That Capreol Connection

If you’re reading this then you’ve mastered the power of the Internet. The World Wide Web has changed our planet in a million ways—some good, others not-so-good. Finding information has never been easier. Unfortunately, finding accurate information has never been harder. That’s civilization in a nut-shell: one step forward and two back.

People today are more closely connected than ever before. Between text messaging, emails, social media, video calls, and the unending array of meeting applications it often seems like friends and family are never further than a mouse-click away. Communicating, either across town or across the globe, is easy and cheap. The downside of this modern miracle is that ‘the office’ becomes inescapable. Employers contact you at all hours and, all too often, expect people to answer.

Things weren’t always like this. Maintaining that precious home-work balance used to be as simple as going outside. Ignoring calls was easier when the telephone was tethered to the wall and cords only stretched five feet (unless yours had knots tangling it!). It wasn’t all that long ago when entire households only had one line, with the family forced to share the phone. But, for all the difficulties such hardship entailed, at least most people could afford to own a phone. And that fact made all the difference for a working-class community like Capreol.

The railroad has dominated our town since long before the Canadian National Railway was formed (1921). In that time thousands of men have worked the ‘Spare Board’. For those unfamiliar with train-speak, this was simply a list of available workers (men qualified to operate a train—often divided into jobs: engineers, conductors, brakemen). The name at the top list was ‘first up’ and he could accept the job offered or turn it down—thereby dropping to the bottom—and let the work be offered to the next man. (In reality few purposely missed a shift. The company frowned on such.) With schedules dependant on others, few ventured far from their phones. There’s not a boy or girl in our town who didn’t get warned away from picking up the receiver because, “Dad’s waiting on a call!”

Prior to the spread of phonelines, our town employed ‘call boys’. These individuals, usually young teens, were paid by the railroad to run around Capreol knocking on doors to inform men of work. The job paid pennies—back when pennies were worth ‘real’ money—and was an integral part of keeping the trains running on time. (Such employment follows the long tradition of British ‘knocker-uppers’ who were charged with waking workers prior to the development of alarm clocks.)

So, when did telephones replace children in our town to notify workers? That’s a good question. Records indicate that the mining community of Sellwood, at one time our much larger and more prosperous neighbour, had phones in every home during its heyday—well before WWI. Capreol didn’t even become a town until 1918 and, unlike the nearby ‘company town’, our houses weren’t paid for (and equipped) by the employer. Many early residents in Capreol were poor. People lived in box-car homes or other, even less, comfortable accommodations. Phones would have been an undreamt luxury.

The biggest clue as to the spread of phones through our town is a series of handwritten notes penned by Mr. Fred Johnson. 

A resident of Lakeshore St., Mr. Johnson catalogued the address and phone number for every private home in Capreol…purely for personal use. Not every name has a phone number recorded alongside, making it seem the now-ubiquitous device wasn’t quite universal at the time he set pen to paper.

The usefulness of such a listing is obvious—telephone companies began producing such ‘directories’ in large cities prior to the 20th century. Capreol, being a much smaller community, trailed in many of life’s cushier amenities. When exactly Mr. Johnson compiled his list remains unclear, he didn’t date his directory, but the names and numbers help narrow the timeline some. (As does the absence of numerous streets.) The fact that his list predated the adoption of seven digits, means it goes back to the 1970s at minimum. 

Some educated guesswork leads to the 1950s as the most likely creation.

Give that most of the telephone numbers are just three digits—or less—make it safe to assume that they were assigned in the order installed. Capreol’s first phoneline would have probably been #1. Which presents something of a problem, because the earliest recorded in Mr. Johnson’s ‘phonebook’ was Louise Cunningham of #97 Yonge St. whose phone number is listed as ‘6’.

It is important to note that there are no businesses or government services included. Some of those unaccounted earlier numbers probably went to those locations—phone service would have been a necessity for some companies (like the railroad).

That said, there were two numbers prior to Mrs. Cunningham. John Stewart, of #74 Dennie St., and Roy Stringer, of #102 Dennie St., shared ‘4’, with the first holding 4J and the second 4W.  This was a so-called ‘Party Line’. Most common amongst neighbours, these jointly owned phonelines reduced the expense of installing telephone service but reduced privacy. (My grandparents shared with their neighbour, Mitch Decarlantonio, having 74W & 74J respectively.)

Those phones have changed a great deal since Alexander Graham Bell first invented them, one thing remains the same—the convenience they bring to daily life. Try going a day without using the telephone and you’ll see just how vital the technology has become.

Go through the list and see how many names you remember. Capreol’s history is contained in the following pages.

Posted on: March 20, 2022, by :