The (almost) Russian-American Telegraph

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As Lincoln lay dying from an assassin’s bullet across the street from Ford’s Theatre through the grim night of April 14, 1865, frequent bulletins on his sinking condition clicked between the major American cities along the country’s spreading web of Morse telegraph wires. News of his death in the morning spread from city to city within minutes. Yet eleven days passed before the tragic tidings reached Great Britain and Europe when the steamship Nova Scotian from New York docked in England on April 26.

Successful construction of the American transcontinental telegraph across the Great Plains and the western mountains in 1861 had put New York within a few minutes’ message time of San Francisco, three thousand miles away, though transmission was less than perfect. Raiding Indians cut the line, herds of buffalo trying to scratch their itchy backs knocked down the poles, heavy storms disrupted the tenuous flow of electricity. Despite these annoying interruptions, at the end of the Civil War most of the United States was tied together with almost instantaneous dot-and-dash communication. Americans could exchange news with the rest of the world, however, only as rapidly as a ship could sail.

This unsatisfactory situation challenged the expansionist-minded, profit-eager northern financial community. After the burden of war was lifted, the victorious North was in a mood for fresh peacetime ventures. And with the techniques of the Morse telegraph well tested by nearly two decades of domestic development, the desire for fast electrical communication to the capitals of Europe was compelling.

Out of this drive for international communications, and a belief in the telegraph as a magic producer of fast messages and fat profits, came a bizarre adventure, a scheme to build a telegraph line linking the United States to Russia and the rest of Europe. Its sponsors conceived of it as a romantic story of scientific ingenuity and human daring. What resulted was a frustrating two-year mission into the far reaches of the Arctic in temperatures that sometimes fell to 60° below zero, with nearly a thousand men scattered in the wilds of Siberia, Alaska, and British Columbia trying to build the telegraph while a fleet of sailing vessels and steamships plied the far North Pacific in support.

The most obvious way to connect the United States and Europe by wire was to lay a cable under the Atlantic Ocean. Cyrus W. Field had failed for the fourth time to complete this feat in the summer of 1865, and his persistent dream was widely discounted as impractical. Laying a cable under two thousand miles of restless ocean, then maintaining an adequate flow of electricity through it for the transmission of telegraphic messages, plus the problems of raising it to the surface for repairs, seemed beyond the capability of Field and his associates.

But the world is round. Instead of an Atlantic cable, could a surface telegraph line be built from the United States across the Bering Strait to Russia and there connect with circuits around Europe? A persuasive promoter, Perry McDonough Collins, was convinced it could be done. Collins had been United States consular agent at Nikolaevsk, Siberia, at the mouth of the Amur River on the Sea of Okhotsk. After a trip through northern Asia in 1857 and conversations at the Russian court in St. Petersburg, he returned to the United States full of enthusiasm for the concept. Once the transcontinental telegraph line was completed to San Francisco, he stepped up his efforts to win support. With the confidence of an armchair general who casually brushes aside problems of logistics and geography, Collins painted an intriguing picture as he peddled his scheme to Congress and to New York financiers. He pointed out that only a thirty-nine-mile water barrier, the Bering Strait, interrupted the backdoor route from New York to Paris. The rest was open land. Hadn’t American telegraph builders already shown they could overcome obstacles of plains, mountains, and desert in building the line to San Francisco?

Collins proposed that the intercontinental telegraph line be connected to the American line at San Francisco. It would be built up the Pacific coast to British Columbia and from there northward across Russian America (now Alaska) to the Bering Strait. An underwater cable would be laid to the Asian shore of the strait. The line then would run through northeastern Siberia to the mouth of the Amur River. At this point it would join the seven-thousand-mile line the czarist government was building from St. Petersburg. Automatic “repeating instruments”—that is, relay stations—would be established every three to five hundred miles so messages could be sent across the huge unpopulated areas on both continents without need of human touch.

 
 
 

At first the idea sounded grandiose beyond reason. Collins’ attempt to win support in Congress early in 1861 failed; with the outbreak of the Civil War that body had far more urgent things on its mind. But Collins was nothing if not persistent, and he turned to the most obvious private source for support, the Western Union Telegraph Company.