Guest Contributor Erik Boucher

Telegraph Dream

By Erik Boucher 

Canadian Pacific Depot with entrance cables from open wire signal circuits.
Canadian National (CN) Depot with entrance cables from open wire signal circuits.

Since I was young, I was fascinated by this small “T-Shaped” pole with its sparkling insulators and different colors.  I have always enjoyed seeing these lines faithfully follow the railway tracks.  Today, I am 53 years old and saw them unfortunately disappear in 2006.  This made me very sad because after having rendered such a long service from 1865 to 2006, they were simply forgotten.  And, all the more frustrating that they could have been used to support new technologies.

Having worked ten years for the maintenance of telegraph lines of Canadian National Railroad (CN), it appalled me even more.  So, the desire to preserve a demonstration portion of these lines became even more essential for me as it also safeguarded their heritage.  It is important to remember that this telegraph line (faithful companions of railroads) has enabled the transmission and relaying, in real time, of urgent and essential information and data.  It goes without saying, the telegraph has helped its own progress and favored national growth.

Having had the chance to reside in a region where our natural wealth has attracted British investors favoring industrialization (i.e. aluminum smelters and paper mills) and where the proximity of international shipping routes have been (and still are) part of our economic growth, the network railroad was at the beginning of the last century, very highly developed. 

image-1-the-railroad-at-end-of-19th-centory

So, in my goal of preserving these witnesses from the past, I have always been alert to the sight of the railways to see if there are any forgotten poles left.  For unfortunately, the Canadian National is in its decline, proceeded to dismantle the telegraph network, and sometimes omitting sections of line.  Also, the copper thieves savagely attacked these remnants, pulling line wire and subsequently, damaging pins, brackets and insulators.

I found a section of poles still standing in Jonquiere, Saguenay, originally part of the network linking the city of Chicoutimi to Quebec City.  Having spotted a crossarm still in good condition, I proceeded with my best friend to recover what was remaining, such as insulators, brackets and the like.  

Found a crossarm in good shape!
Found a crossarm in good shape!
Removed a top crossarm.
Removed a top crossarm.
Crossarm in fine condition.
Crossarm in fine condition.

In my search for these artifacts, I found a pole at Metabetchouan (St. Jerome) at Lake St. John, twisted, deformed by time,  standing all alone at the side of the railway, in the middle of a large field, centenary witness to a hectic past and having on its sleepers, many insulators dating back nearly to the origin of the line. 

Personally equipped with spurs, I went to retrieve the insulators.  What beautiful surprises awaited me high in the air!  A turquoise Hemingray-brand CD-152, dating from 1916-1917, two diamond CD-154 peach-colored (an ancestor of the Dominion Company), dating from 1926.  

Turquoise No. 40 Hemingray (CD-152).
Turquoise No. 40 Hemingray (CD-152).
Two Diamond insulators, peach colored, and one clear Dominion.
Two Diamond insulators, peach colored, and one clear Dominion.

My camera is always ready when I walk around to capture the remaining sections of the telegraph lines.  I immortalized a 1.5 km section at Roberval at Lake St. John, where it was reconverted to a power supply crossing line.

Then, another section of one kilometer remains in Chapais, but is in very poor condition. 

Photo of telegraph line now destroyed.
Photo of telegraph line now destroyed.

And, finally, the one as of today that I consider the best preserved is at St. Felicien at Lake St. John.  A section of nearly 3 km is in good condition and has been converted for power supply to 550-v for railway signaling. 

Converted telegraph line.
Converted telegraph line.
Converted telegraph line with the original connection board.
Converted telegraph line with the original connection board.
Working telegraph line today.  One of my favorite pictures.
Working telegraph line today. One of my favorite pictures.

It is quite possible that in the spring of 2020, I will build a telegraph pole equipped to be a demonstration in the backyard of my family’s home.

In my opinion, we must preserve and give back to to these poles that were precursors of the communication in real time, ancestor of the Internet.  

Vintage photo from the end of the 19th Century.  The train station in St. Jerome at Lake St. John.
Vintage photo from the end of the 19th Century. The train station in St. Jerome at Lake St. John.
Close-up on the telegraph service advertised at the train station.
Close-up on the telegraph service advertised at the train station.

Passionately,

Erik Boucher

Thank you, Erik, for this passionate “call to arms” on active preservation of open wire!  We should all take note of your joyful exuberance in appreciating open wire in Canada–as well as anywhere in North America–where it is endangered.  Preserving open wire in situ is best, but if the structures require moving, this is the next best technique!