Weekly Ponderings: People brought character and culture to Peace River Part 24

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It was interesting to note in the preceding Ponderings, two telegraphers in their 80s continued their interest in the skill that provided them, years earlier, with a vital career – vital that is to communication. The Edmonton Journal reported the presentation of George Campbell and Jim Munsey, members of the International Morse Telegraph Club, to a Strathcona County audience, November 2011.

“When we die, Morse will die forever,” predicted Campbell. Munsey added a similar noteworthy comment: “Telegraphy isn’t that far removed from phone texting younger people do so regularly now …But, we never had lol …we just said ‘hi’. When you said H-I (in Morse Code), that meant you were laughing.”

Campbell and Munsey, along with fellow members of the International Morse Telegraph Club, have seen the communication evolution – telegraph, telephone, radio, television, facsimile (FAX), photocopier, silicone chip and the computer and all its ramifications, and oh, yes – the cellphone. Campbell told CTV’s Glenn Kubish: “I don’t use a cellphone because e-mail lets me do everything I need to do.”

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Ever the communicator, Campbell published a summary of the telegrams from the Northwest Rebellion (March 26-May 13, 1885). He also wrote his experiences as a wireless operator prompted by the slow demise of the language of Morse in Good Night Old Man.

The thought of telephones and Bell has a certain ring to it, does it not. The sound has been around for a long time, taking a long circuitous route to reach its current position. On the way West, the name Bell, when associated with the eastern telephone company bearing the telephone inventor’s name, failed to endear itself to turn-of-the-century westerners, partly because of its perceived monopolizing ways.

At one stage in our evolution, communication was limited to the speed of transportation – no faster than a message could be carried by foot, runner, canoe, steamer, horseback, stagecoach, dog team, drums, smoke signals, semaphores, trumpets or even carrier pigeons. Then, man harnessed the powers of electricity and magnetism. No longer was communication bound by slower means of transportation. Thanks to the pioneering spirit of Samuel Morse about whom we have recently been introduced – the man, who invented the telegraph and the code bearing his name (1837) and Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Thomas Watson (1876), we have all the fancy communication devices we enjoy today.

Had it not been for a mishap in the Bell/Watson lab, the telephone and its offshoots may have taken longer to surface. The mishap went something like this:
“Mr. Watson, come here! I want you” The first words ever uttered over the telephone were a call for help after inventor Bell spilled battery acid on his trousers. The duo spent more than a year developing a prototype for the concept first described in 1874.

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The telephone made its debut in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Those, who experienced its introduction imagined its possibilities. Some even placed orders for commercial models. As expected, improvements followed and continue to do so – longer distance calling, pay telephones, automatic switching – the list appears endless. By 1932, the first all-Canadian phone line was introduced – the Trans-Canada opened Jan. 25, 1932. It stretched 4,260 miles from sea to sea on stout cedar poles – 40 to the mile. It could carry three calls at a time. As traffic escalated with the “booming” expansion in the 1950s, the ever-present telephone poles could not carry the huge loads required of them. Enter microwave towers to replace the poles. The Trans-Canada microwave was completed in Alberta in 1957.

But, before 1932 and 1957 came 1885, when the first telephones came to Alberta, followed by the 1877 telegraph to connect the Edmonton Telegraph Office with a store in St. Albert. Soon, party lines were abuzz with everybody’s business – something like Facebook.

The telephone, however, was considered vital to the lives of people in the developing communities for more reasons than gossip. So vital, apparently, it was considered imperative that it was available to every farm home. According to an Alberta Government Telephone (AGT) publication, this was the chief reason for the founding of Alberta Government Telephones in 1906.

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By 1908, automatic dial telephones were in western cities, Edmonton being one of the first – long before older, larger eastern cities had the new technology. As mentioned, the telegraph and the telephone have a somewhat symbiotic relationship. It was in 1911, when the Dominion Telegraph Service “flung a line” to the townsite of Peace River Crossing from Mirror Landing (Smith) – 200 miles through bush. “It was heavy wire, number six iron, a quarter-of-an-inch thick and the very devil to splice. But, it made for good voice transmission when well-grounded and operators in the shacks along the route could talk to each other by telephone.”

As well, G.E. McLeod, superintendent of the construction project and later reeve of the Village of Peace River, had his boomers (transient workers) carry the line to the pioneers of Shaftesbury Settlement, 15 miles along Shaftesbury Trail and the Peace River, upstream from Peace River Crossing. “This was the first telephone system in the country”. There were four sets on it. The Anglican (River Lot 11) and Catholic (River Lots 21, 22, 23) missions. Each had one, as did the Jean Collins homestead (River Lot 38) and Allie Brick (River Lot 12).

Subscribers paid $15 a year and agreed that any neighbour could come in and phone the central telegraph office for 10 cents. Boomers, eventually, carried the line another 72 miles to Dunvegan.

A year later, the Fairview Mutual Telephone Company organized the first independent rural party line in the Peace Country in 1912. Founded by Howard Probst, the company operated for 60 years. Author Tony Cashman writes in Singing Wires, it sounds as though Probst “stumbled” into the telephone business. But, he made the best of it, engaging fellows such as Alex Bennett, Fred Green, Matt Kramer and Jake Kramer to set up poles. Cashman writes: “The next year, they cornered the Honorable Frank Oliver, when he came through electioneering.”

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They sought Oliver’s help for permission to hang a line on the telegraph poles towards Bluesky, 15 miles east. Their audacity paid off. Out of that came a 99-year lease for $1 and linework knowledgeable people such as Bill Cowan and 22 members.

We will call, again, on the telephone people in the next Ponderings. But, until then:

GOOD NEWS: The Sir Alexander Mackenzie Historical Society is pleased to announce Peace River Remembers, Book 2, is scheduled for spring 2021 publication. That is “unless COVID slows the process” says Adele Boucher, editor. For those wishing Book 2, she asks a $50 deposit to reserve each book you desire. The deposit will also provide an indication of the number of books required. More information may be obtained by contacting: prhistory@gmail.ca

Sources: Peace River Remembers; Peace River Museum Archives and Mackenzie Centre files; Fort Vermilion Mercy Flight of 1929; Alberta Aviation Museum, Edmonton; Record-Gazette; Edmonton Journal, June 6, 1936; New York Sun; Alberta Dental Association Updater, October 1997; Archives Canada; Answering God’s Call, Rolland C. Smith; Joseph Cardinal, Feb. 26, 2009; Don Weaver; Alliance Review; Métis Archives; Portrayal of Our Métis Heritage by J. Overvold; Land of Hope and Dreams; Bricks Hill, Berwyn and Beyond; Peace River Record, April 25, 194; Delayed Frontier, Lure of the Peace and The Last Great West by David Leonard; I Remember Peace River, Alberta and Adjacent Districts, 1800s-1913; Land of Twelve Foot Davis by McGregor); Turning the Pages of Time, History of Nampa and Surrounding Districts; Colourful Historic Pioneers of Peace River by Muriel Oslie; Western Producer, June 24, 1976; Seventh Day Adventist website; Ribbons of Steel, Ena Schneider; Edmonton Journal, Nov.20, 2011)

Beth Wilkins is a researcher at the Peace River Museum, Archives and Mackenzie Centre.

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