1997 >> March >> The Dominion Battleford Telegraph Part I  

The Dominion (Battleford) Telegraph Part I
by Mark Lauckner

Reprinted from "Crown Jewels of the Wire", March 1997, page 8

Perhaps the single most important mechanism by which the "Northwest Territory" (Alberta and Saskatchewan) was settled would be the Canadian Pacific Railway. There were, however, two earlier efforts responsible for bringing settlers to the vast uninhabited area. One was the Northwest Mounted Police, the other was the Dominion Telegraph. The great vast northern prairie region had to be prepared for settlement.

In July 1874, the Government dispatched a force of 500 men from Dufferin (Dufresne?), Manitoba to head west with the task of policing the wild North West Territory. (This famous march from Dufferin to McLeod was the longest military march in modern recorded history.) It was noted at this time that a telegraph line was necessary in order to keep in touch with this force.

It had been suggested that there be a road and telegraph linking the British Territories on the Pacific coast with the East for some time. As far back as 1863 a contract had been let and materials accumulated at Fort Garry for this purpose. The form this project took at confederation was a Canadian Pacific Railway. The original CPR railway was to run northward from between lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba, through Saskatoon, Edmonton, and on to the Yellow head Pass. Naturally, the first step was to build the telegraph and the government acquired the supplies stored at Fort Garry for this purpose.

In 1871 the Government linked Fort Garry with the American telegraph system at Pembina to give outside connection with the line as it was pushed westward to Winnipeg. In 1874, contracts were let to build various sections of a line from the Great Lakes to the Pacific coast. These were to follow the proposed route of the CPR across the northern prairie to the Yellowhead Pass, and then connect to the Collins' Overland (Western Union) line which had been extended as far east as Kamloops from the original route up the Fraser River.

One of these 1874 contracts was awarded to John Sifton, Glass & Flemming of Winnipeg to build the line from Cross Lake (18 miles west of Selkirk), via the route of the proposed railway, to Fort Pelly, Saskatchewan (near Livingston). (Another record states the contract was from Fort Garry to Fort Pelly.) Livingston was the headquarters of the Northwest Mounted Police. Today it is the town of Swan River, Manitoba. Livingston was to be the capital of the new Territories, but was soon abandoned in favor of Battleford, while the Police headquarters was moved to Fort McLeod and Fort Walsh, the areas of greatest unrest. The Sifton contract was completed by January 22, 1876 and connected Livingston (Swan River) with Winnipeg along the proposed CPR route.

The Alberta Archives state this picture is at Swan River, SK 
(Photo #B4432), but the National Archives in Ottawa state that
it is the Humbolt telegraph office (Photo #C-753).

The contract for the second section of line was let to Richard Fuller of Hamilton, Ontario. This line extended from Livingston through Humbolt (the crossing of the Battleford and Prince Albert trails), crossing the South Saskatchewan River at Clarke's Crossing (18 miles below Saskatoon), and on to Battleford. It extended from Battleford along the south side of the river to Leduc (Alberta), which meant it did not connect Edmonton. It was completed in November, 1876. Repair stations were located at Poplar Plains (50 miles west of Pelly, Richard Matheson and Walter Salsbury, linemen), Humbolt, (George Weldon, lineman), Battleford (John Little, superintendent, Thomas Dewan and Bernard Tremont, linemen).

Francis J. Barnard, a Cariboo Road entrepreneur who ran the famous "B.X. Express" stage coaches, was awarded the third and most western contract. Barnard was an American, born in Quebec, and was one of many who flocked to the gold fields of northern B.C. in 1859. (The contract has been reported to cover the area from Fort Edmonton to Cache Creek, but this was still 4 years before Edmonton requested and obtained telegraphic connection, while the Western Union [Collins'] line had been brought as far east as Kamloops by 1867.) This connecting line was to parallel the North Thompson River.

About halfway between Kamloops and Tete Jeune Cache, the famous cache of McMicking insulators and wire was stored in preparation for building this connecting line section. (See Canadian Insulator Collector, March/April 1995.) For some reason the connector was never built. (It was still 7 years before the connection would be made from Humbolt, Saskatchewan to the CPR at Qu' Appelle Station.) Apparently more of these telegraph contracts were cancelled than were actually constructed. Most people speculate that the telegraph line was to follow ahead on the exact route of the proposed railway. This location is on the "Yellowhead" route which was first surveyed for a cross-Canada wagon road, later to be the CPR. The location was later changed in favour of Rogers' Pass in the south. Because the supply depot location was only one-sixth of the way between Kamloops and Edmonton, there may have been more depots at intervals through the Yellowhead route.

Barnard's express office in Yale in 1868.

The line west of Battleford was not used until 1877 when Richard Fuller hired James McKernan to maintain the line from a point 30 miles west of Battleford to its western terminus at Leduc. (James McKernan was one of the 500 men who marched west as a member of the Mounted police three years earlier.) James McKernan settled at Hay Lakes, about 30 miles east of Leduc, while his brother, Robert McKernan, situated himself at Grizzly Bear Coulee, about halfway between Edmonton and Battleford. These were repair stations only, no telegraph offices were opened, although James McKernan knew the code and often received government messages for the Mounted Police stationed at Fort Saskatchewan.

Wire Cache as discovered by the CNR construction crew on
 the North Thompson River in 1918. Note the threadless 
McMicking insulators among the rolls of wire.

Thomas Dewan and James McKernan.
Francis J. Barnard and J. Stuart MacDonald.

In 1878, the Hudson's Bay Post at Edmonton was becoming more of a village; and its residents petitioned the Government to extend the telegraph service from its terminus at Leduc. They offered to construct the line free of charge if the government established an office. The contractor (Mr. Fuller) supplied the wire and insulators for free, and the Hudson's Bay Company provided the poles and most of the labor. The project was overseen by McKernan, and was completed and operating on January 19, 1879. Upon completion of the line to Edmonton, the contractors fixed the tariff at $3.00 for 10 words from Edmonton to Winnipeg, $2.00 from Battleford to Winnipeg, and $1.00 from Edmonton to Battleford. The press rate was 1/2 per word, the Herald and Bulletin using the wire for free. During the years 1879-80, few settlers came to the region, and there was little use of the telegraph.

The line was nothing but trouble from the beginning. (Sounds like most of these early pioneer lines.) In the Eastern section, the poles were poplar, an unsuitable wood. The wire was lighter than regular telegraph wire and the insulators were smaller. On the plains, buffalo used the poles as scratching posts and overturned them regularly. When the line ran through uncut thick groves of small northern trees, the line went dead in wet weather. With the linemen situated 100 miles apart, their only transportation being a buckboard and a single horse, it was practically impossible to maintain continuous operation. Battleford, however, had two dog sled trains for maintaining the line in winter. In spring and summer, prairie grass fires were the main source of trouble, destroying great numbers of poles as they progressed. The line actually worked well from the first frosts of autumn to the spring thaw. The job of lineman during these times was a particularly difficult one, far from trading posts or any source of supply, there was little variety of food. A few cases of scurvy developed, the victims going to Battleford in spring for treatment. While researching this article, I came upon numerous accounts of frostbite, snow blindness, and heroic acts of endurance.

Repairing the telegraph line by dog sled in winter (near Battleford).

In the early 1880's, numerous surveying parties started dividing up the prairie into sections and quarter sections of land in preparation of settling farmers. As Battleford was then the capital and centre of activity, it also became the gathering point for the surveying parties. On one occasion in Battleford, while the line was being repaired, the operator constructed a sun dial consisting of four rods. This soon became the standard time used in the north, transmitted over the wire at regular intervals. Battleford was also the location of the first Northern telegraphic weather reports (in the summer of 1879). The Western Union published a listing of all telegraph office activity twice a month. The January 16, 1880 listing in the Journal of the Telegraph shows several new offices in British North America. They were: Battleford, Fort Edmonton, Humbolt, Hay Lakes, Lake Manitoba, Poplar Plain, Rennie, Ridout's Hotel, Ross Land, and Swan River.

Mr. Fuller's original contract expired after two years, and all paid employees of the telegraph were relieved. No steps were taken to immediately reopen the line. Finally, a Mr. La Touche Tupper was sent out by the Government to reopen the line for business and all interested former employees were rehired. 

Shortly after this, an announcement was made that the line west of Humbolt would be abandoned in favour of a new line connecting Edmonton and Battleford to the CPR telegraph system in the South. The work began in the summer of 1882 at Troy, and later that year reached the Touchwood Hudson's Bay post (later named Kutawa). In the interim, there was a 80 mile gap in the telegraph between Humbolt and Kutawa, telegraph messages having to be carried on foot. By bridging the gap, Edmonton and Battleford were able to keep in touch with Eastern points with their system now connected to the CPR telegraph at Qu' Appelle Station. This new line connected South Qu' Appelle, Fort Qu' Appelle, Touchwood Hills, and crossed the Salt Plains to Humbolt. Here it joined the original line built from Selkirk in 1874.

In the summer of 1882 the responsibility for telegraph lines was transferred from the Department of Railways and Canals to the Department of Public Works. Ottawa organized a Telegraph Branch within the department, with Charles Tupper as Minister. F.N. Gisborne was the Superintendent, D.H. Keeley, Assistant General Superintendent, and Hartley Gisborne (F.N.'s son) was District Superintendent. At the time of the transfer, the entire length of the line was 1,245 miles. After the rerouting of the line to the CPR lines in the south, the total length was reduced to 975 miles.

During the summer of 1883 the residents of the settlement of Prince Albert petitioned the Government to give them telegraph service. Similar to the arrangement with Edmonton, the residents offered to construct the line to join at the nearest point on the existing line. Construction was completed on December 3, 1883 and the new branch line joined at Clarke's Crossing (where the main line crossed the South Saskatchewan River). It was to extend all the way to Prince Albert, but was only built to the Hudson's Bay Company post four miles south of the settlement. This angered the settlers who proceeded to tear up poles. Hartley Gisborne was visiting the site to install the telegraph set and was threatened by angry residents. He quickly reported the incident to the Minister at Ottawa, where a decision was made to go with the wishes of the settlers, and the office was moved into the village.

Also in 1883, the station at Humbolt was closed. Mr. Weldon and family left, becoming operator for the CPR telegraph at Grenfell. Mr. Lindenburg was sent to Touchwood Hills to open the telegraph station there, called Kutawa, 70 miles from Qu' Appelle and 70 miles from Humbolt. 

An office was opened at Clarke's Crossing in 1884. Richard J. Molloy, a newspaper publisher from P.E.I., was the first agent there. When the Government decided to grant representation to these territories, Molloy became the Conservative nominee for Saskatchewan. He remained in the telegraph service for many years and eventually took a position in Qu' Appelle with the CPR.

In the fall of 1884 the Department decided to change the route of the line between Battleford and Edmonton. There was only one small settlement on the south side of the river at the time (Bresaylor), while Indian Agencies at Onion Lake and Saddle Lake on the north side were without communication of any kind. It was then decided that the new location of the line would be from Battleford, crossing the river at Fort Pitt, with offices at Pitt, Moosawa, Saddle Lake, Victoria (now Pakan), and Fort Saskatchewan. The rebellion broke out before this change, so construction was commenced in the spring of 1886. Between Battleford and Pitt 15 foot high hollow iron poles, 2-1/2 inches round, were used with a double ground plate to hold them firmly. The experiment was a success, the poles withstanding prairie fires and lightning. These remained in place until abandonment in 1926. Fredrick N. Gisborne, Hartley's father, actually received Canadian patent #22449 for the invention of these iron poles. By 1888, 3500 of these poles were in use. From Pitt to Edmonton the line was built with tamarac poles. F. N. Gisborne, in his report to the Minister on North West lines in November 1883, called these poles "Hacmatack". (See Canadian Insulator Collector January 1995, March 1995, May 1995 for Gisborne's full 1883 report.)

In March 1885 came the North West rebellion. Without the telegraph, the condition of affairs throughout the whole North country would have been unknown to the Mounted Police who were too few and too occupied with the newly built railway in the South. It was the rebellion which proved the tremendous value of the telegraph line to Ottawa, and finally, its construction and difficult maintenance was justified. The wire was broken in several places during the rebellion, and linemen risked their lives to venture out to make repairs.

There are reports of one telegrapher being held captive and another killed during the rampage. One of these men, Bernard Tremont (also known as Barney Freeman) was a Belgian. Before coming to Canada he lived in Wyoming with his brother ranching cattle. He frequently expressed his contempt for Indians, as his brother was killed at his side by one while driving cattle in Wyoming. He was a lineman during the period when Fuller had his contract and then remained with the telegraph service until 1884. He then went into business with fellow lineman Thomas Dewan and established a ranch a few miles out of Battleford. Due, doubtless, to his feelings regarding Indians, he refused to leave his ranch when the rebellion broke out and so became one of the first victims when the Indians went on the killing rampage. He was killed in March of 1885. A tablet was placed in his memory by his fellow linemen in March 1886 at St. George's Episcopal Church in Battleford.

With all the trouble in the northern part of the territories, the Government quickly built telegraph lines in the south, linking numerous small settlements. Lines were strung from Calgary to Macleod, Calgary to Lethbridge, and Moose Jaw to Wood Mountain. The lines were completed by the end of June 1886. In 1877 Sitting Bull surrendered (to Major Crozier after the Custer massacre) by walking into the telegraph & police office at Wood Mountain.

Wood Mountain telegraph office.

Shortly after the opening of the office at Wood Mountain, the Department sent a pair of wooden telephones for experimental purposes. One was installed at Wood Mountain, the other at Moose Jaw. These were the first telephones to be used in the territories, and apparently worked quite well. In September of 1886, an office was opened at Henrietta, near the elbow of the North Saskatchewan river, with a youthful 16 year-old L.P.O. Noel as the agent.

Hartley Gisborne retired as District Supervisor in 1897, and was replaced by J. Stuart MacDonald, who in 1905, was promoted to be General Inspector of all Western Lines.

Residents of Battleford in 1884. Hartley Gisborne is the 
person standing behind the upright barrel near the center 
of the picture. There is a large dog sitting on the barrel.

Several more lines were connected to the Dominion system; one from Edmonton to Hudson's Hope, BC, the head of navigation on the Peace River. This line served many settlements along the way: Fort St. John, Pouce Coupe, Grand Prairie, Peace River, and others. Another line extended down the river from Athabasca to McMurray, while a second line from Athabasca ran Eastward to Lac la Biche, serving points in between. One long line ran from Battleford north to Isle la Crosse, over 300 miles. 

The fact that commercial telegraph companies were starting to occupy the districts once served by the government lines determined that the latter were gradually abandoned and in some cases, dismantled. The outlying territories were served by the Government lines for many more years, though. In these remote areas there was no interest by the commercial companies to construct lines. The commercial companies didn't undertake this work until the settlements grew to become a size which warranted some financial return on their investment.

Following is the observations and recommendations section from F. N. Gisborne's report of November 8, 1883. He traveled west with his son, Hartley, that summer to inspect the line and report back to the Minister. His son remained in Battleford as District Superintendent of Lines.

In conclusion of this report I have now to add the following observations and recommendations:

1. That the telegraph line between Qu'Appelle Station and Humboldt, 151 miles, and between Clark's Crossing and Prince Albert, 95 miles, being newly built, although of poplar poles, is in good order; the wire, No.8, weighing 376 lbs. per statute mile, and the brackets and insulators being of good quality.

2. That the line between Humboldt and Clark's Crossing, 60 miles, has been rebuilt for 14 miles, and repaired for 46 miles with alternate new poles, the wire being No.9, weighing 303 lbs. to the mile, but the brackets being old, and the insulators of small and poor description.

3. That the line from Clark's Crossing to Battleford, 155 miles, is in a bad condition, the poles (poplar) being rotten; the wire, No.9, good, but the insulators and brackets poor. It has, however, been placed in as good order as practicable by three repairers, for winter service.

4. That from Battleford to Edmonton, 302 miles, the line is upon its last legs, the poles being rotten, the wire, beyond twenty-five miles west of Battleford being No. 11, weighing 199 lbs. to the mile and much too weak for service, many of the brackets split, and the insulators of the poorest description.

5. That throughout the entire line there was either a marked deficiency or total absence of all necessary material for the repair and maintenance of the line; the office instruments being also ineffective.

6. That the telegraph line is rarely near the travelled trail. as it was originally erected, and has since been maintained upon the abandoned surveyed route of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and in consequence passes through and over lakes, muskegs, and bluffs of timber which have since grown up and now bear upon the wires. The inconvenience and greatly increased difficulty of repairing such a line can hardly be over-estimated, for even a poor trail is luxury in comparison with a drive over rough ground perforated with innumerable badger and gopher holes.

7. That the total revenue of the line, when transferred to the Department of Public Works, did not exceed $50 per month, versus an expenditure of over $690 per month.

8. That it was the unanimous opinion of settlers throughout the North-West that in no other manner could the Dominion Government, at such small comparative cost, so conduce to the welfare of the people, and settlement of the land, as by the establishment of an effective system of telegraphy, connecting outlying localities with the capital of Manitoba and Eastern Canada.


1. That in all future telegraph lines erected by Government in the North-West No.6 galvanized iron wire, weighing 570 pounds per statute mile, and equal to a breaking strain of 1,850 lbs., be used; together with first-class insulators and good screw, oak or iron brackets or pins.

2. That wherever practicable hacmatack or spruce poles be obtained, although at a cost of not exceeding $2 each delivered on the ground, rather than use poplar, which eventually costs much more during the life-time of the better wood. And that light iron or steel poles, at a cost of not exceeding $3 each delivered on the ground, be used throughout prairie sections which are distant from spruce or hacmatack groves of timber.

3. That telegraph stations be established at not over 100 miles apart, and that shelter huts for repairers' use be erected within 33 miles of each station, or each other.

4. That the lines between Qu'Appelle Station on the Canadian Pacific Railway, via, Touchwood, Humboldt and Clark's Crossing to Battleford, and between Clark's Crossing and Prince Albert, be maintained in effective working order, the poles being gradually replaced by a better class of timber or iron, as required.

5. That the 24 or 25 miles of No.9 wire, west of Battleford be taken down, and that the line thence to Edmonton, which passes through an almost entirely uninhabited country, one not likely to be settled or traversed by a branch railway for many years, and far south of the North Saskatchewan route of travel via Fort Pitt, be abandoned in toto.

6. That the offer of the inhabitants of Saskatchewan and of St.,Albert to provide spruce and hacmatack poles, be accepted, and that a line be erected to those settlements, 18 miles and 9 miles, respectively, from Edmonton,

7. That an entirely new line, furnished with hacmatack and spruce poles, which contractors offer to deliver along the trail for $1.40 each, be erected between Edmonton and Calgary, the distance being 180 to 185 miles.

8. That prior to the erection of such telegraph line, a new main trail probably approximate to the present one though shorter, be surveyed out between Edmonton and the most convenient station for freighters, at or near Calgary.

Finally I may add that should the foregoing recommendations meet with the approval of the Government, I am of opinion that, when established, such lines would not only be self-supporting, but also at a comparatively small cost, tend very much to the prosperity of the inhabitants, and also to the more rapid settlement of the North-West; nor should it be forgotten that the Calgary to Edmonton line would be a section of its future expansion to the Peace River district.

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"Numerous attempts have been made in recent years by insulator 
collectors to locate this old pioneer threadless line.... "

The Dominion (Battleford) Telegraph Part II is scheduled for next month.

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