The new AGT microwave tower on the North Hill, 1958. In the foreground is the Gilbert Hermary house. (Photo courtesy of the Hermary family)

The new AGT microwave tower on the North Hill, 1958. In the foreground is the Gilbert Hermary house. (Photo courtesy of the Hermary family)

Michael Dawe: Microwave tower’s 65th anniversary

This year marks the 65th anniversary of one of the oldest landmarks in north Red Deer. It’s one that doesn’t get noticed very much anymore, but which was once a major technological boost for the community. That is the microwave transmission tower between 58 Avenue and Hermary Street, near the brow of the North Hill in Highland Green.

Red Deer has long been a telecommunication centre. At the turn of the last century, in 1904, the locally owned Western General Telephone Company installed a central energy system for phones, the first in Alberta. That gave the Western General a major technological advantage over the Bell Telephone Company which relied on a magneto system to power its phones. Despite the fact that Bell had built the first long distance line from Calgary to Edmonton, with connections to Red Deer, the Western General was soon able to outcompete Bell and bought out the latter’s local operations in 1908.

Unfortunately, once it attained a monopoly, the Western General increasingly fell behind in its investments in technology, despite a major increase in its rates. Hence, by the time Alberta Government Telephones bought out the local operations in 1920, major improvements had to be made to the system, including the construction of a new telephone exchange and switchboards on Ross Street, north of the City Hall Park.

Various improvements were made to the Red Deer system over the years, but real pressures for change came in the 1950s. Alberta and all of Western Canada were enjoying a great period of growth and prosperity. By the latter part of the 1950s, Red Deer was deemed to be the fastest growing city in Canada.

Hence, A.G.T. decided to join with six other major telephone systems to create a new, technologically advanced Trans Canada Telephone System. It extended 6,300 km and was capable of sending transmissions at 300,000 km per second. Importantly, it greatly enhanced the ability to rapidly send television signals over vast distances and increased the use of new technologies such as Telex.

A site was acquired on the northern outskirts of town, east of the old Sylvan Lake Trail on the North Hill (part of the old C.&E. Highway). Work began in 1956 on the relay station. Within a few weeks, crews from Northern Electric (later renamed Northern Telecom – Nortel), began the installation of the circuits at the relay station.

Work began in late April 1957 on the microwave tower. At an estimated 100 metres (328 feet), it was to be the tallest microwave tower in Alberta and the second highest of the 139 being built as part of the new Trans Canada Telephone System. Later, smaller relay towers were built along the line from Calgary to Edmonton at Crossfield, Netook, Ponoka and Kavanagh.

Initially, the major benefit of the new tower and relay system was 120 additional direct circuits between Calgary and Edmonton. This relieved pressure on the existing long distance land circuits between Calgary-Red Deer and Red Deer-Edmonton.

A huge benefit came with the arrival of local television. C.H.C.A. television was able to begin operation at the end of November,1957, with the new transmission system providing feed from other parts of Canada and the United States. The first major live broadcast attraction was to be the annual Grey Cup game. Unfortunately, some last-minute technical problems at the T.V. station caused the scrubbing of the local broadcast of the Big Game.

The microwave tower was one of the first steps in A.G.T.’s ambitious expansion and enhancement projects. A new telephone exchange building was built on 51 Street, east of 49 Avenue. Installation of more than $3 million in advanced new equipment followed.

Initially, the new exchange building was three-storeys tall. However, in keeping with the evolving nature of A.G.T.’s long-term plans, provision was made to add an additional three storeys in the future. That made the A.G.T. (now known as Telus) building the tallest in downtown Red Deer, until the construction of the Stantec Building to the southwest.

Another major advancement occurred on April 14, 1961, with the inauguration of the first direct distance dialing phone service on the Canadian Prairies. Once again, Red Deer had taken a pre-eminent role as a major communications hub.

Michael Dawe is a local historian.