The (almost) Russian-American Telegraph


Back in San Francisco, Bulkley wrote a report to the Western Union management, later published in newspapers, giving quite a different picture. To read his optimistic account, everything was in splendid condition. He said the Macrae party was probably already exploring the Anadyr River area and pushing up to Anadyrsk with sledges drawn by reindeer. Where these sledges were to come from he didn’t specify; presumably from the natives.


“The most northern regions through which our lines will pass present no serious obstacles, neither in the construction nor successful operation of telegraphs …” he confidently wrote. “It has been argued by some that the terrific gales of high latitude opposed insuperable difficulty in keeping up lines; they are not fabulous, yet no more violent than the gales of your temperate zone.”

The truth, however, was something else. Kennan and Dodd found Anadyrsk to be a cluster of cabins along the wooded bank of the upper Anadyr, the last inhabited outpost in northeast Siberia. Downstream toward the Pacific the trees dwindled to shrubs, then all vegetation disappeared and only hundreds of square miles of barren snow were visible, through which the mile-wide river meandered, covered with ice. After a brief rest they determined to go in search of the marooned Macrae party.

The two Americans organized a party of eleven dog sledges loaded with a thirty-day supply of food for dogs and men. Their tiny target was a stovepipe sticking up through the snow somewhere near the river mouth. The natives were vague as to how great the distance was. For ten days and nights the sledges moved down the riverbank. The searchers’ hope grew on the tenth day, when tea brewed with ice taken from the river tasted salty. They knew they had reached tidewater. Presumably the buried hut, and their long-sought compatriots, must be fairly close.


On the eleventh day, nearing the area where the Macrae party was supposedly encamped, they searched for signs of life. The temperature dropped to 50° below zero that night, and no shelter was available; they kept pushing ahead. Kennan and Dodd had been travelling nearly twenty-four hours without pause when a native found an overturned whaleboat on the riverbank. About a hundred yards away the rescuers discovered the stovepipe. Exhausted but jubilant, Kennan fell through the snow-covered roof of the dugout entrance and almost into the arms of old friends he had last seen when the Olga sailed from San Francisco.

Only three men were living in the hut, where they had been holed up for five months. In desperation Macrae and another man had gone away with a Chukchi band three weeks earlier, hoping through them to reach a settlement. After three days of rest, refitting, and packing up, the three stranded men and their remaining supplies were loaded on the sledges and hauled to Anadyrsk. Not until six weeks later, in mid-March, did Macrae and his companion reach that settlement with their native companions.

Despite their hardships the Americans continued their explorations during the rest of the winter. By spring, when the thaw set in and travel on the steppes ceased, they had traversed the entire proposed Siberian route. At places they had located wooded areas and hired natives to cut trees for telegraph poles. Abaza had gone by dog sledge four hundred miles inland to Yakutsk and had arranged to hire a thousand natives to help construct the line.

Making the Siberians understand what was to be built proved almost impossible. At one point Kennan hired natives to prepare poles, giving them instructions to cut each pole twenty-one feet long and five inches in diameter at the top. Three months later he returned to find five hundred poles cut, each so huge that a dozen men could not raise it. He asked why the men had not followed his orders. They said they believed he planned to build an elevated road on the tops of the poles and realized that poles so small on top never would be strong enough to support it.

In his grand plan Bulkley anticipated that the summer of 1866 would see major strides in construction of the line on both sides of the Pacific. Ships carrying men to reinforce the exploring parties and hundreds of tons of supplies were scheduled to leave San Francisco in early spring. Poles were to be placed in the ground of Alaska and Siberia, crossbars erected, miles of galvanized iron wire strung. But almost from the start of 1866 things went wrong. The company’s ships to the Sea of Okhotsk were scheduled to arrive in June. The Clara Bell didn’t show up until mid-August and the Palmetto a month later. The latter was barely unloaded before the winter ice closed in. Thus the entire summer was lost for southern Siberian construction.