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The Telegraph Comes to Fenelon Falls: 1870-71

March 6, 2024

As the first immigrants arrived in the Kawarthas, communications with the broader world were tenuous. Even on the most advanced sailing ships of the day it took weeks for letters to cross the Atlantic, while it took days to walk and paddle to the Upper Lakes from Lake Ontario. Where faster communications were needed, lights were used to transmit codes, but they required a network of signalling posts. The electric telegraph was adopted in Europe in the mid nineteenth century, then improved by Samuel Morse, a painter, who also devised a code for telegraphy that became the international standard in 1865.

Morse code represented each letter with a combination of dots and dashes and was designed so that the most common letters had the shortest codes. For instance, ‘E’ is a dot, ‘T’ is a dash and ‘Q’ is Dash-Dash-Dot-Dash. Like texting today, the messages were typically brief, but required a skilled telegrapher to be able to interpret the strings of dots and dashes just by listening to them. Common telegraphs are one directional. One party sends a message and the other receives it—there was no talking over somebody.

Telegraphy proved to be a revolutionary technology, and within a generation of the invention of Morse Code in 1837, much of North America was linked by telegraphs. Similar to telephones, cables were required to transmit telegraphs, typically on the top of wooden telegraph poles—what have since become known as hydro or telephone poles. Telegrams did become a common means of communication where rapid long-distance communication was necessary—but they were more expensive, and required briefer messages than the post. Telegrams were often used to operate railways; hence the telegraph office was typically at the railway station.

In Fenelon Falls, the telegraph preceded the railway. In 1870, work began on installing telegraph lines from Lindsay to Fenelon Falls, which subsequently carried on to Bobcaygeon. It took about 900 poles to connect the three communities—all dug without the help of hydraulic equipment. The line was operational that year, and in 1871, the Montreal Telegraph Company opened an office at Fenelon Falls. Three years later the Dominion Telegraph Company set up shop to compete. In October 1881, the two companies merged into the Great North-Western Telegraph Company, with George Cunningham as agent. Telegraphy declined with the advent of the telephone in the early twentieth century, but continued to connect railway stations for many years.

In the telegram pictured here, Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell was urging Mossom M. Boyd (the second Bobcaygeon Mossom Boyd, son of the famous lumber baron) to accept the nomination to be the local Conservative candidate. The PM said that Boyd was the “only means of saving riding… Don’t Say No.” But Boyd did say ‘no’ and the Conservatives (by then under Charles Tupper) were defeated by Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals in 1896.

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