Many Companies Provided Telephone Service In 1920s Muskoka
Boyer's Modern History of Muskoka
Alexander Graham Bell’s amazing distance-talking “telephone,” which he successfully developed down at Brantford in 1875, changed the world. Today that all-purpose tool we still call a phone also works as flashlight, camera, weather vane, library, consultant, research assistant, medical advisor, postal system, recording device and, yes, is still even good for speaking with others at a distance. Yet it’s not only wireless and portable. It also reveals to strangers your geographic location, political leanings, consumer tendencies, most intimate private habits, and can even provide pathways to such twilight zones as the Dark Net and encrypted digital currency. Alexander Bell’s original model phone has morphed, with research and applied science, into something much more – infant technology grown to full adulthood.
But for now, with our current study of the Roaring 1920s, it’s worth looking at how the telephony business got started and where it stood a century ago. Since our inquiries are also about Muskoka history, we’ll also examine how telephones that were altering communications throughout the world were changing life for Muskokans.
It All Began with Bell’s Phone
Like most inventions, a number of steps for Dr. Bell’s telephone had to be taken, first from his laboratory to the patent office, then through production of phones and telephone equipment, next making people aware of this communications breakthrough and stimulating marketplace demand for phones, and finally organizing business operations to instal, service, and earn money from them.
After 1875 and getting his patent, it took several years for the telephone’s practical advantages to be recognized. Alexander Bell was busy on this promotions front, demonstrating his invention to Brazil’s enthusiastic emperor Dom Pedro at a world’s fair in Philadelphia in 1876, leasing a telephone to Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie at Ottawa in 1877. In 1880 Parliament enacted a bill to incorporate the Bell Telephone Company of Canada and give it an effective monopoly across the land.
This enabled Bell Canada to expand operations as swiftly as the company’s combination of financing and technical advances in phone devices, telephone wires, and switching equipment permitted. By 1900, Bell was prospering with surging demand for its service. As a private company, unlike a government-run utility providing service to all, Bell could skim the cream at the top – big cities where capital costs per phone customer were lower and revenue higher – rather than bother with low-yield rural and remote areas.
Muskoka’s Settlement Coincides with Telephone Development
Thus by a coincidence of historic timing, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, precisely when Muskoka was being actively settled for lumbering and farming and the District’s vacation economy was taking strong hold, people in Ontario were embracing the many advantages of having a telephone.
Society and commerce alike were operating in a totally new dimension. With “central” – the phone company’s switchboard – a customer was just a “ring” away from the doctor, pharmacist, minister, the mill, a relative or neighbour. Distance shrank, time was saved, business expanded, communities became extended. Optimism about modernity in the new 20th Century sparkled in everyone’s life.
Well, most everyone. Getting a telephone was sometimes not easy.
In cities, as noted, where many people lived in close proximity, phone companies eagerly continued to develop phone service. Running poles along the streets enabled connecting lines to a great many houses; the return on investment – the cost of all the poles, wires, telephones, and switching centres with staff – was readily covered by the high number of customers. In the province’s rural regions and remote northlands like Muskoka, it was the opposite: sparsely populated areas with widely scattered homesteads and small villages were unattractive investments for city-based phone companies.
The irony in this, of course, was that the need for telephone communication was much greater in far-flung communities. But city-dwellers, by strength of numbers, had the advantage. When groups of rural people approached Bell seeking telephone service in their community, invariably they were told it might be years before this was possible – leaving no alternative but to establish a telephone system of their own.
This solution of local people creating a telephone company of their own is an unwritten chapter of Muskoka history. So were now edging into new territory here. It’s a story about the technology itself, all the science and engineering that kept advancing to produce your present-day phone, and about the radical transformation telephones caused in society. Linking these twin elements were the men and women who – in addition to telephone giant Bell Canada, and often despite Bell – brought telephone service to Ontario’s small towns and farms, including here in Muskoka. Our ancestors a century ago were determined self-starters.
Muskoka Telephone Service Required Independent Phone Companies
Many of these independent phone companies were quite small, having a few rural lines connected to the nearest Bell exchange for switching service. But others established their own exchanges and only connected to a Bell toll centre when long-distance service was needed, for which Bell charged a fee. Several independent phone companies grew into sizeable operations with hundreds of customers.
Muskoka’s three principal towns got relatively early telephone service – Huntsville by 1883, Gravenhurst in 1885, and Bracebridge in 1893. In part this was thanks to the sway of summer residents connected with Bell, as well as the influence of others around the lakes now accustomed to telephone service in southern cities and wanting the same during their vacation season in Muskoka. With phones in these three towns, part-time Muskokans could come in from the lake to make their calls, the same way they came in to do business at the post office, bank, and shops.
Although by the late 1800s phones were available in Muskoka’s main towns, we now come to the little-known history of the District’s upwards of 30 independent telephone companies. That number is likely surprising, given general familiarity only with the dominance of Bell Canada.
In 1907 five local phone companies appeared on the scene – Bracebridge & Muskoka Lakes Telephone Company Limited; W.E. Campsall phone lines; Muskoka Independent Telephone System; Huntsville & Portage Telephone System; and C.O. Shaw’s Telephone Line, which was taken over by Huntsville & Portage Telephone System in 1913.
The next year, in 1908, three more opened for business – Sparrow Lake Private Telephone Line; Kahshe-Sparrow Lake Telephone System; and Lake of Bays & Haliburton Telephone Company Ltd.
Also in the early 1900s – George Mason Telephones began service in Parry Sound District, a business taken over in 1921 by Muskoka Independent Telephone System.
Through the teens came many more, three in 1912 – the Muskoka River Telephone Company Limited; Muskoka, Victoria & Haliburton Telephone Company Limited; and the
Grunwald Private Telephone Line.
In 1914 the Huntsville and Lake of Bays Telephone Company Ltd. entered the scene, followed by three more the following year: Monck Municipal Telephone System; Beatrice Telephone Association, which was taken over by Watt Municipal Telephone System the next year, and the Raymond Telephone Association, which also became part of Watt Municipal Telephone System in 1916.
That same year the Rosseau Independent Telephone System and the Watt Township Municipal Telephone System opened their lines for business. In 1917 the Doe Lake Telephone Company Limited started operating in Oakley Township, followed in 1919 by the Purbrook & Fraserburg Telephone Co. Ltd.
State of telephony in 1920s Muskoka. Before automatic exchanges, telephone subscribers were connected to small local exchanges like this where the operator could make connections physically by a plug-and-socket arrangement, as seen here. Having this array of equipment in the operator’s home also made it possible for her to handle calls day or night.
Many private, locally-owned telephone companies were now operating in Muskoka. But more were still to come. By the 1920s, another half-dozen began providing telephone service. These were the Fairyport Telephone Line of Muskoka in 1921, three in 1922 – the Muskoka & Parry Sound Telephone Company Ltd., Ryde Municipal Telephone System, and Humphry Municipal Telephone System serving customers in both Muskoka and Parry Sound.
Then 1924 brought into service the North Monck Municipal Telephone System. Even in 1931, a couple more joined this large body of Muskoka independent telephone companies, such as Browning Island Telephone Line, and Medora & Wood Municipal Telephone System.
Just this snapshot alone of independent phone companies serving many different parts of Muskoka makes clear a lot more than Bell Canada phone activity was underway in the District.
Reasons for Rise of the Independents
To add more details to this picture, a good place to start is with the timing. Although fewer than a dozen independent phone systems had been organized in all Ontario before 1900 – the earliest being founded in 1886 – none existed in Muskoka until 1907. Then suddenly five appeared in one year. What caused this sudden expansion in the early years of the 20th Century? It was not just happening in Muskoka but across the province.
The explanation is that by 1905, Canada’s Postmaster General William Mulock chaired a committee to investigate the prospect of establishing a national telephone system. Other countries had created government-run public telephone monopolies to extend service to all and keep rates low. Yet others were leaving it for private enterprise to sort out. The committee studied what these other countries were doing, and read hundreds of briefs submitted by interested parties. Then it failed to recommend any course of action, even though Mulock strongly favoured municipally owned and operated telephone systems.
Nevertheless, extensive newspaper coverage of the committee’s work – there being no radio, television, or internet reporting yet – caused a change in Bell Telephone’s attitude toward the independents. Prior to 1905, Bell mostly kept them bottled up in their backwater areas by refusing connections to its long-distance network. With winds of change now blowing in favour of public ownership of the telephone system, and seeming inclination in this direction at the highest levels of government, Bell tacked and began following a different course. It signed toll traffic agreements with its smaller neighbours. It assisted in establishing locale phone systems in remote and rural areas. It still wanted monopoly control, but would now play the long-game.
Everybody was keen to have a telephone, no matter how small their community, and many were more than ready to set up their own phone systems for self-service. In 1910, the provincial government recognized that a modernizing province needed structure and rules and assigned responsibility for regulating independent phone systems to the Ontario Railway and Municipal Board. The government estimated there were now 460 independent – that is, non-Bell – telephone companies operating, most in small towns and rural areas.
Profiles of the Independent Phone Companies
Who was starting all these?
You may be as surprised as I was to learn that in many cases, the prime mover was a medical doctor. In the early 1920s, Ed Downs, a salesman for the Northern Electric Company selling phone equipment to the independents, quipped that he should carry medical supplies as a sideline because so many of his customers were medical men. Out from Toronto, Downs visited dozens of doctors actively managing a telephone system in addition to conducting a large rural medical practice. They had started local phone systems for their convenience in keeping in more frequent and easier contact with patients in a neighbouring village or on outlying farms. In Muskoka, one of Downs’ customers lived in Port Carling.
Dr. Robert Ethelbert Joyce, who’d answered a Toronto newspaper ad run by the village council, had come north in 1923 to be resident doctor and Port Carling’s Medical Officer of Health. Bert Joyce rose at all hours to handle emergencies, travelled great distances in darkness and during winter, several times in perilous conditions that almost cost him his life. Before coming to Port Carling, he’d discovered the advantages of telephones while practising medicine in the Oakville area. With community support and council collaboration, he founded the Medora & Wood Municipal Telephone System at Port Carling in 1931.
Other independent phone companies were set up by owners of country general stores. The store proprietor began by running a line to the community where he obtained supplies, to facilitate both ordering and picking up goods when they’d arrived. But soon he also allowed farmers in the vicinity to connect phone lines and become parties to his line – the famous “party line” on which neighbours often listened in silently to others’ calls. Each of them paid the country store owner a subscription fee. Among such lines in Muskoka would have been a few I mentioned by an individual’s name.
A number of other independent phone companies were established lumbering or mining operations in remote settings lacking telephone service. They’d construct a line to the nearest operating phone system, just for their own use. But then a local resident would ask to be given a phone on the company line. When that happened, others requested the same service, too. The company needed to remain on good terms with its scattered neighbours, no matter how long the line run out to their homestead, and before long found itself, in addition to its core business, in the telephone business, too. The Doe Lake and the Kashe-Sparrow Lake phone systems fell into this category.
The Rise, Run, and End of the Sparrow Lake Phone System
Muskoka’s independent phone companies shared common features, yet each had its own distinctive story. The saga of the Sparrow Lake system offers an example.
Built in 1908 by J.W. Clipsham who, with his family, operated a summer resort named “Uneeda Rest,” this system initially had just three installed phones: one at the lakeside resort, another at the home of Clipsham’s mother-in-law, the third in his nearby lumber mill on Kashe Lake. The three subscribers jointly owned the system, each contributing a third to the cost building lines out to Highway 11 where they connected with Bell Canada’s pole and line south to Bell’s Severn Bridge exchange.
As years passed, upwards of a dozen more homes along the route subscribed to the Sparrow Lake system. In 1915 the lumber mill closed and Clipsham became sole owner of the phone business. By 1929, his son Esmond and daughter Orma took over the resort and the small yet vital phone system. Esmond then operated it for 30 years, until the costs of converting to dial phones led him to sell out to Bell, which was then converting its Severn Bridge exchange to dial and was always pleased, playing the long-game, to pick up another phone business to enhance its monopoly.
State of Affairs between Bell Telephone and the Independents
The relationship between Bell Telephone and the independents was complex and uneven. In a number of smaller centres, Bell had single toll phones located in either the business establishment or home of their designated local “agent” who collected the charges from individuals coming in to use the phone for long-distance calls.
Many agents quickly saw the profitability of the telephone business. They began to build and operate a local phone system, in tandem with their role as Bell’s local agent. Frequently, they then bought out Bell’s installation on their property and took over provision of telephone service in the entire area.
Between Bell and the independents, as well as between independent telephone companies themselves, there was plenty of rivalry and often disputes about encroaching on one another’s territory. At the same time, there was a growing movement supporting telephones being run as a public service by the government, which became the model implemented in Canada’s western provinces.
By 1921, the number of non-Bell companies operating in Ontario had climbed to the truly impressive number of 689. They owned 115,000 telephones, a quarter of all the province’s phones – a ratio that held for Muskoka.
In the hundred years since, changes in ownership, technology, as well as the social and cultural transformation triggered by telephone use, have been nothing short of revolutionary. But they all proceeded from the foundation of early telephone service and those determined local Muskokans who wanted to participate in the modern age – even when it meant doing so on their own dime.