Telephones are omnipresent in our lives now… we can reach into our pocket and place a direct dial call on a little palm-sized gadget to anywhere in the world. The story of the telephone in Westmeath Township is much like in other rural areas of the province except for one special thing. The original North Renfrew Telephone Company is still the main provider of both telephone and internet services in the Whitewater area.
In 1874 Alexander Graham Bell outlined his telephone idea to his father and in 1876 conducts the world’s first one-way long distance test from Brantford to Paris, Ontario. In 1877 Professor Bell leased the first telephones in Canada for use between the Prime Minister’s office and the Governors General residence – Canada’s first two-way long distance connections between Montreal and Quebec. Canada’s first exchange was opened at Hamilton. By 1920 Bell Canada could give service to any place in Canada or the United States.
In 100 Years Ottawa and the Valley: A Backward Glance from Centennial Year by Harry J. Walker reprinting stories from the Ottawa Journal, Walker includes the section: first-phone-line-in-ottawa-rideau-hall-to-west-block, from which comes this local nugget of the first local long-distance call from Ottawa to the Copeland (Hotel) House- to settle an unpaid bill.
For thirty years after Bell invented the telephone, its use was confined to the cities and towns where the Bell Company was in operation. The only way that the rural residents and villagers of the Ottawa Valley could obtain phone service was by starting their own, a company which could have long distance connections through Bell, if they so desired. The cost of installing the lines was low since the rural telephone systems were put up almost entirely by the men who owned them. They dug the post holes and supplied the poles themselves but engaged an expert to do the wiring and install the phones.
The rural lines started with neighbours stringing a line from one house to the next, along that concession road. That was a party line and everybody knew what their own ring was and could easily listen in to their neighbour’s conversations.
On the 100th anniversary of the North Renfrew Telephone Company (NRTCO), an extensive & detailed company history was written by Marie Zettler and published in the Pembroke newspaper The Daily Observeron Thursday, August 25, 2011; A Century of Communication .
The following history of the various local telephone associations and lines uses excerpts from both the Westmeath and Laurentian View Women’s Institute Tweedsmuir Books, as well as information from other sources.
“In 1911 the Westmeath, Beachburg Telephone Assoc. was established along with several other rural companies. It was then that the North Renfrew Telephone Company established the present system. Although Bell Co. had installed one instrument in Bennie’s store in 1906, the first switchboard for the North Renfrew Co. was established in the home of Dr. G.W. Alexander in Beachburg and at the home of W.F. Grylls in Westmeath. Mrs. Grylls was ably assisted by Miss Etta Wilson of Greenwood from 1919 until the removal of the switchboard from Westmeath.
“The Bromley Line Rural Telephone Association was organized on Feb. 11th, 1911, in the Public Hall, Westmeath, at which the following officers were elected: President, John E. Bromley, Vice-Pres. John Anderson, Sect.-Treas. Izett Anderson, Directors – James Henry Bromley, Charles Cahill and John Wright.
A regular meeting took place in Bromley Line School on Feb. 25th, 1911, and as a result a switch-board was installed at Westmeath, telephone poles and wires erected along Bromley Line to Westmeath – with a Trunk Line to Pembroke, connecting with the Bell Telephone Co. for Long Distance communication, each subscriber paying a flat rate of $5.00 a year at first, then later a 5 cent message rate. The Bromley Line Rural Telephone Association amalgamated with others, henceforth being known as The North Renfrew Telephone Company, with Long Distance connection at Beachburg.
In Perretton the name of Harris Brown is connected with the first efforts to have a telephone system in the Perretton Community. He diligently perused the newspapers, searching for accounts of how this convenient means of communication could be made available, as it had been to people in Western Canada.
“He obtained a book on the subject from the Northern Electric Telephone Company and during the winter months, he and John G. McLean studied this volume to become familiar with the details of the construction of such a line. Like any other person endeavouring to launch as worthwhile project, they encountered some opposition. Nevertheless, they held their first meeting in the school of S.S, No. 12, Westmeath and the outcome was that poles were purchased and the construction started. Subscribers were Stephen McClelland, Albert Munro, John G, McLean, Charles Griese, Gordon McClelland, James Crozier, George Cotnam, Robert Crozier and John White.
Serving the Perretton area about this time was the Alba Telephone Exchange located at Greenwood. This was established in 1912 being called the Alba Central with the switchboard in the home of R.T. McLaughlin. Operators were Misses Margaret Patterson, Etta Wilson, Crystal Fraser, Mrs, William Carnegie and Miss Carena McLaughlin.
The fist switchboard in Beachburg was located in the home of Dr. G.W, Alexander. Later it was moved over to the second floor of the shop belonging to Albert Stokes with Richard Hudson as the operator both then and when it was next moved to the home now occupied by Mrs. Thomas Pappin.
For the past 33 years it was in charge of Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm Condie or members of their family, Miss Christina Condie being the operator during the years prior to 1959 when these duties were assumed by Mrs. Kenneth Collins with her assistants being Mrs. Gordon McClelland and Mrs. Rupert Kenny. Maintenance supervisors of the line have been R. Hudson, James Bellie, Jr., Ernest Davison and Roland Severin.
“The number of subscribers on each of the lines out of Beachburg became so numerous that the lines were divided several years ago with five carrying the lad. They are numbered 21,37,38,49 and 86. Each subscriber having their own individual ring. With the conversion of the old magneto type telephone to the dial system in 1961, there will be seven digit dialing used similar to this: 582-3485.”
“When the Alba Line was first constructed there were five subscribers: A.H. Moore, R.T. McLaughlin, Alex Moore, William Smyth and John B. Moore. The sum of $375. was cost of building the line from A.H. Moore to R.T. McLaughllin while the five phones and installation cost $104.15. Later the line was built from William Smyth on the Price Line to John McGonegal at a cost of $184.18, with four phones installed for $84.50. When the line was built from George Cotnam to A.H. Moore for $136.o6 which included a line to Hy. Robinson, the five additional phones at $97.75 brought the number of subscribers up to 14. The total cost was $963.58 and the equalized share of line for each subscriber was $68.83.
“The switchboard was moved from R.T. McLaughlin to Alex Moore at Perretton for several years before they removed the Alba Exchange from the Bell Telephone at Pembroke to the North Renfrew Telephone Company at Beachburg.”
From 1922 to 1924 the Company took over several rural companies in Renfrew County established in 1911 through to 1915.
Those established in 1911 and taken over in 1922 were: Westmeath and Beachburg Tel. Assoc. with 60 phones; Alba Tel. Assoc. with 63 phones; Beachburg Tel. Assoc. with 35 phones; Bromley Line Tel. Assoc. with 48 phones; Perretton Tel. Assoc. with 21 phones.
The Gore Line Telephone Assoc. established in 1913, taken over in 1922 with 25 phones; LaPasse Rural Tel. Co. established in 1915, taken over in 1922 with 15 phones and Westmeath Seventh Line Assoc. established in 1911 and taken over in 1924 with 16 phones. Others taken over were Roche Fondue Rural Tel. Assoc. established in 1912 and taken over in 1922 with 10 phones.
In January 1924, the North Renfrew Tel. Co. held its annual meeting in the Town Hall in Westmeath. The Board elected for the year were: Mr. Norman Reid, President; Managing Director Robert Wright; Sec’y Treas. L.O. Christman; Directors Jas. Bennie, Edward Lyons, Alfred Timm, J. Houston, Stephen McLellan and Peter McLaren.
During the years 1923 and 1924 the telephone line between Westmeath and LaPasse was overhauled , cross bars being erected on each pole, the work being done by Allan and Ellard Blackwell. It was understood that a cable would be laid between LaPasse and Quebec shore and the line connected with Fort Coulonge.“
In the early pioneering days the operation of the switchboard in communications was more strenuous than the push button system used later, for the rings were signalled by turning a crank which operated off a wet battery. The goal of the Tel. Co. for its 50th anniversary in 1961 was ‘All Dial’, and this objective was reached at 2:40 a.m. Saturday February 4th, 1961, when dial conversion from the old magneta type of telephones came into effect completely on the Westmeath – Beachburg exchange.
In 1961 Beachburg had six direct lines to Pembroke and Westmeath had five. Three extended area service trunk lines connected the dial offices to Beachburg and Westmeath. There were no operators on call between the two points, but there were seven digits dialing. There were approximately 160 subscribers on the Westmeath exchange and their numbers began with 587 followed by four digits. Beachburg had approximately 300 subscribers and their numbers began with 582 followed by four more digits. Following the conversion of the Beachburg exchange, all toll calls were handled by the Bell Telephone Co. in Pembroke.
A toll cable was established from Westmeath to Beachburg, then to Pembroke. This seven digit dialing was known as “All Numbers Calling (ANC)”. Multi-party line service had ten or less subscribers, and there was two-party or private line service to all village residents. The dial conversion at Westmeath was completed in 1958.
During the years from 1911 through the dial conversion in 1961, the switchboards were moved to several locations with several operators. The dial office in Beachburg is situated on Stewart Street. It is built of fireproof brick with an interior of cement block concrete, reinforced roof and is entirely fireproof. The board of directors was: E.C.B. Foster, President; Alan Cameron, Vice President; Earl Johnson, Andrew Gervais, Herbert Flynn, Percy Brown and Steven Bennett. Mrs. Basil Brown was Sec’y Treas. Basil Brown had been manager without remuneration, completing much of the ground work for the dial conversion.
By 1975 the company was servicing 1002 subscribers. Now Beachburg has 564, Westmeath 355, others 274, making a total of 1,192. Direct Long Distance has been available in Westmeath since May 7, 1978.
This North Renfrew Telephone Co. Ltd. is the only independently owned company in Eastern Ontario. Today it is still expanding its range of services to include internet, security and upgrades to fiber optics.
Marie Zettler’s article in The Cobden Sun, March 1, 1989, is a great overview of the history: