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St. Albert makes history with the telephone

If Father Lacombe wanted to say something to his bosses in St. Boniface back in the 1860s, he’d have to wait months to hear their reply.

Today, he’d hear back in milliseconds, assuming he was on FaceTime.

The telephone has been around for about 140 years. We take it for granted today, but just 132 years ago, the only way someone in St. Albert could chat with someone in Edmonton in real time was to shout real loud.

History was made here on the banks of the Sturgeon in 1885 when this community received the province’s first official phone call – a story we will examine in this month’s Links to the Past.

Hello, St. Albert

Mail was the only real method people had of communicating over long distances back in the 1860s, says Musée Héritage Museum curator Joanne White. You could get a message to Edmonton in 12 hours and to Lac Ste. Anne in a few days, but if you wanted to hear from St. Boniface (Winnipeg), you had to wait months.

The first big evolution in telecommunications was the telegraph, which arrived in Alberta in 1877 as part of the railroad, writes Edmonton historian Tony Cashman in Singing Wires. It produced almost instant transmission of messages, allowing businesses to co-ordinate far-off transactions and Edmonton-area residents to play chess-by-wire (as many did).

But the telegraph wasn’t user-friendly. You needed trained operators on either end to use it, and a Morse code mishap meant a garbled message, says Joan Sembaliuk, program co-ordinator of Edmonton’s Telephone Historical Centre. Cashman notes that Alberta’s telegraph lines often failed due to fire, vandals and bison.

It was telegraph operator Alex Taylor who brought the telephone to Alberta, Sembaliuk says. An entrepreneur and meteorologist, he would go on to establish Edmonton’s first phone and electrical companies and run the Edmonton Bulletin, its first newspaper.

Taylor, who worked for Dominion Telegraph Service, would often think about communications between St. Albert, Edmonton and Fort Saskatchewan, Cashman writes. In 1883, he and a citizens’ committee wrote to Frank Walsh of Bell Telephone to propose a telephone network between those communities.

Walsh agreed to rent them phones, but said that the region was too small to warrant a network and would be too small for some time. Furious, the business community and Taylor decided to build their own.

Taylor ordered two phones from England, and his bosses convinced the federal government to plunk down $675 to build an Edmonton-St. Albert line in 1884. Area residents supplied the 288 tamarack poles required for it.

St. Albert businessman Henry McKenney agreed to host one of the phones in his home/store on the south shore of the Sturgeon River. McKenney also served as postmaster from 1885 to 1894, and became the community’s first MLA in 1906.

The 14-kilometre line followed the historic route of St. Albert Trail, with the last pole going up on Dec. 2. Visitors to McKenney’s store that December could hear Taylor’s pencil scratching over the line during test calls, while those in Taylor’s telegraph office could listen to McKenney frying bacon, Cashman reports.

Alberta’s first official phone call happened on Jan. 3, 1885, Cashman writes. Taylor wished St. Albert “a very happy New Year,” and a Narcisse St. Jean replied, “The people of St. Albert congratulate the people of Edmonton on telephone communications being established between the two places and wish the clergy and people a happy New Year.”

McKenney kept the phone in operation for several months, Cashman writes. Telegrams were free, but phone calls cost 15 cents, with McKenney getting a 25 per cent commission on each call.

But on May 11, 1885, in the midst of the North West Resistance, someone used the phone to report that 1,500 First Nations fighters had torched Fort Saskatchewan and killed its inhabitants.

“The news set off a stampede of families towards the protecting walls of Fort Edmonton,” Cashman says. For two days, the community believed itself to be under siege.

Then a Fort Saskatchewan man rode into town and asked what all the fuss was about.

Residents soon realized that Fort Saskatchewan was not a smoking ruin and that the report had been false. It was Alberta’s first crank call. McKenney had his phone removed a week later, possibly because of this incident.

The Dominion Telegraph Service convinced the St. Albert mission to host the phone that fall. The first message received on it was also related to the North West Resistance, historian émile Tardif writes: “Louis Riel was to be hung on Monday the 16th of November.”

Operator, operator

The telephone was a much quicker and easier way to talk to others over long distances than the letter or telegraph, Sembaliuk says. But it was also a luxury item prior to the 1920s. Cashman reports that there were just 14 St. Albert phones on Taylor’s network by 1909. St. Albert had a mere 50 phones as late as 1950, Black Robe’s Vision reports.

For most of this era, making a phone call in St. Albert meant talking to an operator.

Sembaliuk demonstrates how this worked using a model switchboard. First, the caller would pick up their phone and (in the really early days) turn a crank to ring a bell at the switchboard. The operator, typically a woman, would plug one cable into the jack for that phone, ask the caller for the number (say, “four”), and stick the other end of the cable into the appropriate hole.

“This little button was the magic button,” she says, indicating a switch on the panel. You could flip it up to talk to the caller, down to connect caller and recipient, and to the middle to connect all three – great for eavesdropping.

Jacob and Anna Mauchle were St. Albert’s longest serving operators, hosting the community’s switchboard in their dining room at 2 Sturgeon Rd. between 1911 and 1952, Glenna Hanley writes in St. Albert Our Story. The pair knew English, French, German and Cree between them, and would sometimes translate for people on the phone.

Long-time city resident Anne Marie Venne remembers how Jacob would always answer the line with, “Was you calling?” If he was busy doing something else, you had to wait for him to come back to the board.

The Mauchles would often know where people were at any given moment, Venne says. You might call for Dr. W.D. Cuts, for example, only for them to say he was not at home and redirect you to his current location.

“It was a very small town then.”

Cashman reports that in many communities, operators were friends to everyone, providing time signals, wake-up calls, news updates and message services.

Automatic dialling arrived in St. Albert in 1963 with the opening of a new $363,000 phone exchange, Black Robe’s Vision reports. The age of the operator was at an end.

The future calling

By 1960, the advance of technology had made the telephone much more popular in St. Albert, with some 870 rural and urban phones active in the community, Black Robe’s Vision reports.

The 1970s would see digital switchboards replace mechanical ones and the replacement of rotary phones with touch-tone ones, Sembaliuk said.

September 1973 saw St. Albert get a new exchange at St. Thomas Street that offered three-calls, call waiting and speed dialling to some 3,200 phones, some of which used the new “458” prefix code, the St. Albert Historical Society reports.

On Jan. 3, 1985, St. Albert’s then-mayor Richard Fowler re-enacted Alberta’s first phone call with Edmonton deputy mayor Ron Hayter in celebration of the call’s 100th anniversary, the Gazette reports.

Today, virtually every St. Albert resident has access to one or more phones and can see, hear, and interact with people around the world with the tap of a touchpad – something Lacombe would no doubt have found useful when ordering supplies for his mission.

Sembaliuk says she has no idea what’s coming next for telecommunications. Perhaps some sort of cyborg communicator?

“You’d just talk to your hand,” she jokes.

Links to the past

In celebration of Canada’s upcoming 150th, the Gazette will examine one element of St. Albert that’s 150 years old (give or take a few decades) on the last week of each month from now until July 2017.

Got a suggestion for our next topic? Send it to kma@stalbert.greatwest.ca

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About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.