Much of Alberta’s telephone history would not exist but for the
Bell Telephone Company of Canada’s contentious life in Wild Rose
Country from 1890-1908.
Named for Alexander Graham Bell, in 1880 the company had been
given a Dominion charter to provide the then-new technology called
"telephony" from the Atlantic to the Rockies.
In Alberta, the problems began early, after an 1883 application
by Edmonton for telephone service and an exchange that would connect
Edmonton, St. Albert and Fort Saskatchewan. Bell agreed to provide
but a few phones and no exchange, at what was considered a
phenomenal price, for what was essentially a large party line.
"The city was too small for an exchange and likely to stay that
way, said a Bell letter," writes Carol Dean in her feature on Bell
in the West in Alberta in the 20th Century: The Birth of the
To many observers, such as Edmonton telegrapher Alex Taylor, this
treatment was inexcusable, and it would lead in 1885 to the first
long-distance call from Edmonton to St. Albert, and the creation by
Taylor of the Edmonton & District Telephone Company. On 1 November
1887, the potential of the telephone in Alberta would be realized
with what is considered to be the first truly long-distance call in
the province: a 15-minute call via telegraph wires to Battleford,
490 kilometres from Edmonton.
Bell’s negative influence was felt throughout Alberta, with the
company continually relying on its charter and monopoly to install
service where clearly it was not wanted by municipalities.
Particularly unloved was Charles Fleetwood Sise, the heavy-handed,
American-born, Montreal-based president of Bell of Canada, who upon
seeing Alberta communities develop their own companies and systems,
would compete with them nonetheless. In many ways, he and his
company could not win, even when they offered to improve Albertans’
telephonal lot in life.
"But no matter what he did, Sise found, people protested," writes
Dean. "If he offered service, as in Edmonton, he was accused of
ruthless extortion. If he didn’t, he was accused of arrogant
On 5 February 1907, Sise announced to city council that Bell
would use its Dominion charter powers to build an exchange in
Edmonton, 14 years after the city had first requested it … and now
in competition with the city’s own telephone system, City
Telephones, the company created from the 1904 purchase of Alex
Taylor’s Edmonton & District Telephone Company. This time, the
Bell-ringing would have provincial ramifications when, on 14
February, Alberta’s first premier Alexander Rutherford countered
with a move of his own. Through the government’s system, there would
be more lines and exchanges throughout the province, and cheap
phones to the province’s farmers.
In Singing Wires, telephone historian Tony Cashman called this
"the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of the Bell Telephone Company."
The following year would be the last for Bell’s attempt at
dominance, and the Alberta government bought out the company for
$675,000 and made plans to expand Alberta Government Telephones.
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Heritage Community Foundation and
Telephone Historical Centre All Rights Reserved