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The U.S. - Siberian Telegraph

By C. L. Andrews

About 1861 Perry McDonouugh Collins, a former United States Commission Agent at the Amoor River, originated the idea of a telegraph line to connect the United States with Europe by way of the Bering Strait.  The Atlantic Cable, after several attempts, had not yet been accomplished and the failures made it appear that it might not be possible to complete it.  The proposed eastern line was to begin at the boundary between Canada and the United States, near New Westminster, B. C., and run north at some distance back of the coast line to the boundary of Russian America (now Alaska), then to Bering Strait, across Bering Strait 55 miles, then southward back of the Sea of Okhotsk, to the mouth of the Amoor River.  This was termed the Collins Overland Route.

San Francisco was at that time the frontier post of the telegraph, in the West.  The gap between that city and the boundary of Washington Territory remained to be pioneered for a telegraph line.  The Collins Overland Route was operated through this section of the country over a line built through Washington Territory in `864, terminating at New Westminster with a branch to Victoria.  This line was acquired by the Western Union Telegraph Company in 1866.  The extension of the Collins Overland Route line through British Columbia and Russian America was really the biggest undertaking in telegraph lines in North America.*

Russia had already assured the construction of the whole line, 7,000 miles from Moscow to the Pacific.  It was then actually under construction by the Russian Bureau, under the Director in Chief of the Public Ways, from Kazan to Irkootsk, and was to be completed in 1863.  The Governor-General of Eastern Siberia and the Minister of the Navy were charged with the construction of the lines from Irkootsk to the mouth of the Amoor.  Everything pointed to this as the great rote to Europe.  The highest northern point was 66 degrees North Latitude.

In 1864 the plan for installing the line of telegraph from the United States via Bering Strait to the mouth of the Amoor River was developed by the Western Union Telegraph Company, and Captain Charles S. Bulkley, late of the U.S. Army Telegraph Corps, was given command of the expeditions to make necessary explorations, for much of the route was unexplored.

In 1865 parties were sent out to begin the work.  Major Frank Pope was assigned to the division north from the national boundary up the Fraser River.  Major Abasa was sent to the mouth of the Amoor, to work north to the mouth of the Anadyr River.  George Kennan, later of fame relative to the Russian convicts in Siberia, and Richard J. Rush, were with Abara on the brig Olga.  The steamer George S. Wright took Major Robert Kennicott, noted naturalist for whom the Kennicott Mine was named, in command of a party for surveying on the Yukon River.

The ext year Kennicott died on the way up the Yukon and Wm. H. Dall succeeded him.  The bark Rogers took a party to Port Clarence, on the Seward Peninsula, for construction work at that place.  They established a camp called Libbysville, for Mr. Libby, leader of the party.  Major Bendeleben worked from the head of Norton Bay toward Port Clarence.  The Bendeleben Mountains are named in his honor.

At Libbysville the party worked eastward, surveying and placing telegraph poles.  Some of these were standing when Lieut. D. H. Jarvis passed on his way to Barrow on the relief expedition of 1898.  They spent the winter at work.  In the camp a small paper was published in pen and ink, called the Esquimaux.  When the detachment went to San Francisco in 1869 the issue was put in print at that place.  A file is in the Library of Congress.

Plover Bay on the Siberian Coast was selected as the headquarters on the Asiatic side.  A fleet of boats, the steamer George S. Wright, the barks Nightingale and Rogers and other ships formed a fleet to convey supplies and parties.

D. B. Libby was a prominent mining operator in the mines near Golovin in 1899, being among the first who joined the rush to that place, having found gold prospects during his stay in 1866-7.

The steamer Mumford plied along the southeastern coast of Alaska.  It made a trip up the Stikine River to take wire and supplies to Telegraph Creek, which was a camp founded and from which work was pushed southward toward Hazelton.  The Mumford failed to reach its destination, going only as far as the Ice Mountain on the Stikine.  A large quantity of wire was shipped up to Telegraph Creek and was brought out and sent to Victoria, after the transfer to the United States, as appears in the Customs records of the Territory.

W. H. Dall surveyed the Yukon to Fort Yukon.  One of his party was Mike Lebarge, from who Lake Lebarge derives its name.

When the Atlantic Cable was successfully laid the different parties were called in as rapidly as possible and sent to San Francisco on the fleet of the company.  The cost to the Western Union was estimated at three million dollars, a considerable sum in those days -- not to be compared to the cost of the Alaska Highway.

Collins was so sanguine over the coming greatness of the Pacific trade that he projected another line to run along the coast to Sitka and from there westward on the Aleutian Islands, and from there to Japan.  The Russian Government favored the project, according to the Journal of the Telegraph (New York, February 5, 1868).

When the vacating orders were received at Libbysville on the front across the tower building was painted the following inscription: "Libby Station, Established September 17, 1866; Vacated July 2, 1867."

In the Esquimaux is preserved a list of 41 members of the party, including on Eskimo, Mayoukuk.  Three members of the party died during the stay.

The body of Kennicott was taken to St. Michael, placed in a vault in the frozen ground, and kept until the summer supply ship arrived.  It was then shipped around to New York and finally laid to rest in the "Grove," near Chicago.

The Journal of the Telegraph (New York, December 16, 1867) records the dissolving of the contracts by Baron Stoeckl, for the Russian Government; and the Western Union Company by its officers, mutually releasing each other from the engagements into which they had entered, to secure European telegraphic communications by way of the Pacific Coast and the Russian Empire.

On the same page which records the official suspension of the overland line the real success of the Atlantic Cable was made accessible to the public.  American enterprise reached out its arms by sea and land to grasp Europe and touched it first beneath the waves.

The cessation of operations on the Overland Route, however, did not quench the ambition of Perry McDonough Collins.  In the Journal of the Telegraph (Vol. 2, No. 5, February 2, 1869) appears a letter from him to the editor of the Evening Post, saying:

"That the Overland Route, or rather that portion left unfinished by the Western Union Company, has been abandoned, is true, but the general proposition of connecting the Pacific Coast with Asia has not for a moment been abandoned by me.

"Under the grant, to myself by Russia, Great Britain, British Columbia and the United States, more than half of the Overland line and its connections has been constructed.  First, on the American side, up to within 260 miles of Sitka, in Russian America, and secondly, o the Asiatic side, continuously, except one section on the Amoor River, for the construction of which all the materials are now on the ground, on to Europe, across the whole of Asia.

"The break in the line, as it may be stated now, exists between a point on Simpson's River, 260 miles southeasterly of Sitka, to a point on the Asiatic Coast, 40 degrees North Latitude, 134 degrees East Longitude from Greenwich, a distance of about 2700 miles by way of the Aleutian and Kurile Islands, along which it is now possible to construct the last line, which will give us a continuous telegraph around the world . . ."

Mr. Collins was a man with a vision, but he was nearly three quarters of a century ahead of his time.  The vision has today taken life in the Alaska Highway, in the airplanes flying from the States to Fairbanks over Canada, and by Russians from Fairbanks to Russia.  It is in the air instead of overland, and by wireless messages instead of under the sea.

*This information on early lines of Washington Territory is from a letter from Carlton Hayes, Superintendent of Maintenance, Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Company, January 15, 1922.


Source: Andrews, C. L., "The U.S. Siberian Telegraph." Alaska Life: The Territorial Magazine.  Juneau, Alaska: Alaska Life Publishing Co., September, 1945.





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