The (almost) Russian-American Telegraph

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Even worse befell the ill-starred Anadyr River base. This had been re-established under Bush, with the thought of building the line along the river edge during the summer. A supply ship was due in June. It did not arrive. Food supplies were dwindling, and the party was falling into a dangerous plight. Bush’s men survived on a few fish pulled from the river. Surrounded by an impassable moss swamp, they could not leave the river fringe. Finally, in October, the Golden Gate arrived, but before she could be fully unloaded, she was trapped in the new winter ice and sank. The construction workers and crew members aboard were saved, but little food was. That left a party of forty-seven men stranded on shore facing the long winter. A shortage of fish created famine at Anadyrsk, so no relief supplies could be sent from there. One American died during the winter; the others survived on reindeer meat sold to them by the wandering Chukchis and sledgeloads of food from Gizhiga. The only work on telegraph construction this force could accomplish under such difficult circumstances was cutting a few poles upstream near Anadyrsk, accomplished by a party on snowshoes.

Tragedy and delay struck the Alaskan force, too. Its leader, Kennicott, had been in failing health during the winter of 1865–66 and on May 13 was found dead. The little steamer Lizzie Horner , brought to the Yukon on the deck of a supply ship, proved to be a failure and never left Norton Sound. Shoddy construction work with inadequate poles marked the miles of line that were strung along Norton Sound southeast of Bering Strait during the summer.

Then came the blow that destroyed the entire multi-million-dollar dream.

The Great Eastern , laying Field’s cable westward from England across the Atlantic, arrived at Heart’s Content, Newfoundland, on July 27, 1866. The cable was brought ashore successfully and connected to the land telegraph lines. This time it worked. The cable that had been so casually brushed aside by Western Union when it put its dollars into the Russian-American telegraph gamble suddenly was a sensational success. A broken cable of the previous year was located in mid-Atlantic, raised to the surface, spliced, and continued to the American shore. Now there were two working lines.

With messages flashing beneath the ocean from the United States to Europe in minutes, no reason existed any longer for the Russian-American telegraph. Western Union knew it was beaten and set out to close down its project and cut its losses.

Word of the cable’s success reached the construction crew in northern British Columbia quickly, flashing up the wire they had strung. Without official orders to do so they waited two or three days, then abandoned the project and headed south to civilization. Their tools, supplies, and wire remained on the ground for the Indians or trappers to use as they wished. The four hundred miles of line constructed and operating north of Quesnel was left to rot. Nobody cared. All they wanted was to go home. (Years later, visitors to the area found that the Indians had used the wire for nails, fish spears, traps, and even in the construction of a crude suspension bridge.)

The line from Quesnel south continued in commercial operation by Western Union until the British Columbia government purchased it in 1870. Decades later, when the gold rush developed in the Yukon, the Dominion government built a telegraph line to that area along the path that had been cut and abandoned by the Russian-American crew. Failure though it was everywhere else, the Russian-American project contributed substantially to the opening of the interior of British Columbia.

News that the project had been cancelled did not reach the Alaskan party until July of 1867, nearly a year after the success of the Atlantic cable. When it did, men at Unalakleet on Norton Sound hung black cloth on the telegraph poles in mourning. Altogether the crews had built seventy-five miles of line and explored a longdistance up the Yukon, locating what they considered a practical route through to British Columbia. Some of the 135 men brought home by the Clara Bell and Nightingale that summer had been gone from civilization for more than two years.

Far away in Siberia the Americans and their native helpers had no idea that their project had collapsed. Sending a ship to them so late in the summer was impossible; the winter ice in the Sea of Okhotsk would prevent her from arriving. So they went briskly ahead, building a line that would never be used. They were more optimistic about their success than ever before, in fact. Arrival of their building supplies at the end of the summer of 1866 had permitted them at last to start construction. Nearly twenty-thousand poles had been cut, and Siberian ponies were distributing them for erection. As they cut poles the men sang: