Tales of the telegraph a neglected subject

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 couple of months ago, Bill Henderson of Elora passed on to me a copy of the 1915 Canadian Department of the Interior Atlas.

This volume is a delight to anyone with an interest in the economic development of Canada. The maps and data in it provide a glimpse of the Dominion on the eve of the First World War, at the conclusion of a lengthy period of economic expansion.

Of the many maps in the volume, I find the ones showing the telegraph system to be the most fascinating. This subject is a neglected one, both in the realms of local history and the business history of Canada.

Uncovering the most basic information is a laborious task. Virtually nothing has been written about the telegraph and its role in the development of Canada, except for a book published in 1905, and a series of rambling articles in the Monetary Times in 1892 and 1893.

I have been making notes on the telegraph in Wellington County since I first became seriously interested in local history some 20 years ago. 

The 1915 map is a goldmine, in providing a glimpse of the system in Wellington, and its connections with the outside world, at the point when the network was at its peak.

No technology has ever achieved a more rapid application than the telegraph. Sam Morse made the first demonstration of his invention in May 1844, between Baltimore and Washington. Ten years later, telegraph wires linked every major place in eastern North America, and a good portion of the smaller ones as well.

In Canada, a commercial telegraph opened for business between Toronto and Hamilton in 1846. A half dozen companies secured charters the following year. Of these the Montreal Telegraph Co. would soon be the dominant one.

Several major Canadian railways, the Grand Trunk, the Great Western, and the Northern among them, were on the drawing boards in this period. The Grand Trunk and Great Western lines erected telegraph poles along their routes long before they laid rails. The Grand Trunk opened its telegraph line to Guelph in 1853, bringing telegraph service to Rockwood and Guelph. This was three years before the first train pulled in.

In January 1853, agents of the Grand Trunk met with civic leaders and businessmen in Fergus and Elora, with the intention of extending the telegraph line north of Guelph. Sufficient interest materialized to finance this line, which opened at the end of May, 1854. It is not clear whether this line formed part of the Grand Trunk, or was a locally owned concern. 

From the available evidence, it appears that the Guelph-Fergus-Elora line operated only sporadically during the rest of the 1850s. The Grand Trunk, like the Great Western, had no real interest in commercial telegraphy. Both sold their telegraph systems to the Montreal Telegraph Co.

At the same time, dozens of small, local companies began operation during the mid 1850s. Among these was the Fergus and Guelph Telegraph Co., in operation between those two points in 1858 and 1859. There was a plan to extend this system to Elora, with a line along the south bank of the Grand River. It was never constructed. An ice storm wrecked much of the Fergus-Guelph line in March 1860, and it was never repaired.

Of greater importance was the Elora and Saugeen Telegraph Co., in operation in 1859 if not before. This line ran along the Elora and Saugeen Road, now Wellington Road 7, from Guelph to Elora, Alma, Harriston and Clifford. No details of this company seem to have survived.

Telegraph lines, even in the 1850s, were inexpensive to construct. This accounts for the proliferation of lines in the 1850s. 

Most of these firms had low standards of construction, sometimes simply tacking their lines to trees, without insulators. Consequently, their service possessed a low level of reliability. As well, the volume of business rarely met the expectations of their owners.

The Elora and Saugeen Telegraph Co. seems to have survived into 1863, but the system was down more often than it was in service. There was an effort to raise more capital in the fall of 1863, but the Montreal system came to the rescue, constructing an entirely new line in October of that year to Elora, Fergus and points north.

Unlike the smaller firms and the original railway telegraph lines, the Montreal Telegraph Co. stuck to high standards of construction, using cedar poles on 80-foot spacings, hardwood brackets, large glass insulators, and galvanized No. 10 iron wire. Only a major ice storm affected the reliability of the Montreal system.

Most of the smaller firms fell victims to the depression of the late 1850s. The Montreal firm scooped most of them up, abandoning redundant lines and offices, and rebuilding others to higher standards. The result, in Wellington County as well as most regions in Ontario, was a monopoly, though service was reliable and costs moderate.

Desirous to break the Montreal monopoly, a group of Toronto businessmen incorporated the Dominion Telegraph Co. in 1868. This firm opened a line to Guelph early 1871, ending the eight-year Montreal monopoly in Wellington.

Dominion strung lines to Elora and Fergus, opening offices in those towns in October 1871. A month later, a branch extended to Salem. By 1874 the Dominion system reached as far as Harriston, and the following year new lines went up from there to Listowel and to Wingham. This made Harriston a hub for Dominion Telegraph.

The Dominion system was able to capitalize on anti-Montreal feeling in securing business. Despite this advantage, and rapid expansion, it rarely secured more than 30% of the telegraph business in any town. Reliability was a factor: the Dominion system, to save costs, adhered to lax construction and maintenance standards.

Competition heated up in 1878, when the Dominion system lowered the basic cost of a 10-word telegram from 25 to 20 cents. The larger and better financed Montreal system immediately matched the new rate. By 1880 the Dominion system was near bankruptcy.

A resolution to the cut-throat competition came with the amalgamation of the Montreal and Dominion systems to form the Great North West Telegraph Co. (GNW) in August 1881. 

The merger was influenced in part by events in the United States earlier that year, when the American Union, Western Union and Atlantic and Pacific companies merged to form the new Western Union as a result of stock manipulations by Jay Gould and Russell Sage. Both the Canadian companies had close working relationships with American systems.

These events in Wall Street soon had repercussions in Wellington County. Great North West began combining offices in October 1881. By the end of that year, GNW operated a telegraph monopoly in Wellington, and virtually everywhere else in Ontario.

Like Montreal’s monopoly of the 1860s, this one did not last long. The charter of the Canadian Pacific Railway, drafted in the fall of 1881, included rights to operate a commercial telegraph system. 

During the early 1880s the CPR was preoccupied with construction and the acquisition of branch lines in Ontario. When things had settled down in 1886, the company entered the commercial telegraph market, stringing new lines along its Ontario trackage. On its former Credit Valley and Toronto, Grey and Bruce lines, its own telegraph poles ran along one side of the track, and the GNW on the other.

The CPR also constructed some lines along roads and highways. The first of these was from Puslinch to Guelph, and on to Stratford and Goderich. Portions of this line were later rendered redundant with the construction of CP’s Goderich rail line.

There was some further rationalization by GNW, and upgrading of former Dominion lines, but the telegraph map stabilized by 1890. This, essentially, is the system mapped out in the 1915 Atlas.

Many details on this map are of interest. Both GNW and CP once had a line along the highway south of Guelph, serving telegraph offices in Morriston and Aberfoyle. These are gone, with only the Puslinch office in the CP station remaining.

North of Guelph, Canadian Pacific has connecting lines from Fergus to Arthur, and one from Elora to Drayton, and then down to Elmira. Great North West had most of its lines along the tracks of the Grand Trunk Railway, but also operated highway lines from Alma to Arthur, and a short line from Moorefield to Rothsay.

The latter hamlet had a telegraph office on the old Elora and Saugeen system before 1860. It is surprising to see the office still open in 1915.

Most of the former Dominion system in Wellington County was abandoned by GNW, because it paralleled superior lines of the Montreal system along the railway lines. 

As well, GNW eventually removed most of its lines alongside Canadian Pacific trackage. The 1915 map shows that both telegraph systems maintained offices in the larger villages and towns of Mount Forest, Arthur, Harriston, Drayton, Elora, Fergus and Guelph. Palmerston was the largest town connected only to one system.

What this map doesn’t show is the system of the Bell Telephone Co., which had been providing competition for the telegraph for almost 30 years – since 1886 – when this map was published. 

Competition between the long distance telephone and the telegraph rates and service levels is another fascinating subject. But it will need to wait for another time.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on May 11, 2001.

Thorning Revisited