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Alberta's Telephone Heritage
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Telephone Era - Alberta

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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.

Telephone linesmen on pole at southern Alberta.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 accessible territory.

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 associated costs.

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 wire.

Wall telephone 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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