Samuel Morse’s first telegraph message-transmitted over a line between Washington and Baltimore 138 years ago next month—was a succinct statement: “What hath God wrought.” If Morse were still alive, he might well want to repeat that message. The familiar telegraph offices, once so common that even small Canadian towns often had two of them competing for business—one run by Canadian Pacific, the other by Canadian Nationalare swiftly disappearing. By the start of this year, the number still open across Canada had shrunk to 28, down from some 750 outlets in 1970. By mid-June another nine will close, including those in three provincial capitals, leaving some provinces without a single office.
According to CNCP Telecommunications, the telegraphic attrition is due to changing patterns in message sending. Potential telegram-senders now find it easier to use toll-free telephone lines to call the nearest telegraph office, even though it may be hundreds of kilometres away, than they do to jot down their messages on paper and take them to an office down the street. That may be so. But some observers contend that the telecommunications arm of the two railways (which began merging services in the mid-1960s) has done all it can to discourage the telegram trade—by curtailing services, cutting back on staff in the offices and restricting hours. Whatever the reason, telegraph offices in June will be closed in Kelowna and Prince George, B.C., Regina, Chicoutimi, Que., Saint John, Fredericton and Moncton, N.B., Charlottetown and Sydney, N.S. The Maritime closures will leave the entire region with just one telegraph office—in Halifax.
Local protests may well develop. But at the moment the telegraph offices are going out “more with a whimper than a bang,” concedes Norm Hobbs of Barrie, Ont., national chairman of the Canadian Association of Communications and Allied Workers, which represents 2,400 CNCP Telecommunications employees. The subdued ending is all the more remarkable in light of the important and colorful role the telegraph services played in Canada. That role began just two years after Morse’s first message with the establishment of a telegraph line between Toronto and Hamilton, Ont. By 1902 the Canadian Pacific Railway system alone had more than 16,000 km of line which hummed with more than two million messages a year.
But the real heyday didn’t arrive until the 1940s and ’50s, when Toronto alone had more than a dozen telegraph offices, livery-clad youths sped through almost every Canadian community by bicycle delivering and picking up messages and, in general, the telegraph was used the way the long-distance telephone is today. An operator who worked in North Sydney, N.S., in the early 1950s, remembers that the first act that the Newfoundland fishing fleet
performed when it arrived in port was to go to the telegraph office where all hands sent the same message back home: “Arrived safe.”
It was improved long-distance telephone service and the development of teleprinting Telex machines, introduced in Canada in 1956, that gradually induced the demise of the telegraph. By persuading businessmen to install inhouse Telex machines—CNCP today has 50,000 such subscribers—the company
deftly turned a major labor requirement over to its customers, who supplied their own secretary-operators, while tapping into a more lucrative revenue source. Now, the telegram business supplies less than nine per cent of company revenues, while Telex, rental of broadcast lines and private information circuits provide the rest.
In fact, the biggest losers from the demise of the telegraph may not be the Canadian public—individuals can still send telegrams if they want to*—but longtime employees of CNCP. Some of them have been steadily shunted around the
country as telegraph offices have gradually been closed across the country. “I know people who have had jobs in five different locations in 10 years,” says Hobbs. “There’s a lot of misery in that.”
DAVID FOLSTER in Frederiction
*Or convert to the new Telepost service by which a message dictated by telephone at one end will be delivered by mail from any one of more than 100 post offices across Canada.
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