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Remember This? Telephone operators gave you the time of day

This week we look back at telephone operators, the unsung heroes of emergencies, holidays and hockey scores

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

Never seen, only heard. The unsung heroes of emergencies, holidays, community connectivity (and hockey scores).

The telephone operators of yesteryear.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and the world changed, even here in Sault Ste. Marie, albeit a bit more slowly than in other places. The Board of the Bell Telephone Co authorized the building of an exchange in 1887 here in the Sault, but to his dismay less than 15 people were interested. A year later another survey was conducted, and the number of interested parties had dropped to 8!

Finally, in 1889 Mr. Couzens and Bell, proprietors of a local sawmill and machine shop, bought two phones from Bell for a private line connecting the two businesses and thus began the world of telecommunications in Sault Ste. Marie.

Just three years later the first public exchange opened in Mr. George Hunter’s Drug Store at the northwest corner of Pim and Queen Streets. In the summer of 1892, the Sault’s 25 telephone subscribers made so many calls that the manager of the system decided he would soon have to hire an operator to handle them. By 1896 the subscriptions list had swelled from 25 to 40 and Mr. Hunter hired A. D. Kinsey to serve as a drug apprentice and telephone operator and repairmen, setting a precedent for male operators.

In 1900, telephone subscribers in Sault Ste. Marie had grown to 120 and Hunter had built a two-story building near the corner of Queen and East streets. His drug store was housed on the first floor and the telephone office on the second. Miss Eva Porter soon became the town’s first full-time switchboard operator. The first switchboard served the area bounded by Simpson and Wellington streets, the pulp mill and the river.

The telephone exchange was bustling, and the company decided to hire a full-time manager. Mr. Robert Burrows was offered a substantial salary of 75 dollars a month, drawing him away from his post in the Orillia office. He was manager of the Sault Ste. Marie local exchange and operators until 1911, at which time there were 1045 subscribers. Mr. Burrows left Sault Ste. Marie at that time to resume his education, by all accounts leaving a well-trained group of telephone operators notable for their efficiency and courtesy on the exchange board.

H.D. Husson, who came to the Sault in 1912 as Bell’s contract agent, had nothing but praise for the telephone operators who handled the exchange. They were especially essential during the Greyhound’s games when they played at home here in Sault Ste. Marie. The rink was not large enough to hold the crowd so “It was necessary for us to put extra help to handle the large volume of calls for hockey information. Almost every night some of our girls would turn up to offer any assistance and there was no squawk if they didn’t get paid overtime (which they didn’t).”

Not only did the operators in Sault Ste. Marie handle emergency calls, long-distance calls to loved ones, and hockey scores, but providing the time of day was a frequent request on the switchboards. If your clock wasn’t wound or you weren’t near a timepiece, the best, most efficient means of determining the time was the switchboard operators. And it didn’t stop there. In 1922 the Star teamed up with the Bell Telephone Company so that farmers could call the nearest Bell telephone operator at noon and receive the Star’s weather forecast! The phone company received many daily calls accessing this service and the local farmers were well pleased.

A 1935 article in The Sault Daily Star written by Phyllis Hone entitled “Soo Telephone Girls Can’t Chew Gum on Job” starts with a poem that sums up the essence of our telephone operators:

Sault’s public heroines No. 1
Name ‘Service’ as their creed.

No time for foolishness or fun-
A life may hang on speed!”

The head operator in 1935 was Mrs. D. Adair, whom Ms. Hone interviewed. She took the reporter on a tour of the telephone office and explained the “tangle of wires, the flashing lights, the shining buttons and other equipment.” Ms. Hone was astounded that “not one of the other eight girls sitting at the switchboard turned to see who had entered the room. Not an eyelash flickered. They had work to perform and as their arms flashed ceaselessly back and forth…their voices intoned the familiar ‘Number.’”

Ms. Hone further remarks that while standing at one end of the line of girls and looking down it “every head was at the same angle and the same height (the seats raised or lowered according to the height of the girl), the shoulders were erect, the feet flat on the floor. When the reporter exclaimed at how surprising it was to see the telephone operators behaving ‘like soldiers’ Mrs. Adair explained that the ‘girls’ were trained to sit that way. The operators were not allowed to “chew gum…or talk to the girls they are working with.” The switchboard room was a place of serious discipline where in a busy hour an experienced operator would handle about 375 calls an hour. The operators’ arms worked overtime while they pinged in numbers and disconnected them.

Mrs. Adler quickly put an end to the misconception that telephone operators sit and eagerly eavesdrop on people’s conversations, awash in gossip. “We never heard any conversations as some people seem to believe. An operator is too busy to sit and listen to other people talking. And whatever we do hear over the phone is kept in the strictest of confidence. It’s part of our discipline to discharge any girl who divulges information thus received to even another telephone operator.”

Telephone operators in Sault Ste. Marie were in their heyday in 1945 when the telephone company employed 76 ‘girls’. In 1950 every customer line in the city terminated from a switchboard prior to the advent of direct dialing. This created a large demand for operators. Over the following decades, however, dial phones, automatic equipment and direct-dial long-distance services slowly reduced their numbers.

3 a.m., Sunday, May 2, 1965: DDD-Day

This was the date of the changeover by the telephone company to the Direct Distance Dial method of placing station-to-station long-distance calls. That particular hour was chosen as the time for implementing the change since it was when traditionally the fewest long-distance calls were being placed.

This allowed the operators to be better prepared during regular hours on Sunday for the influx of calls expected as curious telephone owners tried out the new system. The direct distance dialing procedure allowed Sault and area residents to reach any of the 85 million telephones on the North American continent without first contacting an operator.

Thus was the introduction of ‘Dial 1’ to reach the DDD equipment and then entering the area code and seven-digit telephone number. Residents who feared they would “miss hearing the pleasant voice of the telephone operator when making a call need not feel sad. She will cut in on the line after you have dialed to ask the number from which you are calling.” This was necessary at the time so that the number could be recorded on a tape which did the rest of the calculating automatically.

The system upgrade cost the local Bell Telephone branch in the Sault over a half-million dollars (a substantial investment in 1965) for building expansion and equipment! A substantial increase in space was required for the new switchboards. There was much anticipation for the future of direct calling and one reporter in 1965 remarked “Within the foreseeable future, this system will have expanded to the point where an Eskimo in the Yukon can contact an Aborigine in Australia by moving his index finger to the right 11 times.” The reference to the use of rotary dial phones, far in our past, leads me to believe that said reporter would be flabbergasted to see us now with our smartphones and voice commands that can call a country across the world in the blink of an eye, no telephone operators required.

In 1967 the next phase of the direct distance dialing program was implemented in the Sault whereby the whole process of station-to-station calls was done automatically. The telephone operator was still needed, however, to handle person-to-person or collect calls. If someone found themselves having dialed a wrong number, they were instructed to ask the party that answered what place they had reached and ‘politely hang up’, dialing ‘0’ to reach an operator immediately after. When the long-distance operator answered they were to tell her what had happened so that she could arrange a credit to cancel the charge for the call.

Telephone operators were also the unsung heroes of the holidays. Along with doctors, firefighters and police officers, the operators worked through holidays such as Christmas and New Year. In 1968 the busiest place in town was the big brick building on Queen Street: telephone headquarters. Forty-two Bell Telephone operators nimbly handled 4, 445 calls on Christmas Eve and 12, 853 calls on Christmas Day. Every one of the 42 operators on staff worked Christmas day while others were home enjoying opening presents and meals with family. Year after year these dedicated operators ensured that calls to family and friends made it through during the holiday seasons.

The volume of calls being handled by 1976 would have boggled Mr. Hunter’s mind. Nearly 10.000 long-distance calls were made in Sault Ste. Marie on an average day, with 4,600 being handled by operators. The number of local calls was impossible to calculate because they were handled by new automated equipment which left the Saults’ 49 operators free to provide other services.

Calls for directory assistance ran to about 1,900 a day not including another 1,800 assistance calls such as inquiries for area code information and emergency calls. There were about 5,000 long-distance direct dial calls in which the operator asked for the caller’s number, also referred to as CAMA calls. The operators also made about 1,700 intercept calls where they interrupted a call to an out-of-service number and gave the caller instructions. There were also about 40 marine calls, both ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore and vice-versa. Those calls are handled in conjunction with Transport Canada’s station VBB whose transmitter-receiver’s units could reach ships anywhere from lower Lake Superior to northern Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.

As technology progressed over the decades and telephone operators were relegated to the past it is important to remember what a vital role they played in our community, keeping us safe, up to date on everything from the time to the hockey score and connecting loved ones each day, working diligently in the background, unseen but essential.

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provide SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at and look for more "Remember This?" columns here.

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