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Alberta's Telephone Heritage
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Bell Telephone Company

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 Province 1900-1910.

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 indifference."

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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