- Historic Sites
The (almost) Russian-American Telegraph
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
Surveying and constructing the Russian-American line required a hard-nosed boss, an organizer who knew the telegraph business and could ramrod operations that would be scattered over thousands of miles. In August, 1864, the company selected for the assignment as chief engineer Colonel Charles S. Bulkley, former superintendent of military telegraphs in the Department of the Gulf.
As a northern officer, with the Civil War still in progress, Bulkley naturally tended to visualize his telegraph force in military terms and organized it along those lines. All leaders of the expedition were given military titles, and as one of the men wrote in a letter to his home:
We all wear a uniform of dark blue, according to army regulations, with appropriate buttons and shoulder-straps of our own. The Director-in-Chief’s strap is a silver globe in the centre, on a dark blue velvet ground, with silver flashes of lightning darting toward either end. … The Colonel thinks best that the party be handsomely uniformed to sustain among the Russians the dignity of the United States and of the Collins Overland Telegraph.
Bulkley sailed from New York to San Francisco in December, 1864, to organize his force and fit it for operations in the field. His goal was to get exploration of the route started in the spring of 1865. Time was important because the agreement with the Russians called for having the line working within five years, in 1868. Bulkley was accompanied by George Kennan, who though only nineteen years old was an experienced telegrapher in Cincinnati. Kennan—who was later to become an expert on Russia and the uncle of George F. Kennan, ambassador to Russia in the mid-twentieth century—had convinced the company that his knowledge of Morse dot-and-dash transmission, and of the mysterious rites of keeping power flowing from the batteries into the telegraph lines, qualified him for the expedition.
Once established in headquarters in the Customs House, Bulkley circulated word around San Francisco that he was recruiting men. Response was great. Soldiers discharged from the northern army, men from the goldfields looking for fresh adventure, and hangers-on around the port clamored for the jobs. Few of them were the skilled engineers Bulkley needed, but from the motley assemblage he chose a crew.
He planned operations in two phases. First, breaking the route into segments, he would send an exploring party into each with instructions to travel the land and locate a path for the line. In the second phase construction parties and materials would be carried by ship to the bases established by the exploring parties. Actual building of the line in British Columbia was to be well started by the end of 1865. To move the parties around the foggy reaches of the North Pacific Ocean he assembled a fleet of seven company ships, assisted by a United States Navy vessel promised to him by Congress in its 1864 telegraph act. Indeed, the project did resemble a combined land-sea military operation.
As a preliminary to the work on foreign soil the California State Telegraph Company, controlled by Western Union, undertook completion of a telegraph line from San Francisco up the Pacific coast and across the Canadian border into British Columbia, at New Westminster. It had already completed its line to Portland and was pushing it toward Seattle when Western Union bought the company in 1864.
The work was a sample of what lay ahead: roads had to be cleared through forests and across mountains, poles cut and placed, and supplies hauled by horse and mule from the nearest settlements, of which northern California, Oregon, and Washington had few. A major delay occurred when the cable that was to carry a branch from the mainland line under water to Vancouver Island was lost at sea while being brought around Cape Horn. Another cable had to be shipped from the East.
The line across the border was completed in 1865, shortly before the departure of Bulkley’s exploring party for the northern wilderness. The first message to click over it into the Canadian terminus at New Westminster announced the death of Lincoln.
Bulkley’s expeditions started from San Francisco during late spring and summer. One, a party of four led by Serge Abaza, a Russian who was known as the Major, sailed aboard the creaky Russian trading vessel Olga on July 1 for Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Accompanying Abaza were Kennan, James A. Mahood, a California civil engineer, and R. J. Bush, just returned from three years’ military service in the Carolinas. Their mission was to explore the proposed route from the mouth of the Amur River in Siberia northeast toward the Bering Strait. Eventually they were to link up with a far-northern Siberian party to be put ashore at the mouth of the Anadyr River, southwest of Bering Strait. This party’s mission was to strike inland and to the southwest across the steppes until it made contact with Abaza’s group. Between them they would explore the entire projected eighteen-hundred-mile route from the Bering Strait to the junction with the Russian line from St. Petersburg at the Amur.