The history of phone service in Vankleek Hill

Vankleek Hill Telephone Service: the beginnings

Compiled by Michelle Landriault from a 1962 essay, author unknown; the Stardale WI Tweedsmuir Book held in the archives of the Musée Vankleek Hill Museum; and recent research.

In 1890, cantaloupes were known as watermelons. Most young men had livery bills. The hired girl drew $1.50 a week. Lamplight illuminated every street corner 72 years ago [from 1962]. All this existed when the telephone came to Vankleek Hill.
The telephone connection was local news at this time, and a call to either Ottawa or Montreal drew as much comment from the boys around the cracker barrel in the general store as a rocket launching does to their modern counterparts today.
“Two Texas steer horns tied together with a wire, and an arrangement to make the concern bleat like a calf,” was the editorial comment of one newspaper shortly after the discovery of the telephone was announced in 1876.
By 1890, Vankleek Hill was talking to itself and to its neighbours over Alexander Graham Bell’s 14-year-old invention. Communicating by the telephone was still considered somewhat of a novelty.
In many homes across the province, for instance, it was not unusual to see a small bag of camphor decorating the telephone set as an added precaution, or so it was thought, against the spread of disease. [Eastern Ontario Review August 16, 1962]
To a pioneer lineman, the virtue of patience took on a greater significance as he travelled across the country breaking the horizon with miles of telephone poles and wire.

Vankleek Hill Bell Telephone Crew: “Bell Boys 1953” (l-r) Gabe Poirier, Fred Currier, John Nezan, Doug Hall, Jack Kitchen, Ernie Steele, Ed Mullin. (courtesy Debbie Hall)

He would politely, or not so politely as the case might be, explain to his perennial group of onlookers that the wire was neither hollow nor did it have a hole in it. At times, it became too much for even his stoic calm and the occasional whisker was nailed to the pole as well as the cross-arm.
Within a relatively short time, a vast whispering gallery of iron and copper extended across both Ontario and Quebec, and isolated areas were becoming a thing of the past. By the summer of 1890, a fine web of lines had caught-up Vankleek Hill, Hawkesbury, and L’Orignal.
That same year, an exchange service opened at Vankleek Hill shortly after a small switchboard was installed in the store of Z.J.E. Beaudry, and Mr. Beaudry was placed in charge.
The following year, further developments occurred. Pete I. Saucier succeeded Mr. Beaudry as the local Bell representative, and a direct telephone line from L’Orignal to Vankleek Hill was opened.
Long-distance calls during this time were connected at the telephone office in Hawkesbury where a call could be switched to Ottawa or Montreal. From these two centres a telephone user could reach hundreds of towns and cities in Ontario and Quebec.
As we can see from a report in the September 1888 issue of The Glengarrian, in these early years, business and professional people were usually the first to subscribe for service. Gradually, as the advantages of telephone calling became more apparent, telephones were installed in private homes.
It is extraordinary to read that by 1888 Vankleek Hill already had telephone services.

“With its numerous inhabitants and a well-built town, illuminated by over 200 electric lights, netted with telephone wires which connect the leading stores, hotels and business offices, as well as the residences of the leading citizens, Vankleek Hill has reason to be proud of its success.”

[The Glengarrian, Alexandria, September 28, 1888]

Among the first subscribers at Vankleek Hill were Doctors A. McDonald and D.J. McIntosh. The number steadily increased within the next few years and by 1897 the total of subscribers had risen to 19.
From the Stardale WI Tweedsmuir Book comes this May 1897 directory list of Vankleek Hill telephone subscribers. [The Historical Society added locations where possible.]

N. Butler, hotelkeeper (11 High Street); Canada Atlantic Railway Station (town’s east rails); Canadian Pacific Railway Station (TransCanada trail north of town); G. Constantineau Hotelkeeper (41 High Street); Durant Brothers (102 High Street); Banque d’Hochelaga (38 Main East); B. Kelly Hotelkeeper (113 Main East); E.Z. Labrosse Grocer (28 High Street); McCuaig, Cheney & Co. Merchants (Museum at 95 Main East); J.S. McIntosh Merchant (76 Main East); H. MacKinnon Physician (151 Main East); J.R. McLaurin Merchant (94 Main Street East); J.R. McMaster Hotelkeeper (68 Main East); A. Metcalfe Veterinary Surgeon; R.P. Pattee Physician; Joseph Routhier Machinist (Pearl Street); W.C. Sylvester and Son Grist Mill (Farmer Avenue); F.W. Thistlethwaite Conveyancer; and the Vankleek Hill Manufacturing Company (Mill Street).

In sharp contrast to the modern compact phones of today, were the old-time Blake sets used by pioneer telephone users here which consisted of three boxes mounted one above the other on a board.

Exhibit of telephone evolution & design. Montreal, 2018

The generator for ringing central, or other subscribers on the line, was in the top box from which the receiver hung. The mouthpiece was in the centre box and the battery or talking current was in the lowest box.
Recalling a characteristic of the old-time telephone apparatus, a notice in the directory stated:

“Face the transmitter with the mouth about two inches from the opening. Speak naturally, distinctly, and not too rapidly.”

Another footnote warned subscribers: “Do not use the telephone during a thunderstorm.”
Gradually, the Blake telephones were replaced by improved long-distance sets that greatly increased the talking range from 100 miles if “atmospheric conditions were favourable,” to about 1,000 miles.
By 1906, among those taking advantage of these improved phones were Joseph Hurtubise at the Grand Central Hotel (68 Main East); D.A. McRae Undertaker (Main Street East); H.C. Jones proprietor of the Eastern Ontario Review (Main East); the Ottawa Bank (90 Main East) and the Hochelaga Bank (38 Main Street East); Donald Shea and J. Sherman livery stables.
This 1921 report in the Eastern Ontario Review provides insight as to the annual charges for telephone services. Note that the charges are annual and not monthly.

New Bell Telephone Rates Vankleek Hill, The Eastern Ontario Review, 1921: “In Vankleek Hill, a business ‘phone costs $25.00 and a house ‘phone $20.00 a year. The increase under the new schedule will mean an addition of $2.50 a year in the one case and $2.00 in the other …. “

The year 1902 saw the completion of a long-distance line between Vankleek Hill and the neighbouring community of Rigaud.
In 1897, the telephone agent changed again to Hugh Duncan and on May 1, 1904 druggist Edward Elvidge was appointed local manager and the central office was established in the rear of his drugstore. The exchange office remained in the same building until dial service was introduced in 1960.
The telephone office remained open for business from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the week; from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays; and from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., and 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. on holidays – a far cry from the 24-hour daily service available here today.
Informality highlighted the early exchange. It served many purposes. It was a means of neighbourly chatting, an efficient method of business communication, and a fast way to bring help in case of fire, illness, or another emergency.
The operator knew everybody by name and everybody knew her. She was the town’s alarm clock. She woke subscribers for work, to catch an early train, and to give them an early start in the hunting season. In fact, the demands upon her time went far beyond operating the switchboard.
Miss Clara Lajeunesse, who began her career as an operator at the exchange in 1907 and served in this capacity until her retirement in 1945, was one of the first operators in Vankleek Hill.
Telephone traffic slowly but steadily increased through the years. In 1911, the number of subscribers had risen to 50; a year later, the 100 mark was passed. By 1930, there were over 200 telephones connected to the local switchboard.
In 1937, Edgar Brown bought Mr. Elvidge’s drugstore and took over management of the telephone office. His wife, Helen, assisted him both in the store and at the switchboard and was appointed chief operator in 1944. That year, the exchange was converted from an agency to a company operation which meant that its administration became the direct responsibility of the Bell Telephone Company rather than of local agents who had formerly operated the office under contract.

In 1937, Edgar Brown purchased Mr. Elvidge’s drugstore at 92 Main Street East, and managed the Bell switchboard office located at the back. The Bell operators, (back) Doris Smith (Sproule) and Helen Allen (Cameron), conveyed all local calls until dial telephones arrived in 1960. Mrs. Helen Brown was Chief Operator, and Joyce McCrimmon (Nixon) was also an operator. Priscilla Milner took over from Mrs. Brown in 1962. (courtesy Debbie Hall)

Mrs. Helen Brown served as a chief operator until her retirement in May 1962 and was succeeded by Mrs. Priscilla Miner.
Looking after the telephone requirements of over 600 customers in the town when dial service was introduced was chief operator Mrs. Milner, and a staff of eight which included Mrs. Lorraine Mooney, Mrs. Kay Hurley, Mrs. Jean Barton, Mrs. Esther Miller, Miss Lucienne Paquette, Miss Isabel Campbell, Mrs. Mary Wathier, and Miss Laura Duffy.

Bell Telephone employee James Oswald, Vankleek Hill: Bell employee James Oswald outside his home on Jay Street, early 1970s. James had a 35-year career with Bell. He served as a Vankleek Hill town councillor & deputy reeve. Each year, when the new ice was laid at the arena, Jim was the first to put on skates to glide on the fresh ice. (courtesy Dawn Pier)

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