rapid expansion of the telephone services.

These hardy crews worked long hours in all seasons and faced all sorts of terrain and challenges as they erected the poles and strung thousands of miles of lines across our province. In some of the early photos that I found, these brave cable men were shown hanging above a raging flooded river repairing a broken telephone pole and living in rough camps in the wilderness as they cleared the way and sunk the tall wooden poles into the ground. By 1922, over 20,000 Alberta farmers had the joy of a telephone, and thousands of other families and businesses were receiving service from over 8,000 miles of long distance lines. This AGT ‘telephone mania’ continued to sweep through Alberta until 1991 when it was purchased by Telus for $870,000,000.

Telephones arrive in Ponoka and districts

Before Ponoka had a telephone exchange or any telephones at all, there were two toll stations at Water Glen and Asker, both operated through Wetaskiwin. It was indeed an exciting day in 1908 when the first Ponoka Telephone Exchange was opened in the dispensary of McKinnell’s Drug store, which would serve 35 telephones and two country lines under the direction of Miss Lillie Sayers (Goodman). By 1950, the local telephone office had expanded to include fourteen operators working five boards and grew rapidly as our population had zoomed from 836 in 1931 to 3244 in 1953.

Out in the districts, the farmers used the ‘crank phones’, controlled by a series of ring codes, which would get the neighbour along the always busy and open to all party line or connect to a usually friendly operator in town. Eventually, all the old style phones were being replaced by the modern dial models in the 1960s, but sadly, over the years, most of the original lines and poles were rotting or had fallen down and were only used by the birds. In the roaring 70s, the Alberta Government Telephones were putting all their lines underground, which, over the years, have been rapidly expanded by Telus to serve close to 14 million Canadian customers with all sorts of wild and wonderful electronic services and toys.