1997 >> April >> The Dominion Battleford Telegraph Part II  

The Dominion (Battleford) Telegraph Part II
by Mark Lauckner

Reprinted from "Crown Jewels of the Wire", March 1997, page 4

Numerous attempts have been made in recent years by insulator collectors to locate this old pioneer threadless line. Wilf & Margaret Secord made significant discoveries at the location of Wire Cache on the North Thompson River in 1974, 1975, and in 1983. Many others also dug this site.                                                                        

Wilf Secord after 5 days of digging McMicking threadless insulators
 at the site of the old storage cabin in 1983. 

(See Wire Cache picture, Crown Jewels of the Wire, March 1997)

In 1972 Ren Settle of Edmonton discovered perhaps the only known cache of the small insulators used on the original pioneer line out west. He coined the phrase "Baby Battleford Threadless" as a nickname for these tiny insulators. After 3 years research and scratching around on the prairies, he discovered the location of one of the linemen's cabins on an open wheat field. After securing permission from the land owner, the team of two diggers worked for 5 days to fully excavate the area around the foundation of the log and sod dwelling. Numerous old bottles, battery rests, and other artifacts were recovered along with several blackglass threadless insulators 5 or 6 feet below the level of the wheat field.

A total of 124 complete insulators were found, most with some base damage, along with 170 broken pieces. The insulators were of several different mold styles, although they were all the same general shape. There were also 10-12 aqua specimens included with the blackglass ones.

Jigsaw puzzle, anyone? 
The broken pieces recovered from the site in 1972.

Of the 5 different mold styles found, 3 are blackglass and two are aqua. The round-shouldered blackglass variety was recovered complete in smaller quantities due to the fragile design. The square shouldered variety appears with both a smooth dome and with a point on the dome. Both were recovered from this line. The aqua items from this line have also been found with and without the pointed dome. Aqua specimens have also been recovered in Ontario.

Sloped shoulder, 
green blackglass

Sloped shoulder, 
light aqua

Round shoulder, 
green blackglass

Round shoulder with dot on dome,
green blackglass

Actual size CD 734.8 Baby Battleford threadless insulators.


When placed between a short and tall McMicking from the
Wire Cache location, the profile is very similar but the 
Battleford aqua items are must shorter and more narrow.

In an interview with Ren Settle, he states: 

"Map research, including comparisons with modern air-photos, and all relevant text materials helped me to zero in on the site I eventually excavated. Then I had to do a lot of back road driving, and talking with area farmers, especially the older ones. There's another factor that you have to deal with as well, and this is difficult because you don't want to offend someone who's trying to help you. Some people "remember" things, dates, and events differently from what they actually witnessed many years earlier, and with the best of intentions, may send you on a wild goose chase. This adds a dimension of "sport" to your research, as you can well imagine. Most of the cartographic and textual information was made available to me through the Alberta Provincial Archives in Edmonton, but I had to pull out the useful bits myself. This took many weekends over the Winter of 1971/72.

The site of the station at Grizzly Bear Coulee in Alberta has been recognized for its historical importance by the Alberta government since about 1970. It is now officially a protected site. There was abundant evidence that someone had already made a mess of the site in the search for artifacts back in the mid-to-late 60's. When my independent research in 1971 showed how important the site had been to Canadian history, I shared the information with the Archaeologist (Provincial Archives), and led him to the site, which I had found on Crown land, and which he had not been able to find the previous summer. It was, of course, a somewhat disappointing find, due to the sloppy excavation done earlier. However, John Nicks, the Archaeologist and I spent a weekend mapping the site for the Archives. But the most interesting episode was yet to come, because my research had also revealed that the Grizzly Bear Coulee station had only been used for a few (maybe 2 or 3) years before being abandoned and relocated a few miles to the West to a site called Eleanor. That was the site I found and excavated in the early summer of 1972. 

The weekend when we were mapping the Grizzly Bear Coulee site, I shared a pot of coffee over the campfire with the old farmer who resided closest to the site, still about 2 miles away. He had this wonderfully slow, laconic manner of speaking, and our conversation, in part, went approximately as follows: 

Ren Settle: So what do you suppose it would have been like, living here by this little creek back in the 1880's?

FARMER: Well it must' a been real lonesome 'cause there weren't nobody farm in' around these parts 'till about ninteen-hunnert-an-ten. (long pause while he rolled a cigarette, then he continued), But I don't know how they could'uv drank the water from this creek. It's so alkalai tastin' it'll give you the trots! 

RS: What about firewood? Would they have had enough from the scrubby little poplars growing along the edge of this coulee?

FARMER: Well, I'll bet they would'uv run right out after a couple of winters. Them little trees don't grow very fast around here. 

These are at least two good reasons for relocating the station. Still, from what I found at Eleanor, including "vegetable compound" and "Warner's Safe Cure" bottles, they didn't leave all their troubles behind. 

Eleanor would have been just a small, sod dwelling/repair-station, measuring no larger than about 10 by 20 feet, perhaps smaller (easier to heat at 40 below zero). "Crow-foot" elements from wet-cell batteries indicate they had the ability to send messages, or at least to boost the signal. 

When I first located the Eleanor Station site, I spent some time talking with the farmer who owned the land. He would have been in his late seventies at that time, and his memory relative to the old site, though first-hand, was scanty. His father had homesteaded the farm (which included the station site) around 1915. He remembered that he and his father had "kicked a bunch of glass insulators and stuff' into the depression that remained of the station to fill the hole so they could till the field without having to detour around it. Once I had his permission to dig -- before Spring plowing was to start -- I camped at the edge of the field beside a small pond (the better water-supply?) and talked with the farmer, on site, about the pattern of his plowing and tilling over the years. Did he always till that field just in an East/West direction, or did he sometimes change the pattern? 

With this in mind, I began an intensive search of the surface of the field, and each time I found a piece of glass, I marked the spot with a survey stake. Within a few hours, I had used all my stakes in an area about 200 feet square, a relatively small area considering the size of the field. (By the way, the farmer couldn't pin-point the site any more accurately than I was trying to do, but he "remembered" it being much closer to the pond than it actually turned out to be. Then I hired a young friend from Edmonton to dig with me and camp on the site, and after exploratory trenching the first two days, we finally hit "pay-dirt". We found the dirt floor of the station only 3 to 4 feet down. Both the Grizzly Bear Coulee and the Eleanor Station sites showed evidence of fire in the remains of timbers used to support the roof. I may be mistaken, but had assumed this to be proof that both structures were torched during the time of the rebellion in the mid-to-late 1880's in an attempt to discourage white settlers from the area. 

When the dig was underway, we didn't take any photos, and we kept a very low profile. I think you understand. The owner would frequently stop by the site, (the large, open grain-field) to inspect our progress. But he had no idea as to the potential value of what we were digging up, and we did. We showed him a few insulators, lots of broken glass, and all the bottles we found, but little else. We certainly didn't want a bunch of visitors looking over our shoulders! We were on the site actually digging for five full days. And when we were satisfied that the site had been thoroughly searched, we refilled the hole as promised, thanked the owner, and left."

Large Image (181 Kb)
Ren Settle's 1972 Battleford Insulator sale flyer.

Ren Settle sold about 15 of these insulators in 1972-73. He then sold the entire remaining supply to an insulator collector in Minnesota in 1973.

Two other people have reported finding these blackglass threadless on the Northern Canadian prairie. A bottle digger excavating the site of the old Battleford settlement dump recovered one specimen in 1973. Eight more were recovered at another dump site more recently and were sold to an insulator collector in Regina, Saskatchewan. An excavator uncovered them along with numerous broken pieces while digging the basement for a building in Battleford. I personally inspected these items earlier in 1996, several badly damaged. Three of them had the small dot on the dome top, and they were all blackglass in colour. I advertised heavily in the Battleford area in 1992 and all I came up with was a farmer who had ploughed up one of the steel pole bases in a field.

Four examples of the aqua style have also been recovered in the Hamilton, Ontario area in recent years. One complete green example also exists. As one of the 1874 contracts to construct the line was let to a Hamilton firm, could this be the location of origin for these items?

While researching this article I came upon many names that I couldn't find on my 1996 road maps of Alberta and Saskatchewan. By overlaying my current maps with CPR maps and Northwest Company Trading Post maps, I was able to place most of the telegraph offices and communities mentioned in this article. Many of these settlements are still very small today, like Onion Lake, so the potential still exists for more excavations in the future. While others, like Saskatoon, weren't even settlements when the first pioneer telegraph line went to Battleford in November of 1876. It did amaze me just how many of these old settlements still exist today. The others, too old to be remembered by anyone still living, are now just open wheat fields on the northern Canadian prairie.

Canada Before Confederation. R. Cole Harris & John Warkentin, Oxford University Press,1974 
Journal of the Telegraph, Jan. 16, 1880, page 25 
The Dominion Telegraph, Canadian Northwest Historical Society Publications, 1930 
Wagon Road North, Art Downs, Northwest Digest Books, 1960 
The Fraser Canyon, Valley of Death. Frank W. Anderson, 1968, Frontier Publishing Co. 
Canadian Railway Telegraph History, Robert Burnet, 1996 
Crown Jewels of the Wire, December 1991. Page 12. Fredrick Newton Gisborne 1824-1892 By Eric Halpin.
insulators, Sept. 1972, Information on a Newly Discovered Very Small -Black Glass+ Insulator. By Ren Settle, Page 25-27. 
"Insulator By-Lines" Old Bottle Magazine, September 1973, page 21.
Map: Carleton District 1815, Hudson Bay Company Archives. Map G. 1/27
Map: Fur Posts and Missions in the Western Interior. Canada Before Confederation. (See above) 
Rand McNally BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba road maps.

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