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Winnipeg’s telephone exchange boasted 110 subscribers by 1883,
even while Edmonton was still fighting to send simple messages
across its substandard telegraph line.
Edmonton telegrapher Alex Taylor set his mind to changing the
situation, and approached a Bell Telephone Company representative in
Regina about developing an Edmonton exchange. His request was promptly denied.
At roughly 300 citizens, Edmonton was not deemed large enough to
warrant a telephone service, and the Bell Telephone representative
told town officials to come back when Edmonton grew larger.
While a few people suggested that Edmonton create its own
exchange, town leaders had a more pressing problem in the form of
their beleaguered telegraph line. It was down more often than up,
and Taylor proposed to the district superintendent of telegraphs,
Fred Gisborne, that the line be reconstructed. His idea would see
the development of a longer line snaking through more easily
Officials in Fort Saskatchewan and St. Albert, hoping to be
hooked in with Edmonton, asked that telegraph lines be extended into
their communities as well, and even offered to furnish the poles
free if Gisborne could convince the federal government to pay the
Gisborne was on board with this idea, and his report included
most of the recommendations Taylor and his backers had made. The
superintendent also suggested the creation of a line between
Edmonton and Calgary. His efforts were not entirely successful,
however; although both Fort Saskatchewan and St. Albert got their
telegraph link-ups, the Edmonton-Calgary line was a no-go.
St. Albert’s success in applying for a telegraph line fanned
Taylor’s hope of establishing a telephone connection between
Edmonton and that community. He bought a pair of phones from an
English firm intending to form a voice connection over the telegraph
When the phones arrived in December 1884, Taylor placed one of
them into the care of St. Albert resident and storekeeper H.W.
McKenney while keeping the other for himself. The inaugural
conversation, a brief exchange of best wishes for the New Year, took
place on 3 January 1885.
This was the first telephone communication in Alberta, and the
media was there to cover it. Nonetheless, the telephone was an
object of mistrust, and McKenney—after an embarrassing escapade in
the Spring of 1885 wherein someone used his line to falsely report
the inhabitants of Fort Saskatchewan had been massacred—replaced his
phone with a telegraph before returning the box to Taylor.
In the Autumn of 1885, the Catholic Mission in St. Albert
eventually took up the offer to give Taylor’s phone a home and by
the end of 1889, a small system of 19 subscribers had grown up
around the equipment.
Calgary, meanwhile, was developing its own relationship with the
Bell Telephone Company. At the same time, things were progressing in
Calgary. James Walker, a former officer for the Royal Canadian
Mounted Police and a lumber mill operator, became the first in that
town to have a telephone. A line was created in August 1885 between
his home and the lumberyard he owned. He also oversaw the
installation of Alberta’s first switchboard a year later.
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Heritage Community Foundation and
Telephone Historical Centre All Rights Reserved