News

Telephones in Nelson man’s blood

Fourteenth in a series of pioneer profiles

For Nelson’s Doug Smith, telephone work was all in the family.

He spent 38 years with BC Tel, his father was a cable splicer for the company, a brother also worked for them, and both his sisters were operators.

“I was involved in it because my dad was,” he says. “It was sort of second nature.”

His father Bob was among the first babies born in Vancouver, while his mother Esther (nee Habegard) was born in Ainsworth. The youngest of five children, Doug had a curly mop of hair and was once mistaken for the kidnapped Lindbergh baby.

The family moved from Bealby Road to 3rd Street in Fairview when he was an infant, and he enjoyed a bucolic childhood that included rides with Chinese vegetable seller Wo Lee on a horse-drawn cart and tobogganing down Elwyn Street.

On weekdays he rose at 5 a.m. to deliver newspapers, and on Saturdays tried to collect from customers. Even at a penny a paper it was sometimes difficult during the Depression.

“Quite often they didn’t have the money and you had to go back,” he says. “My first summer job at Beacon Motors, I worked six days a week, ten hours a day, for $5 a week. It was that or a job with my own bicycle delivering for a drugstore for $4 a week. I thought there were too many hills!”

Not that inclines intimidated him: he and friends once climbed Silver King Ridge and skied down. “It took almost eight hours to get to the top, and 20 minutes to come down,” he laughs.

After graduating from Nelson High School in 1947, Smith joined BC Tel, for whom he had worked summers. After a year he transferred to Cranbrook — where the local subsidiary was still known as the Kootenay Telephone Co. — and worked his way up to district manager. Subsequent moves took him to Kamloops and the Lower Mainland.

His job also led to memorable encounters with two notable BC athletes.

Soon after skier Nancy Greene won Olympic gold, BC Tel hired her to tour the province and speak to high school students. Smith squired her around Kamloops.

Rick Hansen’s father worked for the phone company in Williams Lake when Hansen suffered his spinal cord injury. Smith arranged for them to be together in Vancouver during Hansen’s recovery, and later hired him as an operator.

Technology never stands still in the phone industry. When Smith started with BC Tel, he installed and repaired crank phones. By the time he retired in 1986, party lines were nearly extinct, rotary dial was on its way out, and the first cell phones had appeared.

Smith has a collection of antique phones at his Queens Bay cabin — on a property his father bought as a result of periodically inspecting the phone line along the lake.

“They would take a rowboat all the way to Kaslo, checking the line,” he says. “There was no road through Coffee Creek, so when they got to Queens Bay they’d stop and have lunch at the property we have now. He discovered he might be able to buy it.”

The cabin hosted a royal tea when a childhood friend of Smith’s who commanded Princess Patricia’s namesake infantry brought her to see where he grew up.

Smith returned to Nelson in 1994. He and wife Phyllis live at High Street Place — site of the old hospital where he was born.

Previous installments in this series

Evelyn Murray

Fritz Koehle

Bernie Czelenski

Agnes Baker

Aya Higashi

Gordon Fleming

Jake Conkin

Walt Laurie

Eric and Peggy Denny

Ray Kosiancic

Lois Arnesen

Cameron Mah

Fran Horan

 


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