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Alberta's Telephone Heritage
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Archie the Linemen - Page 1

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The Telephone ManThis is a true story!

The storm is not imaginary. It's a composite of all the winter storms which challenged Archie and his fellow Telephone Men in the Alberta of fifty years ago..

Only one fact has been altered. Bill Craswell became agent at Perryvale in 1935, slightly past the time of the story.
Copyright 1977 by the Alberta Government Telephones Commission.

Archie listened to the wind. Inside his workshop gentle air currents carried warmth and cheer from the pot-bellied stove and Archie didn't feel the wind, except when it rattled the chimney or tugged at the window. With his finely-tuned ear Archie made a note of the wind's pitch. Still rising, he thought.

The storm had come at noon, surging in from the west, churning thick woolen clouds which made the sky so dark the lights had been on all day. By midafternoon snow was riding the wind, blotting out half the view in Archie's window.

The whine of a storm came to Archie as the alarm bell did to a fireman. But there was a difference. The alarm sent the fireman into instant action; in Archie's case it was delayed action. He couldn't begin his work until the wind blew itself out. So he relaxed and smoked and joked, planning what he would do when the wind was still and he could step out into the wintered landscape to do his job.Archie Hollingshead

Archie's job was with Alberta Government Telephones. He was known as a District Plant Inspector, and fifty years ago, the time of this story, a storm could make Archie's job the most important in the system.

In the telephone business, the plant is the physical part of the system, all the telephones, switchboards and lines which connect them. In his district the inspector had to maintain and repair the entire system, all of it, all by himself. There were only twenty-five District Plant Inspectors in Alberta. Archie lived in Westlock and his district was eight thousand square miles: 40 miles west to the Pembina River, 30 miles southeast to Legal, 80 miles north to Athabasca and Calling Lake, and east from there again to Lac La Biche.

The wind that rattled Archie's workshop was shaking and worrying a network of wires - copper and iron strung on wooden poles - which the young province of Alberta had built to combat the isolation of pioneer life. Alberta's first elected assembly had pledged the credit of the new province to a program of making the telephone available to every farm. That network of wire, unrolling mile after mile down the raw, rutted trails, meant more than a telephone system. It meant that the new technology of electricity had been put to work on a scale wide as the province, and for the first time. Those were all telephone poles along the country roads. There'd be no power poles on the other side for years to come.

The telephone system stood tall and proud against the sky, but exposed to the elements, at the mercy of every wind that blew, and a splendid example was blowing now. Out in the turbulent dusk those unprotected wires were being bounced like skipping ropes, they were sawing at the glass insulators which held them to the poles, and the poles were being shaken to their roots. Archie didn't know yet where his repair work would take him but the snow was making his job more complicated. It was packing in drifts across the roads and trails he'd have to follow in the storm's wake. He cupped his eyes to the window to watch the hard little flakes go knifing past, and dance in eddies / under the eave. This storm could never blow itself out in Alberta. It would need Saskatchewan and Manitoba as well.

Campsie - farm home of Will Wallace

Before the storm moved out of Archie's district it would tangle wires and snap others. It would blow down trees and some would fall across telephone lines. It would crack poles and bring them to the ground and bury them in snow. Wherever these things happened, isolation would return, and when the fury passed all would be depending on Archie: the farmers, the merchants, his bosses in Edmonton, the politicians who'd made the fiery speeches back in 1907 when Alberta legislature voted to build a provincial telephone system.

They knew Archie and knew he'd be coming. In any district there was no man better known than the telephone man. No one was up and down the roads more often, maintaining the lines, the switchboards and telephones in town and farm house. It was hard work, and as everyone knows, all work and no play is dull, so Archie brightened things by finding fun in the little jobs that made up his work. One of these jobs was cleaning switchboards, which became dusty and oily inside from the continual raising and dropping of the cords. The vacuum cleaner had been invented and would have been ideal for drawing out the dust but A.G.T. could not afford to buy Archie anything so grand. He had to employ the most primitive technology, a hand bellows, which blew the dust right through and out the front - into the faces of the operators. Archie laughed when the girls squealed in protest.

Vimy - the gereral store.

Once or twice a year Archie would visit each farmhouse in the district and put fresh batteries in the big oak telephone on the kitchen wall. The farms were on party lines, a single pair of wires with anywhere from 10 to 25 farms attached. Each house on the party line had its own coded ring. Using the crank on the side of the phone callers would send out three short rings or five long rings or two shorts and a long. When any party was called the phone would ring in all 25 farmhouses on the line. Every call, for whomever intended, gave assurance of neighbors, people within reach in case of emergency or extreme loneliness, and in the pre-telephone days extreme loneliness could bring an emergency devastating as any. Some people found entertainment eavesdropping on conversations and Archie knew who they were. Their batteries wore out quicker.

They didn't realize that listening drew as much current from the batteries as talking. And they couldn't understand why the sound was weak when the ring was still strong. That was because they were two different systems. Talk was transmitted by direct current (DC) from the batteries; the long and short rings travelled by alternating current (AC) which the caller generated turning the crank.

Something else besides eavesdropping could cause premature weakening of the batteries. In most farmhouses the only electric appliance was the telephone, but if there was a second it would be the latest invention for combating isolation. That was the radio. Radios ran on batteries. Batteries out of the phone could help a farmer hear CFCN or CJCA or the big American stations in Denver and Salt Lake City.

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