Billy Mitchell In Alaska

Few figures in American history have been surrounded by more controversy than General William Mitchell. He is a man chiefly remembered for his outspoken advocacy of air power in an age when most military minds were still firmly rooted in the earth, and for a visionary’s indifference to the feelings of his more conservative superiors, which led to a sensational court-martial. Little remembered today, however, are the numerous exploits of Billy Mitchell’s earlier career—among them his achievement in helping to lay the first telegraph line across the Alaska wilderness from 1901 to 1903. During his years of retirement after the famous trial in 1925, Mitchell found time to record his memories of his often incredible Alaska experiences in a book still in manuscript. AMERICAN HERITAGE is happy to present in these pages the first extensive excerpts from it ever published. The manuscript, which is now part of the collected Mitchell papers in the Library of Congress, comes to us through the courtesy of the General’s daughter, Mrs. Kenneth N. Gilpin, Jr., of Boyce, Virginia.

 

When vast gold deposits were discovered in Alaska at the end of the nineteenth century, thousands of fortune hunters swarmed north to stake claims. They found themselves in a land that was in turn beautiful and barren—and utterly remote from civilization. During the short summer months, communication was slow at best; in the long, cold winter, all but impossible. Early in the 1900’s, however, the U.S. Signal Corps managed to lay down an underwater cable from Seattle to the Alaskan port of Valdez; but attempts to build an overland telegraph in the wild and largely unexplored territory made little progress.

In the summer of 1901, Brigadier General A. W. Greely, the famous Arctic explorer who was head of the Signal Corps, sent a promising first lieutenant named William Mitchell to investigate the delays in the Alaska line. Though only twenty-one, this adventurous son of a Wisconsin senator had already served in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. “Alaska attracted and interested me,” Mitchell wrote, “not only because it was our last frontier, but also because it represented a stepping stone to Asia.... it was obvious that at some future time its strategic importance to us would be very great.”

Sailing from Seattle in July, Mitchell landed at Skagway, and in the next few weeks proceeded to cover a vast stretch of territory from the Canadian Yukon District to the Bering Sea. As he traveled, Mitchell thought he saw a way to speed up the construction of the telegraph.

Until that time, he observed, the operation had been carried on only during the muddy, insect-ridden summer months; no one attempted to work in the winter for fear of the cold. But it soon became evident to Mitchell that “very little would be accomplished if we attempted to transport material through this area in the summer, as a pack horse could carry only two hundred pounds fifteen or twenty miles a day; but in winter these same animals could pull from one to two thousand pounds over the frozen snow for even greater distances.... Although this was one of the coldest parts of the world, it seemed to me the thing to do was to work through the winter getting the material out: the wire, insulators, poles, food supplies, and forage; then to actually construct the lines in the summer, when we could dig holes in the ground and set telegraph poles.”

Greely was much pleased by the young lieutenant’s findings, and late that fall Mitchell returned to Alaska. As the winter set in, he journeyed to Fort Egbert, near the town of Eagle City on the Canadian border. This lonely outpost in the gold-rich Klondike region was to be his base for the next two years. Prospects for success, however, seemed at first unlikely.

I found the garrison at Fort Egbert in rather a poor state of discipline. There were a great many recruits and few older noncommissioned officers. On account of the cold, drills were held irregularly, and little target practice was carried on. The men did not like to work on the telegraph line, or anywhere in the cold, for that matter. It is difficult to handle a group of men without giving them plenty of work, and in the North it is hard to find enough work for them to do while in garrison.

No trails existed over the mountains where the telegraph lines were to go, nor was their course definitely located, so the first thing we had to do was to survey their route. The first line would be between Eagle City and Valdez, where the submarine cable from the United States ended, a distance of almost four hundred miles through a trackless wilderness, with no means of subsistence for men or animals except game, which could only be found at certain seasons of the year.