From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:
Talk started about the potential of having a telephone in Sault Ste. Marie in the late 1880s. In 1887, 15 Saultites expressed interest in having telephone service. However, in order to have a telephone exchange installed by Bell, they needed at least 25 people interested.
In 1888, prospects were even worse: according to a Bell survey, only 8 people indicated interest in a telephone.
The following year, however, the telephone’s popularity spiked, with 31 people expressing interest in having their own. Installation began and in 1889, Sault Ste. Marie got its first telephone – thirteen years after the first telephone call was made in Brantford Ontario by Alexander Graham Bell.
Initial telephone subscribers included various hotels such as the International, the Albion, the Grandview and the Algonquin, Hurst and McKay Law Office, Dr. Adam’s Drug Store, Sims Lumber Yard and the customs house. The Algonquin Hotel was one of the first adopters of telephone service – albeit with a very different phone number from what they use today.
A few years later, the city installed its first switchboard, located at the intersection of Queen and Pim Streets, in Hunter’s Drug Store – also the location of the CPR telegraph. George Hunter soon needed to hire additional staff to operate the switchboard as the number of calls swelled. His office became, according to nearby business owners, the “customary unofficial legislature of a small town,” seeing numerous meetings and discussions.
As of 1903, the city paid $375 per year, which covered the Sault’s phone service and its fire alarms. Moreover, residents had to pay $15 per year for their phone service . . . assuming they lived within half a mile of the intersection of East and Queen Streets, (later moved to the corner of Spring and Queen Streets). Anyone who lived further away was charged an additional $5 for every quarter of a mile distance away.
By 1907, telephone service was so popular that the Bell Telephone Company started looking into having its own building; they had outgrown their space in Hunter’s office. Their new building soon went up on East Street, behind the Post Office.
Telephone usage continued to climb, with 1000 telephones installed by 1911. In 1920, the Sault Star printed some statistics about phone usage. By that point, 2,578 people subscribed to telephone service, and they made a combined 21,560 local calls per day, with each call spanning an average distance of 1.25 miles. There were also approximately 610 outgoing long distance calls per day, and those calls travelled an average of just under 99.5 miles. Eight years later, the capacity for making long-distance calls grew as transatlantic telephone service became a possibility in the Soo. However it did come with a significant cost - the charge for a three minute telephone call to Great Britain was $48.00!
In 1940, the Sault Ste. Marie Bell office held a celebration in conjunction with 17 other offices across Ontario and Quebec. Approximately 60 staff members, friends, and family attended, listening to presentations and broadcasts sent over Bell’s telephone wires. Following the presentations, there were games of bridge, dancing, and refreshments.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of how integrated phones had become into people’s lives happened in 1946 when a fire swept through the village of Desbarats. While Desbarats’ entire business block was destroyed, leaving $300,000 worth of damage, the phone operator stayed at her post. Tillie Bretz, at the age of 91, had been the phone operator since 1914, when telephone service first came to Desbarats. At this time Tillie was the oldest telephone operator in North America. She had never taken a vacation day or a sick day, even when she broke her arm. The Globe and Mail printed a photo of her, having a quick nap at her station, having been exhausted by all of the activity on the day of the fire.
It's been over 130 years since telephone service was first seriously discussed in the area. We’ve come a long way from the days of crank phones, or the time when only a handful of people wanted phone service.
Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.