The Telegraph Office

"A Canadian National Telegraph Office in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada during W.W.II"

"Teenagers Sid Reith and Bryan Robinson Remember Answering 'the call.'"

by Neal McEwen, K5RW, Sid Reith, VE7XC and Bryan Robinson

k5rw@telegraph-office.com

Copyright © 2002,  Neal McEwen, Sid Reith and Bryan Robinson

To Telegraph Office Main Page


Sid Reith age 15 CN Railway telegrapherThe first and third photos to the right and below show the Canadian National Telegraphs office in Edmonton, Alberta Canada in August of 1943. These pictures were taken by one of the local newspapers, the Edmonton Bulletin or the Edmonton Journal.  The first photo shows the operators in their working environment.  The third photo shows the carrier current equipment in the back room; more on that later.  Click on any of the  images for a larger view.

The first young man in the photo to the right, Sid Reith, was sixteen years old at the time and a full time employee.  He recalls the activities of the office and the war time circumstances which made it a beehive of activity as if it was yesterday, not sixty years ago.  Sid and I met via Email in June of 2002 and over the course of a few weeks, I learned of Sid's experiences as a young telegraph operator.  In August, I met the second young man in the photo, Bryan Robinson.  He was also sixteen at the time the photo was made and remembers the times keenly.  Let's hear their story!  What follows is a mixture of history, reminisces, and technology.

Referring to the photo, Sid remembers the operators and their sines.  "The guy in front is Percy Miles, he was the most senior in the office, sine PE.  Then me, then Bryan, sine BN.  After Bryan,  there is Bert Burridge, sine B,  and then Harry Hailwood, sine HA.  My sine was SR.   My first sine in Kamloops was S, but when I went to Edmonton, I had to change it to SR, because there already was Elsie Sundin who sined S."

The journey from schoolboy in Kamloops, British Columbia to
Sines and Calls -- Each operator had a one or two letter 'sine' which identified him to the other operators along the wire.  As telegrams were sent and received, the operator's sine was entered on the telegram. 

Each telegraph office was identified by a one or two letter 'call'.    If an operator at office 'X' had traffic for office 'Y', he would open his key and send 'Y Y Y Y  X X'.  The operator at 'Y' would hear the call and reply with 'I I Y,' and the exchange of traffic would begin.  As with 'sines,' the office 'call' was entered on a telegram. -- EDITOR

telegraph operator for Sid was a short one.  "My chum Bryan got a job as part time telegraph messenger in Kamloops, working in the evenings.  Then the day messenger went telegraphing, so Bryan got the day job.  I got the night job as a messenger.  While I was delivering telegrams, I learned to telegraph.  A neighbor boy, who lived a couple of houses away was also trying to learn, so we strung a wire between the houses and had a telegraph line.  I bought a typewriter, and taught myself to type.  Bryan went to Edmonton, as a telegraph operator in June, and I got the day messenger job.   When I got the day job, I quit school."

As messenger boys, we wore handsome looking uniforms.  They had much trouble trying to outfit me, because I was so small!  We used our own bicycles and delivered messages all over town.  I worked the lunch hour, 12 to 1, then again in the evenings from 5 till 9, I think.   I had to sweep the floor and do the janitorial work as well.  One other thing that used to drive us nuts, was the fact that the CNTel. ran a delivery service too.  We used to have to deliver packages from ladie's wear, and men's wear stores to their customers."

Bryan describes the uniforms and delivering messages.  "Uniforms: Oh, yes! Flat-topped, military officer's type hat, with Canadian National Telegraphs on a light-weight, blue metal band, fastened to the front of it.  We wore a Canadian National shirt, tie and jacket; the jacket had  pockets for telegrams, delivery records, and pencils, and gum, for when the boss wasn't watching!
Kamloops, BC CN Tel office WWII
There were CNTel. breeches, wide above the knee and snug from knee to calf.  The breeches were tailored so that, from the knees up to the waist, they weren't like "pants" -- they were the same as "riding breeches" -- they fanned out on both sides, just like the W.W.I, and W.W.II, Army officers wore. Real military- looking!  We wore CNTel. black leather leggings, which we strapped onto our lower legs, which fitted over top of our boots for bike riding.

Kamloops was only about 6,000 people, yet an important rail center and divisional point for the Canadian National Railways, when Sid and I were early teen-age messengers.  One messenger covered the whole town on each of the two shifts -- day; and evening. We provided our own bikes for the job.  The photo to the right [courtesy of the Kamloops Museum and Archives] shows the office on 3rd Avenue where we worked.  The placards in both windows remind us that the time period is World War II.  The placard on the right urges the public to send cables 'to the boys in Great Britain.'

Most of the telegram deliveries were were normal business or personal messages.  However, with it being war time, we had an occasional 'casualty' message.  Early in the war, the messenger had to handle the delivery of any "casualty" telegrams concerning relatives in the armed forces.  That was TOUGH!  You had to give the addressee the telegram, ask him or her to sign the message receipt slip, then "stand by" while he or she opened it and read the contents, and, as best you could, help him or her to handle what they'd just been given.  The two telegraph companies, CND carrier current systems 1943Canadian National Telegraphs and Canadian Pacific Telegraphs, soon changed that.  The manager of the CNTel. or CPTel. office was assigned to handle all 'war casualty' message deliveries.  It was also a recommendation that a clergy person accompany him.  What a relief for us, young teen messengers, not having to help deal with the sometimes heartbreaking grief."

 Sid recalls how they mastered the American Morse code while messengers.  "When the telegraph line was not busy, there were any number of us young guys on the line practicing.  When I was learning to telegraph, the Kamloops Commercial office was closed on Sunday, so I would go over to the junction (intersection of Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways) office and send all of the day operator's traffic for him.  The word gets around, and in July, the Chief Operator in Edmonton called me up on the wire, and we had a conversation in code.  He then sent me a wire to report to Edmonton on August the first, 1943.  I'm sure my pal Bryan had a hand in it, probably saying that there was another guy in Kamloops ready to go.  My brother, Bill, also learned to telegraph.   He was the Canadian National operator in Hope, BC. for a while.  My father was one of the first radiotelegraph operators for the British Columbian Police, so it was natural that I follow in his footsteps.

When I arrived in Edmonton, I had room and board on 106th Street with "Mama" Fuglsang, a Danish lady.  This was quite a shock to my system,  because I was raised in an English Roast Beef and Yorkshire pudding environment.  Suddenly, I was eating many things I had never eaten before.  Though I tried to go to school in Edmonton, it didn't work out.
Birth of a Telegraph Company -- Beginning as a telegraph service of the Canadian Northern Railway, the Canadian Northern Telegraph Company was incorporated in 1902.  The railway defaulted on its bonds and the Canadian Government took ownership of the railway in 1917 and in 1919 took ownership of the telegraph company.  At the same time the Grand Trunk Railway, with its own telegraph service, and the Inter-Colonial Railway failed, with all entities giving birth to the Canadian National Railways and Canadian National Telegraphs. -- EDITOR

 When you worked until the early morning, and then had to walk home, it didn't work very well to go to school next morning.

Since I was the junior man in the office, I got whatever shift was left on the card.   The day shift was 8 hours, early nights was 7 1/2 hours, and late night was a 7 hour shift.  I quite often worked a split shift,  1030 am to 2:00 pm, and 5 to 9:00 pm, or just straight early nights  5:30 pm to 1:00 am.   You got a "short", which was a short relief of 15 minutes in the long portion of the shift.  If you were on early nights, you got 30 minutes.

Edmonton was one of the busiest commercial telegraph offices in the CNTel. system.  At the time the photo was taken , I was working what was known as the 'bush', which was all railroad branch lines out of Edmonton.  There were many branch lines out of Edmonton.  Edmonton was one busy place those days.  Americans were all over the place.  Bechtel Price and Callahan plus Metcalfe, Hamilton and Kansas City Bridge). They were building roads and airfields all over the place.  Traffic was both RS (railway service) and commercial.  To appreciate the activities in this office, you have to place this time in context.  It was 1943 and the Japanese Army was in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands.  The Alaska highway had just been pushed through.

They were building an oil refinery in Whitehorse, Yukon and they built an oil pipeline from Norman Wells, North West Territory to Whitehorse.  The U.S. Army Signal Corps built a landline telephone line
Prince Rupert, a strategic port -- Rail traffic to Prince Rupert almost tripled when the American Army found it was easier to move troops and supplies from Chicago and Seattle by western Canadian rails rather than by sea.  After the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands, an armored train was assigned to protect the railway right of way to Prince Rupert. -- EDITOR
 from Edmonton to Fairbanks.  Edmonton was really busy.  In addition, Prince Rupert, where I was born, was a sub port of embarkation for the U.S. Army.  Prince Rupert is situated on the northwest coast of British Columbia adjacent to the Alaskan peninsula.  In addition, American warplanes were ferried to Fairbanks, where the Russians took them over.

The manpower shortages of World War II caused problems in telegraph offices.  Many former telegraph operators were in the military services.  So Canadian National would take whomever they could get.  They paid me the going rate, which was 120 Dollars a month.  I remember one of the old timers who said, when I showed up,  'first they hired old men, then women, now they are hiring children.'"

Bryan explains the need for 'teenage telegraphers'.  "As the war continued, and a growing number of older telegraphers volunteered for military service, the search began, to try to find replacement 'brass-pounders' from amongst the younger than military age telegraph messengers, sons and daughters of railway station agents, etc., who just might have learned the code, and how to use the key; and who, with parental permission, would consider dropping out of high school, and instantly becoming: a Morse operator.  There were quite a few of us who did that!

Under the guidance and co-operation of Mr. Fraser Ellsay, manager of the CNTel. Kamloops ('KO') office, we learned American Morse Code.  Superintendent Gus Gottfred came out from CNTel. Western headquarters in Edmonton, Alberta, looking for kids like us who'd learned the rudiments of Morse telegraphy.  I checked with my Mom and Dad.  Mom had been an officer in the Women's Royal Air Force in England during W.W.I; she was a very patriotic lady, so she said, 'Absolutely, Bry! You do that, and you'll be serving our country!'  'How about YOU, Dad?'  'Shucks, young fella, I only went as far as grade four in England; you're already smarter than me -- go for it!'  So, I did - and shortly after I hung up my messenger's hat,  I, and later, Sid, were both assigned to the main CNTel. office 'D' in  Edmonton, Alberta.  In no time there were seven of us "youngsters", moving traffic at high speed, in the Morse department until the end of the war in 1945.

Of the seven teenage telegraphers, six were young men and one was a young lady, Marion Ibbotson, who'd been taught Morse telegraphy by her Dad, a station agent for Canadian Pacific Railways in southern Alberta.  One of the seven, Brian Fisk, was a British lad.  He was one of the many youngster who were sent from home in England, to relatives in Canada, because of the increased risk arising from the war to inhabitants of British Isles."

Sid differentiates CNTel. from the two big American telegraph operating companies.  "The telegraph in Canada was not like the US.  We didn't have Western Union or Postal Telegraph which handled commercial messages.  CNTel. handled both railway and commercial traffic.  Train orders and related railway traffic were handled by railway operators; we handled commercial traffic.  But we sent and received commercial messages with Railway agents on the branch lines.

I was fortunate, in a way, that I worked one of the last duplex telegraph lines.  I never heard of any others.  The line ran from our office in Edmonton to Prince Rupert on a single wire.  I think there was a repeater at Prince George.  Duplex instruments allow a single telegraph wire to support four operators, one sending and one receiving on each end of the wire.  You had to be a very good operator on a duplex wire, for if you were to "break" the wire for a fill, all four operators were shut downYou never got clear, there was always a stack of messages to send.  You sent for an hour, then received for an hour.  You learned to mark off the messages with your left hand; you never stopped sending."
Duplex Telegraphy -- Duplex and quadruplex technology was mature and widely employed by 1880.  The telegraph operating companies were quick to see the economic advantage.  They installed multiplex instruments rather than doubling or quadrupling the number of telegraph lines. In the 1920s carrier current systems replaced direct current multiplexing on high traffic inter-city circuits. -- EDITOR

You had a key at your receiving position,  so you could 'break' with it.  At the receiving end, the operator would swing his sounder around to the sender.  So it was not a good thing to break, and you tried very hard not to.  Another thing was if you made a typing error, and you laid it aside to fix, it was bad business.  If you ever had a second to fix it, you probably forgot what the correction was!"

Bryan recalls the importance of the traffic on the duplex wire and how a 'bull' was handled .  "Prince Rupert was of major importance to the war effort.  The traffic to and from was heavy.   If a 'bull' occurred at the receive side in Prince Rupert, the receiving operator opened a key that was in series with the sending operator's wire and would yell out ****!  His fellow operator would stop sending, and the Prince Rupert receiving operator would request the sending operator at Edmonton to repeat as necessary to clear up the 'bull'.  ('Bull' was the telegrapher's expression for a mistake.)"

Sid recalls the 'northern lights' disabling the duplex wire.  "Sometimes in the late evening or late nights, there would be just one operator at each end.  We had aurora, lots of it.  Sometimes the signal on the sounder would just fade out.  When this happened, you started sending 'BK BK BK BK BK' until finally the signal would start to come back.  The guy at the other end may have sent a couple of messages in the meantime, all the while not knowing the circuit had been down."

I asked Sid what the two dark bulbs between the two rows of operators were.  "What these are are two big red lights.  If you will look at the very top of the picture, you will see a couple of rows of glass covered gizmos.  These were selectors,  the selection for Edmonton was 1-2-3-1-2.   The agents out on the line would key in that sequence of dashes, which the selector would recognize, in turn lighting the big red light,  and also a corresponding small light on the box in front of each two positions.  You would then plug in a cord, and punch out the light.  This would connect you to the calling branch line.

"We also had a gadget called a 'snap light'.  This circuit was to the Winnipeg Grain Exchange, and the Calgary Stock Exchange.  Just an 'open' on the wire would put on the light.  When the light came on, it was priority one traffic.  When we had a rush message, it was called 'RX.'  The ones from the grain exchange were super rush, and were called 'XX.'  You used to holler this out, and the 'check girl' was supposed to grab it from the hook immediately and take it to an operator working the circuit to where it was going.

All the traffic from Winnipeg Grain Exchange and Calgary Stock Exchange was incoming,   I don't think  we had any traffic for the exchanges.  'Check girl' is really a misnomer; she didn't check anything.  That's what we called them, but the official name was "Route Aide'.  All she did was run around the office putting messages in the slots, and taking them off the message hooks.   She would also send the messages down to the first floor through a pneumatic tube if it was for delivery by a messenger.  The operators and equipment were on the second floor and the messengers were on the first floor.  We were in the old Gariepy Block building which had three stories.

It was the operators responsibility to confirm that the check field at the top of the message was correct as to how many words.  You put ten words on a line,  and you put two spaces in between word five and word six.  So it was easy at the end of the message to count how many lines, plus how many words extra on the last line.  It had to agree with the check.

You used to use your left had to write off the messages as you were sending.   The typical writing would be '125KN SR B 1025A', which is the message number, the receiving office, my sine, the sending operator's sine, and the time sent.  'KN' was Prince Rupert.  Other office calls I remember were 'D' for Edmonton, 'UX' for the Edmonton wire chief and 'BU' for the Edmonton radio room.

Messages were copied on typewriters, or 'mills' as they were called.  We had Underwood typewriters that were all capital letters.  The typewriters had purple ribbons and the ink was water based.  If a telegram was for local delivery, we would lay a wet tissue on the message and run it through roller like on an old washing machine.  This made a copy without disturbing the original.

Sometimes we would use the typewriter ribbons to pull a joke on the check girls.  We would tell them that we had to re-ink the ribbons, but they needed to be washed first.  Oh boy, they would come out purple.  Rotten guys, eh.

I worked as an operator for a little over a year, then I got a job as radio attendant.  This was a cushy job. Canadian National and Canadian Pacific had the contract to carry network radio stations broadcasts, and feed the local stations.  Plus we would  pickup a local program if local stations were originating to the network.  All of the networks at that time were carried on physical open wire pairs.  So, all that was in the the radio room was audio broadcast equipment, equalizers, amplifiers and such.  All the switching was manual, involving cords and jacks.  Quite a bit of the time, all that you had to do was be there to listen to the programs, and log down hits, scrapes and cuts.  Then I got a temporary job
The Phillips Code -- The Phillips Code was compiled by Walter Phillips in 1879 as a short hand for newspaper telegraphers.  Approximately three thousand commonly used words were abbreviated and complied into a list.  For example, ACC was 'account', DTV was 'detective', and WR was 'were'.  The sending operator would send the abbreviation and the receiving operator would type out the full word. By using these abbreviations the effective transmission speed was significantly improved.  The little pocket sized Phillips Code books are difficult to find and prized by former telegraphers and collectors alike. -- EDITOR
 as late night wire chief back in the telegraph office.  Imagine that, 17 years old!"

When asked about the transmission speed on the wires, Sid commented, "That's a hard question to answer.  A lot of the railway agents out on the bush lines used hand keys, nobody really sent fast.  On the duplex line, I would say we went about 25 wpm.  You didn't want to paste someone, since you were going to get pasted back the next hour!"

Bryan recalls his introduction to the Phillips Code -- "There was a 'boomer' that came to work for CNTel. in Edmonton, who had  worked 'press wires' for a number of years.  He was an expert in Phillips Code, and set about to indoctrinate Sid and myself in the virtues of Phillips Code.  He loaned us his Phillips Code book so we could begin to memorize the thousands
of Phillips' abbreviations.  We didn't get to use it, except for over-the-wire 'chats', because not many Canadian operators knew the Phillips Code, other than for a few words.  It was not at all used for message traffic."

Notice that each operator has a swing arm resonator oriented towards his left ear.  The resonator amplifies a sounder -- an electromechanical instrument which makes 'clicks' and 'clacks' as it receives the message.  Having the sounder positioned next to the ear was required to drown out the noise of the typewriter and the other sounders in the office.

Bryan remembers the bug he used -- "When Sid and I first started "Morsing" at CNTel. in Edmonton., we each needed a bug, but, because it was wartime, Vibroplexes were very hard to come by.  However, there was a radio shop near the CNTel office, and the shop had one or two Canadian made bugs, which, I think, were Autoplexes [Not related to the early Martin - Vibroplex Autoplex].  I bought one of them; it worked fine - but it wasn't a Vibroplex, which was #1 on the wanted list.  I kept my eyes and ears open, and, in due course, I bought a second-hand Vibroplex, shined it up, and got on with my early career.  There came the day when there was no longer very much Morse in my life, so I sold it - but I kept the memories of experiences which my "bug" and I had shared.
Carrier Current Telegraphy -- Carrier current telegraph systems were the work horse of inter-city trunk line telegraphy in the mid 20th century.  A telegraph circuit was produced by using a pair of carrier frequencies -- one for sending and one for receiving.  The telegraph key modulated the carrier on and off and was detected and amplified at the other end, driving a sounder.  Ten such pairs of frequencies could be used.carrier current type-B diagram  To the right is a simplified diagram of the workings of the Type B system from a 1926 Western Electric manual.  Click on the image for a full size view.

The Type B system used frequencies from 3,3000 Hz. to 10,000 Hz and the transmission was on a pair of unloaded open wire lines.  Because the carrier telegraph circuits were above the voice spectrum, a telephone channel and direct current telegraph channel could operate simultaneously with the carrier circuits.  A single electronic repeater worked for all the channels and was much easier to maintain than individual repeaters for individual telegraph lines.

Each rack in the photograph is an individual channel.  Note the 'tennis ball' style Western Electric tubes on the panel faces.  Collectors will note that each shelf had two polarized sounders and two Western Electric "legless" telegraph keys.

Western Electric developed a portable carrier current system weighing only twenty seven pounds.  It was used to temporarily expand the capacity of limited lines at major news events such as political conventions.-- EDITOR

 If you look closely at the photo, in the foreground and at the first operators hand, you will see at least two bugs and an old style 'spectacle' relay. Also note the row of message hooks and message racks.  Describing the equipment, Sid says, "I used a borrowed bug for a while, then I got my own, a Vibroplex 'Original,' and I still have it."

Sid explains the second photo:  "What you see, beside myself and my pal Bryan, is a Western Electric B Carrier.  It had ten telegraph channels to Vancouver.  To the right,  is a telegraph carrier to Calgary, designed by the Canadian National Telegraphs engineering department  in Toronto.  I don't know why, but we called it the 'Jitney Carrier'; it had five telegraph channels."

Bryan points out, "We were not dressed up for the photo.  This was standard attire required by CNTel. for operators.  We paid $19.95 for those tweed suits!"

Sid describes the maintenance of the carrier systems.  "One of the jobs of the night wire chief was scrubbing relays.  They used to have hinged glass tops, and would get dirty contacts and then blow fuses. Later we started getting smaller Western Electric relays, which I think were tungsten carbide contacts.  They didn't require much, if any, maintenance.

In 1946, I think, they decided to relocate the telegraph office from the center of Edmonton down to the Canadian National railway station.  I was in the radio room at the time.  At the station, they installed C carrier, plus 40C1 telegraph channels in the new office, and the B carrier bit the dust.  Everybody was moved, except me,  I was all alone in that big office in the radio room.  In late 1947, I got bumped by guys returning from the war.  I ended up as operator at Jasper, Alberta.  In those days (1946), the highway ended at Jasper.  One of the operator's there was Lev Barlow.  He is shown in the photo to the right.  You can see the single line repeaters on the rack behind his right shoulder.  These were morse repeaters.  They were repeating on wire 102, which ran from Edmonton to Kamloops, and wire 83 which ran from Edmonton to Prince George and further West too, I think

As a matter of technical interest, we also had a Weiny-Phillips repeater which I worked on.  It was located at Bonnyville, Alberta on wire 28, and repeated North to Grande Center.  It was something else to adjust.  Seems to me we also had a Jester-Cooper repeater down south around Drumheller, but I never worked on that one.

Barlow was Manager  and Repeater Attendant in the small office.  The photo was taken from the counter, where people would come in to send telegrams from the railway station platform.  There wasn't much to the operating side of it, all we had was a model 14 teletype circuit to Edmonton.  Another interesting thing was that we were also the long distance phone operators.  There were very few phones in Jasper, a small automatic exchange belonging to the parks administration.  But we placed all the calls to Edmonton using our facilities, Western Electric H carrier equipment.

The telephone and telegraph line from Edmonton to Fairbanks, built during the war, paralleled the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Fairbanks.  It was partly built on the Northern Alberta Railway right-of-way from Edmonton to Dawson creek.  Because of the line, jobs opened up as Repeater Attendants all the way up to the Alaskan border.  I figured that I would stay in the technical end of things, so I took a job in Grande Prairie, Alberta, a very small place when I arrived there in 1947.  There was a lot of grain farming in Grand Prairie, not much else.  Grande Prairie is about 80 miles east Dawson.  The line and related facilities were built by US Army Signal Corps during W.W.II.   After VJ day [Victory in Japan, 1945 and end of W.W. II],  the line was taken over by the Royal Canadian Air Force.  They ran the line for a year or so, then they turned it over to a civilian company, Canadian National Telegraphs, my employer.

The equipment at the Grand Prairie repeater station was all Western Electric with C carriers and 40C1 telegraph.  We went to Dawson Creek to learn the equipment.  Northern Alberta Railways got us there and were housed in an army camp located next to the repeater station.  It was a barracks like accommodation.  It was bitter cold.  The place was heated by four oil heaters, one in each corner of the hut.  They had a guy up all night long thawing heaters out, and restarting them.  The diesel fuel for the repeater generators would not flow in the cold, so had to be heated up.   The first morning there, the cook shack was frozen up, we took cabs down to the Dewdrop Inn for breakfast.  We were there about 6 weeks learning about C carriers, 40C1, 16B1, 10E1, 128B2, and so on and so forth.

On the line there was a CS system (frequency allocation) that ran all the way from Edmonton to Fairbanks, a CU1 with breakouts at Dawson Creek, and Whitehorse, and Fairbanks, and the CU2, which broke out at Grand Prairie, Dawson Creek, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, Whitehorse and Fairbanks.  The terminal in Edmonton was in the Alberta Government Telephones office.
The United States Army Signal Corps builds a 1,5000 mile line through northwestern Canada

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government feared that radio and submarine cable traffic to Alaska might be intercepted by the Japanese.  A more secure route to military installations in Alaska was needed, so the U.S. Army Signal Corps, with the help of civilian workers, built a  line mostly paralleling the Alaskan Highway from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Fairbanks Alaska. 

Three pairs of copper weld wire were strung between 95,000 poles 150 feet apart.  Repeater stations were built every one hundred miles.  When completed in May of 1943, it was the longest open wire line in the world and was the northern most telegraph and telephone line on the Canadian frontier.

Western Electric "C" carrier systems were used which carried ten voice channels and eighteen telegraph channels. 

After the war, control of the line was turned over to the Canadian government, who in August of 1946, contracted with Canadian National Telegraphs to operate the line and it became Northwest Communications Systems.

The Fairbanks terminal building, constructed by the Signal Corps is owned and used by AT&T Alascom today. -- EDITOR

Communications between the repeater stations was via a Morse 'order wire.'  Most of the attendants knew only two letters of morse, 'OW,' which meant come to the voice order wire.  Only us CNTel. types could telegraph.  My friend, Herbie Wilson was at Fawcett, the first repeater station on the line.  Sometimes he would be out late at the country dances, and about 3:00 AM  in the morning, you would hear a big long string of dots, and "Sid Pid are you there?'   I worked the all night shift, so we would have a conversation on the wire at 3 AM.  There were six CNTel. guys along the line -- three of us at the Grand Prairie repeater station, two at Dawson Creek and Herbie at Fawcett.   All the rest were Royal Canadian Air Force who "re-mustered" to the Canadian National.

I stayed in Grand Prairie on the repeater a couple of years, then decided to return to the bright lights of Edmonton.  I bounced around between Calgary and Edmonton.  In 1950, I was late night wire chief in Calgary.  One of the stock brokers in town was still using Morse (on a circuit provided by us).  One morning, they called up and said that the telegraph operator was ill, sick, hung over, who knows, and would we send an operator over toute de suite (French meaning means in a helluva hurry!).  I went over.  That was an experience!  The regular operators were used to the stock symbols and the method of transmitting etc.  Here I was, a neophyte.  Boy did I ever go under the table fast!

Another experience in Calgary was copying baseball games as they were being played in Chicago, or New York, or wherever.  Radio station CKXL would recreate the game using canned crowd noise, and other sound effects.  We used a KOB set [portable telegraph set] to copy the game.

"Other radio stations were receiving the same ball game feed, so it was a one way transmission -- no fills.  As we typed out the chits, we handed them to the announcer.  The announcer didn't read the copy verbatim; it was too terse.  The chit might say 'SLAUGHTER UP  B1  S1 HIT, GROUNDER THRU 1B-2B.'    The announcer used poetic license to string it out, and used his imagination to liven it up.  So looking at the chit, he might say, 'The big slugger, Slaughter is up to the plate and dusts off his cleats.  The first pitch is in there for ball one.  The pitcher is set and throws the second pitch for the first strike.  With the count one and one, the catcher is gives the sign.  Here comes the pitch.  The ball is pounded hard between fist and second and Slaughter is on with a single.'  If nothing was happening, a commercial was put in!  I think baseball was much better in the old days of radio.
Baseball and Telegraphy -- In 1934 most major league baseball teams agreed to let their games be broadcasted by radio via a telegraphed description of the game.  A telegrapher at the ball park would send a short hand description of the game to a central office.  This account was retransmitted to radio stations in the United States and Canada.  A journeyman telegrapher, on site at the radio station, would copy the game description and hand the copy to a radio announcer.

The telegraphers had a  sort of base baseball shorthand.  "S1C" would mean "strike one called", "S2F" would mean "strike two fanned" and "FB" would mean "foul ball."  The announcer would interpret the copy for the listening audience.   Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, early in his career, worked with a telegrapher broadcasting major league baseball from a radio station in Iowa.

Journeyman telegraphers also worked with newspaper sports reporters on site at sporting events.  The reporter would type an account of the game as it happened and hand the copy to the telegrapher.  The telegrapher would send the copy to a telegrapher in the the newspaper office.  A few minutes after the game was over, the story was in the hands of the editor. -- EDITOR

You had to imagine what was happening.

Bryan tried returning to high school, but had the wanderlust.  "At the end of W.W.II in '45, I resigned from my CNTel. Morse career in Edmonton., and went back to high school in Winnipeg, thereby up-grading my education.  By the late spring, '46, I was bored with schoolwork, and decided to go back to being a Morse operator.  I went to CNTel. first -- they didn't need a Morse wizard, and they suggested, 'Try CPTel., they're just across the street.'  So, I did.  I went in the customer's entrance and told one of the clerks, 'I want to speak to the Chief Operator; what's his name; how do I get to his office?'  'Mr. Mintie.  Go up those stairs into the Operating Room; he's got an office, right there.' So, up I went, crossed the room (listening to the sweet clicking of the sounders), and into the Chief Operator's smallish glass office.  I wasted no time: "Mr. Mintie, my name is Bryan Robinson, I'm a Morse Operator, I worked for CNTel. in Edmonton., last year; and I'm looking for work - do you have any vacancies in your Morse department?'

Mr. Mintie looked at me, said nothing, and then he reached out to where his bug was sitting, on top of his desk, took hold of its paddle, and sent at bug speed, sent:  'CAN YOU READ WHAT I AM SENDING?'  I responded, 'Yes, sir, I can read what you were sending.'  He seemed pleased, and then he spoke: 'Good, young man!  Yes, we have an opening in our Morse crew, so there's a job here for you.  Do you want to take it?'  I assured him that I sure did! Mr. Mintie said, "Right! We'll do the paper work later, but, right now, you go out and introduce yourself to the Traffic Chief; that fellow with the eye shade on, there at his table (while pointing), and you can go right to work right now! Glad you came in!'  And out I went, and headed for the Traffic Chief's table.  Day 1 with CPTel.!  Shortest job interview that anyone, anywhere, had ever experienced! My thanks go out to Samuel Finley Breeze whats-his-name! It was a real easy start!

I worked there in Winnipeg for a few months, then transferred. to the CPTel. in Edmonton.  After a few months, I was bumped down to CPTel. Calgary.  When I dropped by the Chief Operator's office to find out my shift hours, he asked me, 'How would you like to learn the technical side of communications?'  'I sure would!' I answered.  He replied, 'OK - You're working evening shift; you take two hours off each night and go into the Broadcast Room, and learn to be an Attendant - and that I did!  It was the start of a long and happy occupation,... but not without a bump in the road.

The first night, I took my two hour break to go to learn the Broadcast Room.  Afterwards, I went downstairs to the "lounge", to eat what I'd put in my lunch pail.  A middle aged Morse man sitting there, eating his grub, said to me, "Where the hell'd you go? You were there, then you weren't there! What gives?"  I told him what the Chief. Operator had set up for me -- learning broadcasting.  Mr. Middle age got all snarly!  "What the hell! You started work tonight, and this lousy outfit takes you away from where we need you, and sticks you in the broadcast room! That's not fair, at all!"  I apologized, and said, "Well, gee, If YOU want to learn the broadcast technicians. job, I'll back out of it, and you can do it!"  His eyes opened wide, "No! No! Don't do that!  I don't want that bloody job!!"  So peace was restored and I got on with the learning process of broadcasting.   I loved it -- I got paid for helping to make coast-to-coast Canadian broadcasting a reality!

In 1948, I felt a strong urge to become a Railway Telegrapher and discovered the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway (E&N) in British Columbia, owned and operated by Canadian Pacific Railways, which still, relied on Morse for communications station-to-station, and dispatcher-to-and-from-stations.  I was able to transfer from CPTel, in Calgary to the E&N where was put to work at once, at Wellington, a sub-division station just north of Nanaimo.

My next job was down Island to Duncan; after that, up island again to Jayem, which wasn't a "station". It was a converted "Club car", made into a small, one-man "office" and living quarters, adjacent to a half dozen, or so, railroad sidings, and alongside the barge dock.  All railroad traffic to and from the island was moved by tug and barge to/from Vancouver.  E&N operators, like me, at Jayem and Ladysmith, were responsible for giving direction to the train crew when car from the sidings were to be loaded onto the rail equipped barge, so when fully loaded, the barge would not be unbalanced. Challenging work!

Suddenly, came the great news!  The all night operator's. job at Ladysmith came open!  I worked the "graveyard shift", doing the Barge "planning" as at Jayem, except more of it!  That was my job of choice until mid 1951.  I transferred back to CPTel.
at North Bend the first repeater station east of Vancouver.  North bend, a division point on CPR, was a small village of 300 friendly people.  99.9% CP employees and wives. There I had the Early Night T&R [testing & regulating] Chief's job: Broadcast switching, plus keep-all-the-circuits-working; plus use the Wheatstone Bridge to compute just where Pair 91-92 was lying in the dirt, and get the lineman headed to that point!  Broadcast switching was mainly done, with "patch cords", following cues [by Morse] from the Broadcast Control in CPTel. in Vancouver. I loved my job at North Bend: a wilderness
location,  Fraser River Canyon on one side, Coast Range Mountains to the west, and a number of wonderful streams and rivers in which to fish for trout of all sizes, the whole year 'round!

Life was great!  Then in September of 1953, I had a 'flu-like' back pain.  With no doctors in North Bend, I "booked off" work, and laid around at home, wishing that whatever it was would go away.  I soon found myself paralyzed, both legs - it was polio! Remember the polio epidemics we had in the 50's?  Both in the U. S. and in Canada?

I was transported to Vancouver General Hospital.  The months passed, as I worked hard learning my wheelchair, wheeling for miles up and down the hall, each day.  The doctor came to one day and said "Bryan, do you think you can do your job from a wheelchair?"  I realized that what he meant was: the paralysis, will be permanent.  'How CAN I do my job from a wheelchair?'  The equipment is all mounted on vertical steel frames, bolted to the floor at the bottom, and rising up 8 feet or more to where they're anchored to the top girders.  'I've got a problem!'

One morning, while wheeling into the Rehab Centre gym, I saw a contractor, working on high on the wall of the gym, where an air filled ball in portable stairs had rocketed him up and down.  I thought if CPTel. would get me a set of similar rolling stairs, I'd be set!

When the P.T. Instructors said to me, "Bryan, We've done about all we can do for you.  Do you have you got a job to go to?"   I  headed to the pay phone and dialed the CPTel. Superintendent's Office.  "This is Bryan Robinson.  I'm ready to go back to my job!"  After a pause, I heard my supervisor, Mr. Tombe say, "Well --- Umm --- Bryan, you're in a wheelchair now, aren't you?  How are you going to be able to do your job?"  I gave him the rolling stairs story.  When I finished, Mr. Tombe didn't hesitate a moment! "All right, Bryan! We'll get you your stairs; you've got your job back!"

The stairs worked perfectly!  I used them, five days a week, for about five years at North Bend.  Then the Senior Technician's job at Nanaimo came open, and I thought: that's the job for me!  As Senior Technician., I was be able to direct the activities of others."

That's not the end of Sid's and Bryan's story.  Both continued to work in the telecommunications industry for many years.  In 1995, fifty years after the end of W.W.II, the six of the original CNTel. teenage telegraphers, plus the widow of the seventh, came together for a reunion.  Today Sid and Bryan are retired and live in southern British Columbia.   A 'tip of the hat' to the teens who answered 'the call' for sharing this story with us and a second 'tip of the hat' for their endless patience while I asked dozens of questions.

As we were wrapping up this article, Sid reflected on the start he got in his home town.  "Kamloops was an absolute hotbed of teenagers learning to telegraph.  What are the odds of most of us ending up in the telegraph business?"



 Bibliography

Canadian National Magazine. January, 1944

Coe, Lewis. The Telegraph -- A History of Morse's Invention and Its Predecessors in the United States.  McFarland, 1993.

Elliot, A.M. and Anderson, E.W. Carrier Current Telephone and Telegraph Systems.  Western Electric Co., 1926.

Green, Diane. In Direct Touch with the Wide World -- Telecommunications in the North 1865 - 1992. Northwestel, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, 1992.

Meyer, Fred L. Twentieth Century Manual of Railway Commercial and Wireless Telegraphy.  Rand McNally, Chicago and New York, 1914.

Oslin, George P.  The Story of Telecommunications. Mercer Press, 1999.

Phillips, Walter P. The Phillips Code. Telegraph and Telephone Age, New York, 1923.

Trump, Ed. Email to Neal McEwen, 12 August 2002.  [Alascom, Signal Corps line]

MacKay, Donald and Perry, Lorne. Train Country, an Illustrated history of Canadian National Railways. Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver , 1994


For more information, visit the Telegraph Office home page

Neal McEwen, k5rw@telegraph-office.com