The (almost) Russian-American Telegraph

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Across on the North American side of the Pacific Ocean, Bulkley’s plan was to base a party in northern Russian America at Fort St. Michaels. Its assignments were to explore up the coast of Norton Sound to the Bering Strait and to ascend the Kvichpak River aboard the thirty-five-foot steamboat Lizzie Horner as far into the interior as possible, then to go by reindeer or dog sledge through the mountains and make contact with the party striking north through British Columbia. Only after the expedition was well under way did the Americans discover to their surprise that the Kvichpak was the same stream as the Yukon River, an indication of how little the telegraph builders knew about the country into which they were plunging so hopefully. This party, under Robert Kennicott, was deposited on the shores of Norton Sound in September, with little time to explore before the winter freeze.

A fourth party, assigned to land near the mouth of the Fraser River in southern British Columbia and build the line north to a junction with the Russian America party, had potentially the easiest mission of all and, as events developed, proved the most productive. Its members sailed from San Francisco on May 17, 1865, under Major H. L. Pope, and upon arrival at New Westminster they set vigorously to work. Although British Columbia was virtually unexplored beyond a few border settlements, gold miners had pushed up the Fraser Valley and cut a trail along which the telegraph crew could start. Cutting and setting poles at the rate of six miles a day, the crews of Americans, Chinese, and Indians—in all about 250 men—laid the line up the east bank of the Fraser River through rocky gorges. At places the poles had to be set in holes blasted in the rock.

Late in 1865 the line reached Quesnel, 450 miles up the Fraser. There the builders struck to the northwest. The main crew wintered at Bulkley House, named for Colonel Bulkley, at the northern end of Tacla Lake while exploring parties pushed ahead on sledges. Early the next spring construction was resumed, headed toward Yukon Territory. Tons of material and wires were hauled up the line on the backs of 150 pack animals. Crews slashed a swath from forty to sixty feet wide through the forests, hoping to prevent falling trees from snapping the wire.

Far as they were into the northern forests, the British Columbia party had a link to civilization. Commercial telegraph service had been started from Quesnel south. Messages were telegraphed to the construction camp as it moved north week by week. By the end of July, 1866, the line was strung to the Naas River, about four hundred miles northwest of Quesnel, in territory known previously only to fur-hunting parties. Nearly four hundred more miles lay ahead before the party would, in theory, join the segment being built across Russian America.

Seven weeks out of San Francisco, after fumbling through the North Pacific fog, the brig Olga arrived at Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula on August 19, with the fourman party, led by Abaza, that was to undertake the Siberian explorations. Abaza and Kennan debarked at Petropavlovsk to make their way northward through Kamchatka while Mahood and Bush continued across the Sea of Okhotsk aboard the Olga to Nikolaevsk at the mouth of the Amur. Before parting Kennan accompanied Mahood and Bush for a short while as the Olga stood out to sea. Recalling that moment but a few years later in his book Tent Life in Siberia , Kennan wrote:

As we began to feel the fresh morning land-breeze, and to draw out slowly from under the cliffs of the west coast, I drank a farewell glass of wine to the success of the “Amoor River Exploring Party,” shook hands with the Captain … and bade good-bye to the mates and men. As I went over the side, the second mate seemed overcome with emotion at the thought of the perils which I was about to encounter in that heathen country, and cried out in funny, broken English, “Oh, Mr. Kinney! (he couldn’t say Kennan) who’s a g’un to cook for ye, and ye can’t get no potatusses?” as if the absence of a cook and the lack of potatoes were the summing up of all earthly privations. I assured him cheerfully that we could cook for ourselves and eat roots: but he shook his head mournfully, as if he saw in prophetic vision the state of misery to which Siberian roots and our own cooking must inevitably reduce us. Bush told me afterward that on the voyage to the Amoor he frequently observed the second mate in deep and melancholy revery, and upon approaching him and asking him what he was thinking about, he answered, with a mournful shake of the head and an indescribable emphasis: “Poor Mr. Kinney! Poor Mr. Kinney!” …

Travelling in pairs, and at times singly, Abaza and Kennan set out with native drivers to explore the proposed route from the junction with the Russian line northward along the eastern shore of the Sea of Okhotsk and onto the Siberian steppes. Somewhere up there, according to the plan, they were to make contact with the party to be landed at the mouth of the Anadyr River, a short distance southwest of the Bering Strait.