The (almost) Russian-American Telegraph

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In eighteen hundred and sixty-eight Hurrah! Hurrah! In eighteen hundred and sixty-eight Hurrah! Hurrah! In eighteen hundred and sixty-eight The cable will be in a miserable state And we’ll all feel gay When they use it to fish for whales.

The first American ship to anchor in the upper reaches of the Sea of Okhotsk in the spring of 1867 was Sea Breeze , a whaler from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Her captain was amazed to find a group of Americans in native dress coming aboard (those fine blue and gold uniforms were long forgotten).

“How about the Atlantic cable?” Kennan inquired.

Captain Hamilton replied cheerfully, “Oh, yes, the cable is laid all right.”

With sinking heart Kennan asked, “Does it work?”

“Works like a snatch-tackle. The ’Frisco papers are publishing every morning the London news of the day before.”

Realizing belatedly that his tidings were grim news to his guests, the captain gave them newspapers he had aboard and sent them ashore loaded with bananas, oranges, and potatoes from Hawaii, food the like of which they hadn’t seen in nearly two years.

Kennan and his men rowed ashore, built a fire to roast the potatoes, and searched through the newspapers. In the San Francisco Bulletin they found what they had dreaded. A New York dispatch dated October 15, 1866, stated: “In consequence of the success of the Atlantic cable, all work on the Russian-American telegraph line has been stopped and the enterprise has been abandoned.” For seven months of numbing Siberian winter they had worked pointlessly.

 

Six more weeks passed before a Western Union ship arrived from the States with official orders for the men to sell what they could and come home. To the very end the Western Union leaders lacked comprehension of what their Siberian party had faced. The natives had little money and even less need for American products.

“We sold glass insulators by the hundred as patent American teacups, and brackets by the thousand as prepared American kindling-wood,” Kennan recalled. “We offered soap and candles as premiums to anybody who would buy our salt pork and dried apples, and taught the natives how to make cooling drinks and hot biscuits, in order to create a demand for our redundant lime-juice and baking-powder.” Natives who bought pickaxes and shovels were given frozen cucumber pickles as a bonus. The thousands of poles and hundreds of miles of wire were abandoned for whatever use the small native population could make of them.

Around on the other side of the world in New York, Western Union’s board of directors had some mopping up to do, too. They were more concerned about rescuing themselves from the financial loss than about the fate of their Siberian crew. In September, 1866, two months after the success of the cable became apparent, they adopted a resolution authorizing holders of Extension stock to exchange it for Western Union bonds before February 1, 1867, at a favorable rate. Meanwhile they talked optimistically in public about prospects for resuming construction of the overland line, despite the Atlantic cable.

Much of the Extension stock, it will be recalled, was held by company directors or by Collins. Naturally nearly all of it was turned in for good solid Western Union bonds—$3,170,292 worth—by the deadline. Thus the directors shifted the burden of the losses from their Russian adventure off themselves and other participants onto the mass of ordinary Western Union stockholders.

On top of that Western Union vice president William Orton wrote to Secretary of State William H. Seward on March 25, 1867, suggesting another scheme. He asked that the United States formally urge Russia to complete the telegraph line across Siberia and the Bering Strait to some point in Russian America, about two thousand miles or more. If Russia would do that, he said, Western Union would resume work in British Columbia to link up with the Russian line. Russia would benefit by having telegraphic communication with her distant North American colony. And Western Union, of course, would have the benefit of the tolls generated.