Friday, 29 April 2011

Telephony and the Government Telephones Building in Brandon

Former Government Telephones Building, Brandon

This is a part 2 to my post
Brandon's New City Museum. I take a look at the history of telephony and the Manitoba Government Telephones Building at 19 - 9th Street, home to the museum.

Telephone service came to Brandon in 1882 when Bell Telephones set up shop on the prairies. That first year they boasted a whole 51 customers limited to the centre of the city as the expense limited the new technology to mostly business users.

Brandon Daily Sun, December 28, 1901 (source)

Toward the turn of the century, however, the phone was being marketed to households. Lines were run to some rural centres around Brandon, the price of phones dropped to about $6 per set and Bell introduced half price telephone rates outside of business hours.

Jan 30, 1908, Manitoba Free Press

In 1908 the Manitoba Government bought out Bell Telephone's holdings in the province, something also done by Saskatchewan and Alberta. Constantly butting heads with Montreal-based Bell over rates and the expansion of networks the governments realized that the only way they could keep up with the rest of the country, especially when it came to delivering service to the thinly populated rural areas, was to do the work themselves.

In Brandon, Manitoba Government Telephones (MGT) inherited 722 subscribers and a Bell telephone exchange building established around 1905 in a rented building at 31 – 9th Street, just south of where the current building is.

Within a couple of years, talk of constructing a permanent exchange began but years came and went with no firm date. There were likely a few reasons for the delay. The sheer size of the project that they had taken on, political meddling sometimes dictating who got service first and the fact that MGT was likely waiting for a new technology to prove itself: the automatic telephone exchange.

Paris Ont. Telephone Exchange 1909 (source)

Until this point, to make a telephone call you picked up the receiver, waited for the operator (or "Hello Girl") to answer and put your call through to the receiving party. For phone companies it meant that a small army of women were needed on-site at all times. For instance, in 1913 when an arsonist set fire to the Brandon telephone exchange sometime around 2 a.m. there was a chief officer and forty 'girls' on duty at the time (all escaped).

This Brandon Sun story from September 1907 describes a typical day at the exchange, where 7,000 calls would be put through, as resembling a manic cribbage game:

Companies around the world were working on automatic phone exchange technology that would cut out the need for many of these operators. By the mid 1910s a couple of systems stood the test of time and were becoming industry leaders. In 1916 MGT purchased a system created by the Automatic Telephone Manufacturing Company of Liverpool. The equipment would be built in their Chicago facility and shipped to Brandon.

To prepare Brandon for Manitoba's first automatic telephone exchange a custom-built plant was required. They chose a site just to the north of their rented premises and bought out 54 feet of land (at an impressive $207 per foot) that was home to the offices of local real estate developer O.L. Harwood.

The contractors who won the bid to build the telephone exchange was Hazleton and Wallis of Winnipeg. The two met and began building in Chicago before coming to Winnipeg and had an impressive track record.

They built a number of Winnipeg's most iconic buildings including the YMCA on Vaughan (1913) and the Hamilton Bank on Main (1916-18), both of which exist today. They also ventured outside the city, as far away as the Waddell Memorial Hospital in Canora, SK.

The new building, not including phone equipment, would cost around $50,000. Shovels were in the ground in the summer of 1916 and the completion date for the building and phone system was December 1917.

In late 1917 MGT went about the business of preparing the now 1,794 city and 497 rural customers for the changeover.

Left: Ad for old-style phone (source). Right: The dial phone

The most obvious change was in the telephone set itself. Instead of lifting a receiver that connected you to an operator, there was now a dial. At the exchange a series of switches and relays would 'read' the number you dialed and patch through your call locally and to a select few long distance exchanges. (For engineering manual on how an automated telephone exchange worked see Automatic Telephony from 1921).

Telephone books carried the instructions in more detail (the above are from the 1920 Winnipeg Telephone Directory). The Brandon Sun offered similar instructions for their readers on November 1, 1917:

The Brandon Sun reported that the 1917 phone ownership rate in Brandon stood at 11.3%. That was impressive considering that for the country as a whole the number was just 7.6%. The western provinces led the Dominion in phone ownership. For instance, Manitoba's rate was a second best 10.6% and BC had a country-leading 11.2% (source).

Jan 17, 1918 Manitoba Free Press

The project was completed just a few days later than scheduled. The last of the new phone equipment was installed on January 1, 1918 and on January 16 an open house was held for civic and MGT executives, including Harry Paterson the new Brandon phone superintendent.

By all accounts the changeover was a success and Brandon became Manitoba's first 'automatic' telephone exchange city. By summer 1918 there were only a few other centres in the west that could boast the same. Winnipeg didn't begin opening automatic exchanges until 1920 and it took six years until they could declare themselves completely automated.

First MTS car in Brandon ca. 1920s
(Source: People of Service - see below)

Not long after the opening of the new exchange there was labour strife at MGT. In 1917 phone staff had unionized and began demanding an increase in pay from their current $40 (for operators) a month and a reduction in their work day from ten to eight (source). Winnipeg's operators walked out for three hours but Brandon's stayed on the job. In 1918 employees did get an increase in pay and changes to their work day.

When the Winnipeg General Strike began on May 15, 1919 it was the "Hello Girls" that were first to walk off the job. When Brandon held a sympathetic strike on May 20, again, it was the phone employees first off the job.

Winnipeg Telegram (Strike Edition) June 20, 1919

MGT threatened striking workers that if they didn't return to their positions and sign a pledge never to take part in a sympathetic strike again they would be fired. The hiring of replacement workers began and June 20 MGT fired all of their staff in favour of the replacements (source).

Phone truck in Reston ca 1923 (source)

Phone service continued to expand in the city but bureaucracy, wartime labour and equipment shortages and The Depression slowed the growth in rural areas. Between 1920 and 1924 the number of telephones in Manitoba (excluding Winnipeg) actually went down (source). That 11.3% ownership rate in Brandon in 1917 rose to only 53% by 1943 (source: Brandon's Politics and Politicians by WL Clark ).

Former Government Telephones Building, Brandon

The Manitoba Government Telephones Building served Brandon until the late 1960s. In 1966 MTS announced a new $2m building would be built at 18th and Victoria to house the latest in computerized switching and and microwave technology. When it opened in 1968 Brandon became the first centre in Manitoba to get touch tone dialing !

Resources (articles)
A History of the Telephone in Manitoba MHS
MTS Map of Long Distance Pole Routes (1940)


- Government telephones: The experience of Manitoba (1916)
- The invisible empire: a history of the telecommunications industry in Canada 1846 - 1956
- People of Service: A Brief History of the Manitoba Telephone System
- Private vs Public Telephones Wpg Real Estate News

For more Brandon history
Hillman's Brandon Archive Site
Heritage Brandon
Brandon History on eBrandon


Jim Petrin said...

It is interesting that in the very early days, the government saw the advantages in owning a telephone company, and now they do not.

Jim Petrin
Mavillette, N.S.

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