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
In 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.
Networks 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
The capacity of long-distance two-wire circuits could be
increased by installing a phantom coil on each end to create a
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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Telephone Historical Centre All Rights Reserved