A Short History of

Telephone Communication on the Northern Bruce Peninsula

by Tom Boyle

with info from “Benchmarks – A History of Eastnor Township and Lion's Head”,

local archives and recollections. Thanks to Bruce Tigert, Lion's Head


  • 1900 - 1901 – William Gillies of Spry starts Gillies Telephone Co. and lines were run via Mar and Spry into Lion's Head. The phones were battery operated and turned by a crank for each ring. The switchboard was located at Donald McIvor's store and operated by Mrs. Moshier. All and all it was mostly was a small private line. Prior to this he worked at running a line to Wiarton. Mr Gilles extended the line to Tobermory and the switchboard was moved to the Ganton's and Thompson's store. Mrs Moshier also operated a small switchboard out of her home for night calls.

  • 1904 – A connection was made to the Bell in Wiarton

  • 1904 – 1912 The switchboard was moved to the Bruin and Mier's store and other operators take over the job from Mrs. Moshier

  • 1912 – The hardware store burns and Mr. Gillies moves from Tobermory and establishes the telephone office on the southeast corner of Main and Mill Street in Lion's Head.

  • 1913 - 1917 - Phone line constructed from Adamsville to Hope Bay and then on to Hope Ness.

    Benchmarks relates that William Gillies was greatly assisted in the construction of the telephone line by his good long time friend A. H. Hepburn who operated a switching service in his home in Hope Bay for 15 years until a new trunk line was constructed.

  • 1934 – Mr. Wesley Taylor buys the telephone business from Mr. Gillies and moves the office to the Chas. Webster Building. This building was built prior to 1882 and occupied the corner on Main and Webster where the bank is today. At this location 24 hour phone service was provided for forty years and the number of subscribers grew to 1100.

  • 1973 - Taylor Telephone is purchased by Central Communications Corporation a Tomah, Wisconsin telephone holding company.

  • August 1977 – Amtelecom purchases Taylor Telephone Co. (1600 subscribers) and Manitoulin Telephone (2035 subscribers) from Cencom, Inc., Rushford, Minnesota for $1.5 million.

    Amtelecom was a corporate name which was derived from the former Aylmer & Malahide Telephone Co. Ltd. It was a fully Canadian independent telephone company and a leader among another thirty or so other independents. Sometime due to its name it was thought to be an American company.

  • December 7, 1977 – Amtelecom signs contract with TRW Vidar to purchase digital network system.

  • December 15, 1980 – Lion's Head cuts to direct distance dialing (DDD) and area codes can be used.

  • April 4, 1981 – Dyers Bay, Stokes Bay & Tobermory cut to (DDD)

  • May – June 1996 – Modems installed for internet service.

  • June 29, 1996 – The first internet customer is registered under the Kanservu brand.

  • 1998 – Internet service become part of Amtelecom package.

  • June 4, 2007 – Bragg Communications (Eastlink) purchases Amtelecom


Notes of Interest:

Regarding the Timeline of Telephone Communication on the Northern Bruce Peninsula

by Tom Boyle

The construction and maintenance of the first telephone lines on the Northern Bruce Peninsula has been recognized as an extremely difficult accomplishment given the rocky terrain for setting poles, often poor weather, heavy forests, large wetlands and the basic limitations of the technology. This fact is recognized in the literature along with the fact that those workers were hardly ever mentioned by name.

 

As the cottage development along the west shore of the Northern Bruce Peninsula morphed into what we see today the phone company struggled to keep up to the demands of development and developers. Often business plans for the supplying of these services made little sense in the short term. Subdivisions wanted phones long before there were enough paying subscribers and the phone company would rather wait until, as one phone company manager said ,“until they order their mattresses and fridges for the cottages” to spend the necessary dollars.

 

One cool early summer day in the late 1980's Tom Boyle (your author) received a call from his good friend Jim Chamberlain who was the manager of the Amtelecom office to assist him in measuring a distance required for a phone cable. A new development on the Peninsula was clamouring for phone service and the construction budget was tight. One solution was to take an underwater cable north across Little Pike Bay to the opposite shore and up a road allowance. Jim knew of a remnant piece of cable that was available at a good price if only it was long enough. Much to my surprise and delight the expedition involved scuba gear and the type of measuring wheel that you might have seen used along the side of a roadway. My role was on the surface of Little Pike Bay to watch Jim as he walked from a pole location with the wheel into the water a then roll the wheel across the bottom of the bay to the opposite shore to what was to be the terminus of the underwater cable. He seemed very happy to know that the cable would fit and that his service problem was close to being solved. All he had to do now was to drive up north somewhere to pick it up and then to have it installed. I am not sure if that underwater fix is part of the network solution today but it sure did say a lot about the corporate attitude of the time and the level of employee dedication.


This “go for it” attitude with Jim Chamberlain's management of our local phone company prevailed for about a decade. In the mid 1990's it was necessary to convince the board of directors and the stockholders of Amtelecom that this thing called the internet might just be something necessary for our community and that there would be a future in providing this service.  With the reluctant acceptance of the upper management Jim developed a local strategy that proved successful and ultimately beneficial. A strategy that would eventually lead to the construction a fibre optic network that would supply the capacity for ADSL connectivity to well over ninety percent of the company's Peninsula subscribers.


A meeting was held at the Rotary Hall in Lion's Head to gauge public interest and hopefully sign up a few interested internet customers. At the meeting Jim had hoped that a live presentation of the internet could be shown but despite his best efforts only a good facsimile was available to the enthusiastic audience. Another difficulty was the fact that by federal regulation the the phone company could physically provide the service but they had to be at arms length in terms of its administration. This did not stop Jim. He encouraged Amtelecom to form Kanservu Internet until the CRTC legality caught up with reality. Enough people came to the lunch counter at the Ferndale Drive In (FDI) to register during the next two years to open the corporate eyes to the reality of a viable business plan related to internet connectivity.


While Tom and Sue Ellen Boyle enjoyed selling to a few hundred original subscribers for Amtelecom at their corner store in Ferndale, on occasion it was not a rewarding experience for the sellers or the buyers. The original dial-up internet connection to the world wide web, like the original telephone system, had a few glitches. Some “troubles” that occurred south of the Northern Bruce Peninsula service area were unavoidable and expected but one particular local problem was actually mysterious.


Often and for no particular reason some subscribers would get dropped while others would be unable to connect to the network after a number of dial-up tries. Frustration sometimes occurred especially with customers who were hooking up with great expectation for their first internet experience. In the early days “tech support” was unknown. If you paid for a service you would undoubtedly call the people who were in receipt of your payment to address any problems. After what seemed like a long time for both the sellers and the company staff the local glitch in the system was remedied and all was well with the world wide web. It eventually was discovered that a few of the modems in the rack of twelve or sixteen were powered by a feed which just happen to be connected to the room's ceiling lights. This explained the reason why the service seemed to go down somewhat regularly at quitting time, was usually bad on weekends and seemed to work well on investigation.


Also hardly ever mentioned in our histories was the financial contributions by the investors and their families who endeavoured to provide a service in an area that the large corporation(s) would just as soon ignore. This fact was not only true of the early days but well into the 1970's and 1980's when large amounts of monies were necessary to upgrade the system to more modern standards. The roadways here are long and dead-ending and the small populations dispersed and seasonal. The simple fact is that you were not going to get rich providing communications on the Bruce Peninsula. It was just over five years ago that Bell expressed an interest in doing business here when they discovered a relatively robust system with good paying customers. This interest was expressed by Bell in the form of what could be described as a hostile take over of a struggling Amtelecom Group.


Lately we seem to be entering into a new big C corporate reality regarding our communication services. It is an age of Bell and cells and Rogers and hubs. We can complain about our rates and service as always but we did that before the DDD when it cost us a long distance charge to call Stokes Bay from Ferndale. We can complain about our slow “high speed” internet and its value compared to our southern urban neighbours. We can even complain that customer service people don't really know who we are when we call.  In 1981 we complained about the loss of our operators and the impact it would have on our community. We can not complain about the work that was done in the past by those who really worried about our phones and about our ability as a community to communicate. “That's progress!”


Today in the red brick house, that was the home of our telephone communications before 1934, Sue Aiston, the present owner and operator of The Photo Shoppe and Gallery keeps an email  list of subscribers who message her at home to let their friends in town in on the latest news, events and calls for help. She named it the “Lion's Headline.” Sue is an operator with a plug in the board for anyone that calls and she is virtually there 24/7. It only cost us about $100 a month to contact her by e-mail through the Eastlink land line. She can also be reached via cell phone. Best of all we can walk in and see her in person. If you happen to have one of those old phones with the “dial to ring cranks” of the pre 1934 vintage she would like to have one displayed in the Shoppe. Maybe she will hang a phone book on it as a relic of the past. It need not be the heavy yellow one.


The history committees at both ends of the Northern Bruce Peninsula would like to hear your communication stories if you have the time to tell them.


Tom Boyle

tomboyle@brucepeninsula.ca