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Alberta's Telephone Heritage
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Wires and Poles

Insulators The first telephone line in Alberta, linking Edmonton to St. Albert in 1885, was an open wire hung on 6-metre (21-foot) poles. The spruce and tamarack poles had a diameter of 13 centimetres (5 inches) at the top end, and were set 1 metre (4 feet) deep in the ground, spaced at 20 poles to the kilometre (32 poles to the mile). Extra heavy-gauge #6 iron wire was attached to the poles with porcelain insulators screwed to oak pins.

The first telephone line in Calgary was placed between Major James Walker’s city office and his sawmill 3 kilometres (2 miles) away, also in 1885. A #12 gauge iron wire was hung on 3-metre (10 foot) poles.

Dave WickettIn 1887, the Bell Telephone Company installed 12-metre (40-foot) poles in Calgary. In 1894, 20-metre (65-foot) cedar poles― tall, sturdy and magnificent― arrived from Golden, British Columbia to replace the old tamarack poles. The height of the new cedar poles allowed for clearance of other electric wires and street signs.

In rural systems, such as in the Medicine Hat area, ranchers economized on materials by running telephone signals through barbed wire fence lines.

Open-wire systems were upgraded to overhead cable in cities, with Calgary installing 50-wire cable as early as 1901.

The routing and installation of overhead systems was a point of conflict between municipal governments and the Bell Telephone Company. Bell’s charter from Parliament gave it the right to place lines wherever it wished in towns. Municipal governments found this approach high-handed and supported the formation of a provincial system operated by the government.

In 1905, the provincial system selected 30-foot (9.15 metre) cedar poles as its standard. By 1908, rural lines used #9 iron wire, while the long-distance lines used #10 copper wire.

Londonderry Training CentreNetworks spread across rural Alberta thanks to the hard work of linemen known as "boomers" who moved across the country from one job to another. The boomers were young, strong and full of energy, and they possessed a healthy appetite for adventure. They roamed the country, stopping at will to work and meet with old friends, often by hopping freight trains. Many of them were unique and eccentric individuals; traits that helped make them legends in Alberta’s telephone history. They are described in the book, Singing Wires, by Edmonton historian Tony Cashman.

Providing service to rural Albertans was a major priority of the provincial government when it purchased the Bell Telephone networks in Alberta in February of 1907. However, the long rural lines were expensive to install and maintain: they proved to be a financial drain on the provincial operation. Since the party forming the government at that time was the United Farmers of Alberta, closing down rural lines was not an acceptable solution. In the 1930s, many of the rural networks were sold to local co-operative operations called "mutuals."

The capacity of long-distance two-wire circuits could be increased by installing a phantom coil on each end to create a "phantom" circuit.

In 1932, the Trans Canada Network was completed, using #1 B.C. cedar poles spaced 40 metres (132 feet) apart, hung with #8 copper wire. The system used eight pins of steel, rather than the usual ten, and the pins had lead tips and Pyrex insulators.

In 1944, the link along the Alaska Highway (extending over 2,000 miles or 3220 kilometres, from Edmonton to Fairbanks) was an open-wire system with four strands of copper wire providing telegraph and telephone services.

Stringing Cable Overhead wires are vulnerable to bad weather. The big winter storm of October 1924 disrupted service in central Alberta when hundreds of poles were knocked down by a rampage of sleet, snow, and wind. Linemen did their best to re-hang the sensitive copper wires over tree branches, fences, and bushes until the poles could be reset in spring. Still, even with the best efforts on the part of the linemen, the storm left the Edmonton-Calgary service running on two circuits instead of six, and caused over $80,000 in damages.

In 1932 an even bigger blizzard blew down 900 poles along the Trans Canada Network, stealing the title of "The Big Storm" from the previous 1924 calamity. Long-distance service was restored the same day by re-routing calls. Linemen were able to detour both the Trans-Canada line and the Calgary line from Medicine Hat through Lethbridge, but it took two months to fully restore the damaged wires.

In the past, working on the overhead network required linemen to strap on "spurs" and climb the poles. To hear them talk about their experiences, click on the links below:


Listen! Climbing Down Poles – Mr. Gord Gerdes
Climbing telephone poles whose lines needed servicing was not so bad with a little practice, but descending the poles was tougher than it looked. Gord Gerdes remembers his first time trying to descend a telephone pole after working on the raised lines. Listen!


Listen! Working On Poles In Rainy Weather – Mr. Gord Gerdes
Mr. Gerdes discusses how linemen found themselves up on the poles regardless of the weather conditions. This could sometimes prove to be a physical challenge.  Listen!


Listen! Climbing Poles In Cold Weather – Mr. George Chilton
Climbing a telephone pole in fair weather was challenging enough, but add ice and snow into the mix and one has a problem that only experience can solve. Mr. Chilton discusses. Listen!


Listen! Stubborn Workers Refusing to Climb Down for Materials – Mr. George Chilton
When working on the telephone lines, linemen had to be sure to bring all the necessary tools along, because it was a hassle to climb all the way down the pole again to retrieve them. Mr. Chilton remembers a comical incident in which two workers contended over who was going to be the one to descend. Listen!


Today, linemen use a "bucket" or "cherry-picker" to reach aerial lines. Though it is much safer than spurs, using the "cherry-picker" to climb up a pole is still an occasionally hazardous procedure.


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