Walrus moustaches and hair slicked with oil, high stiff collars and bowler hats characterized the young gallant of the middle eighties when the first telephone exchange was established in Almonte. Set up in the rear of M. Patterson’s drug store, the tiny, primitive switchboard created a minor sensation in those horse and buggy days.
It was not until August 1887, that the first list of Almonte subscribers was published in a small, pocket-size directory containing the names of practically everyone in Eastern Ontario and Quebec who had a telephone. Under Almonte the names of 29 subscribers were listed which reveals the progressiveness of the local residents of that time, for in these days this new means of communication was regarded in many quarters as little more than a silly fad.
In 1886 Almonte became an important long distance centre in the rapidly-growing wire network which the Bell Telephone Co. had begun to erect throughout Ontario and Quebec. That year an 82-mile pole line to Pembroke was completed, which meant that local subscribers could telephone many intermediate points.
At first voice transmission was limited to 20 miles. But Bell engineers and scientists steadily devised methods of improving the first crude instruments. Galvanized iron lines were replaced by copper and the loading coil, which boosts voice impulses, was invented. This invention was later followed by the vacuum tube repeater which, as its name implies, amplifies the voice currents at intervals along the circuit and makes it possible to talk across the continent.
With only 29 telephones in Almonte in 1887, subscribers were called by name, not by number. A notice in bold type in the directory advised subscribers that “The name of the party wanted should be spoken with especial distinctness to prevent mistakes.” Another footnote warned: “Do not attempt to use the telephone on the approach or during a thunderstorm.”
The initial list of Almonte subscribers recalls the names of prominent residents and businesses establishments in the community at that time: Almonte Knitting Company; Almonte Gazette; McLeod & McEwan; Almonte House; T. W. Raines; Bank of Montreal; Burns, Robert, M.D., surgery; Canadian Pacific Railway, Station; C.P.R. Telegraph Office; T. W. McDermott; Davis House; John Gemmill; Dowdall & Fraser, Barristers; Lawson, Walter, livery stable; Linch, D. P. , M.D., surgery; Macdonald & Skinner, Barristers, etc.; Mississippi Iron Works; Young Bros.; Munro, J. M.; Patterson, M., drug store; Rosamond Woolen Co., office; Rosamond, Jas., Jr., residence; Robertson, James, merchant; Robinson & Shaw; Shearn, C. H.; Windsor House; F. Reilly; Wylie, J. B. , merchant.
It is interesting to note that of the 29 telephones in service here in 1887, 23 were in business establishments.
With the title of “Agent”, M. Patterson supervised the local affairs of the Bell telephone Company whose switchboard and associated equipment occupied part of the premises of Mr. Patterson’s drug store on Mill Street.
Mr. Patterson continued as local manager until succeeded shortly after the turn of the century by the late “Tom” Armstrong, who, with headquarters at Carleton Place, served as local manager for more than 15 years.
In 1920, a territorial reorganization placed Almonte under the management of John J. Gardiner, whose headquarters were in Smiths Falls. Mr. Gardiner retired in 1937 following over 37 years’ Bell service.
As early as 1900 Almonte had more than 50 telephones. By 1911 the number passed the 100 mark. The 200th instrument was installed in 1920.
In 1947, when the exchange had almost 500 customers, the old hand crank type of telephone was replaced by a much more streamlined set. Common battery telephones enabled subscribers to contact the operator by simply lifting the receiver.
It was a great help to the operator too, because, as an editorial in the ALMONTE GAZETTE of Nov. 20, 1947, pointed out, “When the receiver is removed from the hook a light flashes on in front of the operator; when she makes the connection it goes out and when the receiver is replaced it comes on again, indicating that the conversation is terminated. She breaks the circuit.”
Under the old system, the editorial continued – “people neglected to ring off … the only way ‘central’ could determine whether the parties were through with the line was to listen in.”
Since that major renovation in the telephone system, the Bell has attempted to provide Almonte subscribers with up-to-date telephone service to meet their ever expanding needs. As the town has grown, the demand for service has grown with it, and the company has had to keep abreast and even a step ahead of local development to meet demands without delay.
The change to dial in March, 1966, and the introduction of direct distance dialing gives Almonte a communications system second to none. Subscribers here will be served by the same type of telephone switching equipment that now serve Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. They will also have direct dialing access to the same number of long distance telephones as residents of the larger metropolitan areas.
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