Telegraph service came to Fergus, Elora 165 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.

Of all the major technological innovations, none came into widespread use more quickly than the telegraph.

The basic development work was done in the late 1830s by Samuel Morse in the United States and Sir Charles Wheatstone in England. Morse installed the first practical system in 1844. These facts are well known, but there is very little historical writing about the building of telegraph lines, or the companies formed to operate them.

Within five years of Morse’s first line, all the major centres in eastern North America were connected by wire, and within 10 years, most of the minor ones as well. Elora and Fergus became part of the grid in 1854.

The first Canadian telegraph lines were put up in 1846. In the first years, there was an aura of adventure surrounding the telegraph business. A number of companies were formed to exploit the new technology, and there was a mad scramble to raise money and to find skilled technicians to build and operate the systems.

The Toronto, Hamilton and Niagara Electro-magnetic Telegraph Company built the first line into Toronto, and provided the first connection to New York City. This was a vital service to Canadian bankers and to wholesale merchants in Toronto and Hamilton. It was expensive, though. Messages between Toronto and Hamilton cost a cent a word (equivalent to more than $1.50 in 2019 money) and a 15-word message from Toronto to New York was priced at a dollar (equivalent to more than $15 today). At these prices, there were few frivolous messages, and businesses were the chief users.

In the long run, the Montreal Telegraph Company was far more important. Between 1847 and 1849, it built telegraph lines from Toronto to Montreal and points east and west. The route anticipated the main line of the Grand Trunk Railway, which was built a few years later.

The Grand Trunk initially planned to run its own commercial telegraph service. A Grand Trunk Telegraph Co. agent visited Elora and Fergus in the first weeks of 1853, telling people that a telegraph line would be built immediately, whether the railway proceeded or not. He was able to sell $1,200 of stock in the company in Elora and Fergus.

A line was completed from Guelph to Elora in the spring of 1854, and it appears that a separate line from Guelph to Fergus was built at the same time. The ownership of these lines is not clear. 

The first telegraph office in Elora was located in the general store of Kievall and Truesdall, on the site of the Little Folks furniture factory (now part of the Elora Mill property on the south side of the Grand River.)

It appears that business did not meet expectations, and there were periods when the line was out of service. In 1859, the office moved to the original store of Kirk and Clarke at Church and Geddes Streets (this building is now the Giddy Funeral Home).

The office remained here only five months. An ice storm at the end of March 1860 brought down much of the brittle copper wire used in the line to Guelph. At this time, the line was owned by the Elora and Saugeen Telegraph Co.  Rather than rebuild the Guelph line, this company decided to make a connection with Fergus by stringing a new line along the Grand River.

This plan fell through, and the Guelph-Fergus line was soon out of service as well. Both villages had to make do without telegraph service for three years.

In 1863 some Guelph businessmen offered to rebuild the lines, but wanted Elora and Fergus to pay part of the cost. Service resumed in November 1863. It appears likely that the Montreal Telegraph Company rebuilt the line. If it did not, it took it over soon afterward. The Montreal Company had achieved a virtual monopoly in Ontario by the mid-1860s, building lines or taking over existing ones until it served every community of importance.

The new Elora office was located in Hele’s drug store on Mill Street. Big city telegraph offices were usually combined with express and ticket offices, but in small towns the telegraph company preferred drug stores, probably because they were open longer hours than other stores, including a few hours on Sundays.

One of the characteristics of 19th century telegraph systems is that they employed many women as operators, and often as agents. Maggie Andrews served as Elora agent for the Montreal Telegraph Co. in the mid-1870s. By this time, there was sufficient business for this to be a full-time position, though the office remained in drug stores.

In the late 1860s, many people became convinced that the Montreal Telegraph Co. was earning exorbitant profits thanks to its monopoly. Seela Reeves, a sharp promoter, was able to attract a lot of interest when he floated the Dominion Telegraph Co. in 1868. Reeves kept a majority of the stock for himself, and hired his own company to build 2,000 miles of line at $250 per mile, $100 more than other systems cost. A scandal broke when the details became known.

A shareholders’ revolt forced Reeves out, and after a two-year delay, construction proceeded in 1870 and 1871.

The goal of the Dominion Telegraph Co. was to duplicate the system of the Montreal Co. The Dominion line opened to Elora and Fergus in October 1871, and a branch to Salem opened a month later. Bill LaPenotiere, the Elora postmaster, was the agent. The Montreal Telegraph office, in Hele’s Drug Store, was next door. In Salem, Ezra Wissler was appointed agent, and the office was in the Wissler store.

Competition was intense. In Salem, the Wisslers, for an unknown reason, switched from the Dominion to the Montreal system in 1876; in 1879 they were back with Dominion.

The Dominion line undertook major rebuilding in 1880, building a new line to Alma, Moorefield and Listowel. Previously, service to north Wellington had been through Fergus and Arthur. The Dominion Telegraph saved money by using cheap, crooked poles, and the company was regularly criticized for this. They can be seen in some old Elora photographs.

As a result of cut-throat competition and the economic downturn in the late 1870s, both companies experienced losses. The Dominion and Montreal systems amalgamated in 1880, under the name of the Great North West Telegraph Co.

Over the next two years the systems were rationalized into a single network. Elora was back to a single telegraph office in the fall of 1881, located at this time in Adam McDonald’s drug store.

The Great North West did not enjoy its monopoly position for long. Many of its lines were those of the old Montreal company, and they ran alongside the railway lines of the Grand Trunk. When the Canadian Pacific Railway assembled its Ontario network in the 1880s, it entered the telegraph business.

The railway needed a telegraph line for control of train dispatching, and there was not a great deal of additional expense involved in adding a second wire for commercial telegraphs. As well, the company already had a vision of building a fully integrated transportation and communications system.

The Canadian Pacific operated downtown telegraph offices, but the record for these in Fergus and Elora is incomplete. The Connon and Carswell Hardware Store in Elora had an office in 1903, but this was not a long-lived business. Telegrams, of course, could always be sent from the railway stations.

For a few years around 1890, there was no downtown office in Elora, but the Great North West reopened in the Geddes Street drug store of R.D. Norris in 1892, and continued under his successor, FJ. Capell. 

Locally, the telegraph business reached its plateau in the 1890s, when the telephone began eating into its business.

In the 19th century it was a vital link for business in Fergus and Elora, particularly for bankers, millers, storekeepers and cattle buyers. The telegraph had put them in close touch with markets and customers, wherever they might be. As the 20th century dawned, this ceased to be the case.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on May 3, 1994.

Thorning Revisited