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Morse Code for Manitoba

by Dorothy Garbutt

Manitoba Pageant, September 1956

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The coming of the telegraph line to Manitoba in the spring of 1875 deprived that province of its former title "The Great Lone Land"; for with communication easily available with the outside world, the sense of complete isolation was lost and Manitoba became an integral part of Canada.

But let James Colcleugh, a pioneer telegrapher in Selkirk, tell you about it in his own words:

"In the spring of 1875, while waiting for the ice to go out on the Red River, Mr. Sifton, one of the contractors for the construction of 77 miles of the C. P. R. east of the Red river and for 300 miles of the telegraph line west of the river, decided to send myself with a party consisting of an engineer named Hollingshead, George Taylor and half a dozen choppers, in a York boat to look for the crossing of the C. P. R., which we were told was about 25 miles down the Red river, and to find a house in which to set up an office.

At that time there were three surveys of the crossing from a point five miles east of the river and none of them had as yet been decided upon. When we arrived at the first location at Mr. George Black's store, we were told that the others were within a short distance, about one and a half miles nearer Lake Winnipeg.

We left the chopping gang at a point on the Red river nearly opposite Black's store. From here they had to find their way through the bush on what is now van Horne's farm to the Five Mile Post, while two of us would take the York boat - a big undertaking for men who knew as much about handling a York boat as an Indian about riding a bicycle.

However,we got there, and landed at what is now the foot of Clandeboye Avenue. We climbed over the big boulders of blue ice and looked up and down for a house in which to set up our instruments. We discovered the dwelling of Chief Factor Christie of the Hudson's Bay Company, a large and commodious house which had just been vacated and was suitable in every way to our use. But there was no one there who had any authority to lease it or do any-thing else with it. George Black, the merchant, seeing the predicament we were in, and realizing how important the telegraph would be to him in his business, kindly offered us the use of his back store. We accepted it gratefully.

The wire was run in from the line which had been constructed the previous fall. The instruments were set in place and the first message was sent over the great C. P. R. system in May, 1875. The message, written on a piece of tea paper, reads -

"To J. W. Sifton, Winnipeg; Our congratulations upon opening of the first office of the C. P. R. Telegraph at Mapleton today. Signed, James Colcleugh. "

Mr. Siftonthenleased Factor Christie's house and the office was moved from Black's store to the house where business with the outer world was conducted with a rush. "

And so the first telegraph line came to the West. How many "firsts" can you remember in your time? For they will be history, too, you know!

Page revised: 30 June 2009

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