Long distance telephone introduced in county in 1886

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.

Most people assume that Bell entered Wellington County by buying up small rural systems one by one. Such was not the case.

Bell announced its plans for the area north of Guelph in the summer of 1885. The company had its eye on long distance service. It constructed a main line from Guelph to Fergus, Arthur, Harriston, Clifford, and on to Walkerton. There were branches from Fergus to Elora, and from Arthur to Mount Forest.

Bell moved with astonishing speed. The main line was finished, and exchanges handled calls to the outside world from Fergus, Elora, Mount Forest, and Harriston by June of 1886. But such speed had characterized everything about the telephone since its invention by Alexander Graham Bell, in theoretical form, in Brantford in the summer of 1874, less than 12 years earlier.

Bell produced the first practical demonstrations of his invention in 1875, and filed for patents early in 1876. The following year, he undertook the first long distance trial, between Brantford and Paris. After that, things moved with tremendous speed. Commercial telephone systems were in operation in many cities by 1880.

In Canada, Hugh Baker, a Hamilton broker and businessman, installed the first exchange in 1878, and a year later strung the first long distance line to Dundas. Baker helped organize the Bell Telephone Company in 1880. Operating under federal charter, Bell was well capitalized, initially with American money. With additional share capital, the company became Canadian owned within a few years.

The management of Bell immediately assumed an aggressive strategy, with the goal of dominating the new technology across Canada. The directors had fears that others would find ways around the Bell patents, and that the telegraph companies would use their extensive networks to handle voice as well as Morse coded messages. Some were already experimenting with voice transmission.

Bell directors saw particular urgency after the merger of the two major Canadian telegraph companies, Dominion and Montreal, to form the Great North West Telegraph Company in 1880. Their huge rival had the potential to dominate the telephone business as well as the telegraph.

In its first months Bell Telephone acquired phone systems in a dozen centres, many of them so new they were barely in operation. One of these was in Guelph. At the end of 1880, Bell had 2,100 subscribers, in systems from Windsor to Halifax.

The goal was to string all these systems together with wire. Technical developments, including the use of hard drawn copper wire, permitted voice messages to be sent clearly a couple of hundred miles by the early 1880s.

In the larger centres, Bell found that there was only a limited interest in telephone service, most of it between businesses. Few individuals desired residential lines: there was no point in having phone service when there were few numbers to call. Initially, lawyers, railway agents, bank offices, and grain and cattle dealers constituted the core of the telephone business.

These were customers who relied heavily on the telegraph, and consequently were the likely customers of long distance service.

This was the reason that Bell expanded long distance lines so aggressively in its first half dozen years. The company wanted to get its foot in the door before anyone else did.

The Guelph exchange had 53 customers at the end of 1884. A year later, with long distance lines to Hamilton and Toronto, there were 98.

The line north of Guelph extended service to the major market and manufacturing towns of Wellington County, and more importantly, to Walkerton, the county town of Bruce and a major grain market. Surprisingly, virtually no record of the details of its construction has survived other than brief summaries.

The evidence suggests that Bell began putting up poles in the fall of 1885, on both the trunk line and in the towns to be served. Elora and Fergus customers hooked up to their local exchanges in the early months of 1886.

The first Mount Forest subscribers had their telephones in late 1885, but could call only one another until the exchange there was connected to the long distance line in the second week of May, 1886. Harriston’s local service began about the same time as Mount Forest. The entire line, from Guelph to Walkerton, was in operation by late June of 1886.

With this line finished, the crews set to work on another line from Harriston to Palmerston and Listowel, connecting with the Bell system at Stratford, and providing a second trunk line to the north.

Some Wellington County towns had already seen the telephone in one form or another by 1886. This may account, in part at least, for the lack of notice the commencement of Bell service received. W.H.L. LaPenotiere, the Elora postmaster, strung a line between his home and office in November 1879.

There are reports of four early phone installations in Fergus, but some should be discounted. One seems to have been an example of the old schoolboy trick of using two tin cans and a taught string between them. Another Fergus report claims that a line linked a house and office in 1873, a year before the invention of the telephone.

Much more plausible is the report of John Black’s line between his grain elevator at the railway station and his office on the Fergus main street.

From the available evidence, Bell Telephone assumed a perfunctory stance when it entered centre and north Wellington. There were no lavish opening ceremonies, and no newspaper advertisements. It seems most likely that salesmen canvassed prospective subscribers directly. The company had no intention of making a general appeal for subscribers, or hooking up to farmers, even those adjacent to its trunk lines.

The company established its exchanges in main street stores, often drug stores or express offices, with the proprietor as the local manager, and the switchboard open from 8am to 8pm daily and 2 to 4pm on Sunday. These included John O’Brien, the Dominion Express agent in Mount Forest, Watson’s bookstore in Harriston, and Marshall’s jewelry store in Fergus. In Palmerston, the exchange was in the post office and operated by postmaster Johnston.

Guelph, with a full-time Bell agent at the office on Douglas Street, moved to 24-hour service in late 1886. Smaller towns retained daytime-only service for years.

There does not seem to be information on the monthly rates for local telephone service, but long distance was expensive. The company based its rates on five-minute calls, with distance a factor. This put charges between 25 cents and $1 per call, equivalent to 40 or 50 times that amount today. Obviously, the telephone at this point was not a plaything of the working man.

To secure additional income, Bell offered the public the opportunity to place calls from the local offices. As well, Bell took on the telegraph companies by accepting dictated messages, which were transcribed by the operator at the receiving office and delivered by hand. This service cost 25 cents for 20 words within 150 miles, a rate that undercut the telegraph companies until they reduced their rates.

Bell was correct in its assumption that Walkerton would provide a lot of business. There were 47 subscribers there when the system opened. At the end of 1886, there were 30 in Mount Forest, 17 in Harriston, 11 in Palmerston, 10 in Fergus, and three in Elora.

Three years later, the Elora list had grown to 10 and Fergus to 15, but Harriston was down to seven, suggesting that Bell salesman may have initially convinced customers to sign up who could not justify the cost.

Interestingly, Arthur and Clifford did not have offices until several years later, even though the trunk lines ran up their main streets. Obviously, Bell considered the potential business there did not justify the cost of an agent and a switchboard.

Bell’s construction of the major trunk line through Wellington in 1886 was part of a larger program of construction that year. The company built a number of lines in the area between London and Windsor, and rebuilt and upgraded its line from Toronto to Barrie and on to Owen Sound. By the end of 1887 Bell provided service to the majority of towns and villages in southern Ontario.

For the next 15 years, there was not a great deal of expansion, either in new lines or in subscribers. The system had only 66,000 subscribers in total in Ontario by 1904, of whom 13,000 were in Toronto.

Bell Telephone, after its initial immense capital expenditures, became a very profitable company. There were many complaints, though, about the limited hours at switchboards, and over Bell’s refusal to provide service to small villages and farms, where it could not see an immediate profit. For example, Bell opened a Drayton exchange in 1894, but closed it a year later when results failed to meet expectations.

The result was the flowering of small independent telephone companies in rural areas.

Government regulations in 1902 forced Bell to provide service to customers wherever it had lines. At first Bell resisted, and even sold some of its existing rural lines to independent companies. After 1910, though, the situation became much more competitive. But that is a story for another time.

The first telephone lines in Wellington, in 1886, may not have had much of an impact on most residents, but they did tie local business more closely with the provincial and national economy, making buying and selling easier, and facilitating business activity in general.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 12, 2001.

Thorning Revisited