Fergus and Elora gained telephone service 130 years ago

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

A very useful resource at the Wellington County Museum and Archives is a set of microfilm copies of the early telephone directories for Wellington County.

These provide an additional source of information about local businesses and residents. They also show how telephones developed to become an indispensable tool of everyday life.

In the early months of 1886 representatives of the Bell Telephone Company approached Elora and Fergus councils for permission to erect poles and string wire for a telephone system.

This Montreal-based firm was only six years old, but it held all Canadian rights to most of the telephone technology, and it sought to be the dominant firm in the new telephone industry.

Telephone technology had developed rapidly during the previous decade.

Alexander Bell’s first successful experiments took place in 1874, and advances were made by others, such as Thomas Edison. Disinterested in business affairs, Bell quickly disposed of his own interest in his invention.

The first installations were point-to-point: between two businesses, or between a residence and a business. Soon systems with a switchboard appeared. The first was in Hamilton in 1878.

Within two years there were a dozen others, including one in Guelph. The first Canadian intercity line went up between Hamilton and Dundas in 1879.

There were some local experiments before the arrival of the Bell system.

W.H.L. La Penotiere, the Elora postmaster, installed a private phone link between his house and the office in 1879. John Black, the Fergus grain dealer, put up a similar system between his grain elevator at the railway station and his downtown office about 1880.

There may have been other private systems before Bell came to town. Two points are significant: firstly, the technology became widely available rapidly after its development. Secondly, telephones initially had limited application – essentially, to people who had to be in two places at the same time.

The Bell Telephone Company initially foresaw little profit in small-town services. Fergus and Elora were part of a long-distance network it was constructing in 1886 to the north of Guelph.

Bell management believed that most usage would come from businesses calling firms in other towns. In effect, they were competing for the telegraph companies’ business.

The initial 1886 line ran from Guelph to Fergus, Arthur, Harriston and Walkerton. Branches ran from this line between Fergus and Elora, Arthur and Mount Forest, and Harriston and Wingham.

Although this line was a milestone in local history, it did not arouse a great deal of public interest at the time. There was no ceremony when service began, and we do not even know the exact date of commencement of service, which was sometime in July 1886.

Bell hired McGarvin’s Drug Store on Mill Street as the Elora agent and switchboard operator, and Marshall’s Jewellery Store as the Fergus counterpart. Initially, there were only three subscribers in Elora: Carter’s grain office, the bank, and the Drew and Jacob’s law office.

To compete with the Great North West and Canadian Pacific Telegraph Companies, Bell set an initial long distance rate of 25 cents for a five minute call under 75 miles. This was the same as the fee for a 20-word telegram.

This cost equalled two hours’ wages for a working man, so it is not surprising that telephone use was almost entirely restricted to important business calls. There is no available information about the cost of local service. Rates were not regulated until after 1900, and Bell frequently adjusted rates to suit local conditions.

The general public could use the long distance service by going to the telephone office, and paying for the call on completion. The Bell agents allowed some customers to run a bill, which was payable monthly.

In 1890 there were 11 customers in Elora and 17 in Fergus. By this time the railway stations all had phone lines, as well as the major industries and a few of the stores.

John Black had abandoned his private system, and maintained three of the Fergus lines in 1890: to his elevator, his office, and his house.

Hotels that attracted commercial travellers and salesmen also found it useful to install phone lines. The Dominion, Wellington, Commercial and North American in Fergus had phones by 1890, and the Commercial in Elora followed in 1892. Most of the local doctors signed up in the 1890s.

A decade later, in 1900, there was only modest growth in the local systems: 17 phones in Elora and 31 in Fergus. Telephone numbers, all one or two digits, had come into use locally in 1899. All five of the Fergus hotels then in business had signed up.

One subscriber, the House of Industry (predecessor of the Wellington Terrace and located in the building now housing the county museum) maintained lines on both the Fergus and Elora exchanges.

Overall, only major business firms had telephones at the turn of the century, and this would be generally the case for another decade.

In 1911 and 1912 Bell Telephone began to construct rural lines in the Fergus and Elora area. This was part of a changing emphasis to residential telephone service. By this time there was little room for growth by serving only businesses. The Elora exchange served 100 phones by 1910, and passed the 250 mark on the eve of the First World War.

Cheaper and more efficient equipment, along with fear of rate regulation and possible nationalization, brought local rates down in this period.

Many people find the microfilm telephone directories useful for genealogical research. The oldest ones are also important for an understanding of the way the local economy worked.

The early phone system was a network of the elite, permitting the quick completion of business deals and the exchange of valuable information.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Feb. 28, 1996.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015