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Connecting Alaska: The Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System

  • David Eric Jessup (a1)
Abstract

In response to the Klondike gold rush, the U.S. Army established isolated forts throughout Alaska. Between 1900 and 1905, the Signal Corps connected those posts with each other and with the contiguous United States by means of the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS). A significant logistical and technological achievement, the system of thousands of miles of suspended landlines and underwater cable included the first successful long-distance radio operation in the world. The first physical link between the United States and Alaska, the telegraph was also the first major contribution to Alaskan infrastructure provided by the federal government, marking the beginning of the government's central role in the development of Alaska.

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1 Cole Terrence, “Some, City of the Golden Beaches” (Anchorage, 1984), 122–23.

2 Nichols Jeannette Paddock, Alaska: A History of Its Administration, Exploitation, and Industrial Development during Its First Half Century under the Rule of the United States (Cleveland, OH, 1924), 11.

3 Cole Terrence, “The History of a History: The Making of Jeannette Paddock Nichols's Alaska,” Pacific Norrthwest Quarterly 77 (Oct. 1986): 130–38, quote on 131.

4 Dethloff Henry C., Americans and tree Enterprise (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1979), 127.

5 Thompson Robert Luther, Wiring a Continent: The History of the Telegraph Industry in the United States 1832-1866 (Princeton, 1947), 351.

6 John Richard R., Spreading the News: The American Postal System from tranklin to Morse (Cambridge, MA, 1995), 8789, quote on 88.

7 Taylor George Rogers, The Transportation Resolution, 1815-1860 (New York, 1951).

8 Gandall Matt, “Collins' Colossal Gamble,” Westirays 74 (Oct. 1982): 4546;Sexton Tom, “The Images of Charles H. Ryder,” The Alaska journal 12 (Summer 1982): 3233.

9 Gandall, “Collins' Colossal Gamble,” 75; see alsoDwyer John B., To Wire the World: Perry M. Collins and the North Pacific Telegraph Expedition (W'estport, CT, 2001); andNeering Rosemary, Continental Dash: The Russian-American Telegraph (Granges, BC, 1989).

10 The US. Army in Alaska, 172D Infantry Brigade Pamphlet No. 360–5 (May 1976): 20.

11 Army in Alaska, 21; Nielson Jonathan M., Armed Tones on a Northem Frontier: The Military in Alaska's History, 1867-1987 (New York, 1988), 2930.

12 Army in Alaska, 22-26.

13 Army in Alaska, 32. The border dispute was not settled until 1903.

14 Nielson, Armed Forces, 67.

15 Army in Alaska, 45.

16 Nielson. Armed Forces, 65.

17 Army in Alaska, 28.

18 Ibid., 44.

19 U.S. Statutes at Large, vol. 23, 48th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, DC, 1885), 2428.

20 Nielson, Armed Forces, 68.

21 Army in Alaska, 47.

22 Woodman Lyman L., Duty Station Northwest: The U.S. Army in Alaska and Western Canada, 1867-1987 (Anchorage, 1996), 1:197.

23 See, for example: Ellis L.T., “Lieutenant A.W. Greely's Report on the Installation or Military Telegraph Lines in Texas, 1875–1876,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 69 (July 1965): 6687, repr. in Military Signal Communications, vol. 1, ed. Scheips Paul J. (New York, 1980).

24 Woodman, Duty Station Northwest, 1:197.

25 U.S. Statutes at large, 56th Cong. 1st sess. (Washington, 1901), 31:206.

26 U.S. Department of th e Interior, Annual Report, 1898, and Miscellaneous Report, 224-25.

27 U.S. War Department, Annual Report, 1898, 875, repr. in Scheips, Military Signal Communications, vol. 1; Annual Report of the Chief Signal Officer, 1900, 34 [Hereafter CSO-AR] CSO-AR, 1902, 52-54; CSO-AR, 1905, 228-29.

28 Raines Rebecca Robbins, Getting the Message Through: A branch History of the U.S Army Signal Corps (Washington, 1996), 106–08.

29 CSO-AR, 1901,9,37.

30 Woodman, Duty Station Northwest, 1:227.

31 CSO-AR, 1902, 5.

32 CSO-AR, 1902, 5-6; Woodman, Duty Station Northwest, 1:207.

33 Jenne Theron L. and Mitchell Harry R., “Militar y Long-Lines Communication in Alaska, 1900-1976” in Telecommunications in Alaska, ed. Walp Robert M. (Honolulu, 1982), 14; CSO AR, 1902, 6.

34 CSO-AR, 1902, 48.

35 CSO-AR, 1902,4.

36 CSO-AR, 1901, 8-9; Woodman, Duty Station Northwest, 1:206.

37 Jaunal Jack W., “Bringing Ft. Kgbert to the ‘Outside’”, Periodical: The journal of the Council on America's Military Vast 14 (July 1983): 23.

38 CSO-AR, 1901, 8-9; CSO-AR, 1902, 4; Coates Ken S. and Morrison William R., Land of the Midnight Sun: A History of the Yukon (Montreal, 2005), 172; see also Miller Bill, Wires in the Wilderness: The Story of the Yukon Telegraph (Surrey, BC, 2004).

39 CSO-AR, 1904, 9.

40 CSO-AR, 1901, 38.

42 CSO-AR, 1902, 7; Society of Wireless Pioneers, Sparks Journal 7: Wamcats Edition (June 21, 1985): 66.

43 CSO-AR, 1902, 48; CSO-AR, 1904, 11.

44 CSO-AR, 1904, 11-12. General Greely added that these masts were “the highest ever erected on the Pacific coast” (12).

45 See Chadbourne H. Lincoln, “Leonard D. Wildman and the First Alaskan Radio (Safety Harbor-St. Michael),” 1984, typescript available in the Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks. Chadbourne offers considerable information on the life and career of Wildman, as well as illustrated descriptions of the technical aspects of his wireless system.

46 CSO-AR, 1904, 11-12; Woodman, Duty Station Northwest, 1:237. There is some confusion over the date of the completion of the Norton Sound wireless. Several sources, including CSO-AR, 1905, 216, give the date as August 1903; A. W Greely seems to confirm this date in later writings: see Handbook of Alaska: Its Resources, Products, and Attractions (New York, 1909), 253; Chadbourne opts for August 1904, attributing the common mistake to the fact that the completion of the system was reported in the annual report for fiscal year 1904, which ostensibly covered progress only through June of that year (in “Leonard D. Wildman” 94); Rebecca Robbins Raines, in her exhaustive history of the Signal Corps, also prefers the 1904 date (Getting the Message Through, 116-17, fn 100).

47 Sean Reid, “Telegraph…A Key to Our Past,” Alascom Spectrum 4 (July 1983): 7.

48 Jenne and Mitchell, “Military Long-Lines,” 1415.

49 CSO-AR, 1904, 12.

50 San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 3, 1905.

51 Army in Alaska, 49; CSO-AR, 1901, 4145.

52 CSO-AR, 1901,38.

53 Webb Melody, “Billy Mitchell and the Alaska Telegraph,” American History Illustrated 20 (Jan. 1986): 23.

54 Mitchell William L., The Opening of Alaska (repr. Anchorage, 1982), 1.

55 Mitchell, Opening of Alaska, 23, 37.

56 Webb, “Billy Mitchell,” 24.

57 CSO-AR, 1902, 9-10.

58 Mitchell, Opening of Alaska, 92.

59 Mitchell Captain William, “Building the Alaska Telegraph System,” National Geographic Magazine, Sept. 1904, 361.

60 CSO-AR, 1903, 3-4.

61 Mitchell, Opening of Alaska, 100.

62 CSO-AR, 1902,9.

63 CSO-AR, 1903, 6-8; CSO-AR, 1904, 5-7.

64 CSO-AR, 1904, 7; Woodman, Duty Station Northwest, 1:238.

65 Reid, “Telegraph,” 7.

66 CSO-AR, 1904, 4.

67 “Cable Completed,” Valdez News, Oct. 8, 1904, p. 1.

68 “Amundson [sic] Navigates Northwest Passage,” New York Times, Dec. 7, 1905, p. 1.

69 Nielson, Armed Forces, 71.

70 “Alaska Communication System 49th Anniversary Bulletin, 1949,” booklet produced for the ACS in Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

71 CSO-AR, 1905, 214-15. The isolation of telegraph operators was not unique to the North; see, for example, the description of Australian telegraph operations in the 1870s in Blainey Geoffrey, The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia's History (Melbourne, 1968), 222–27.

72 CSO-AR, 1903, 5.

73 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Report of the Chief of the Weather Bureau, 19041905, 281.

74 Freitas Helen de, “Nathalie Fairbank's Journey Down the Yukon River in 1905,” Polar Record 24 (Oct. 1988): 305.

75 CSO-AR, 1903, 5.

76 Sparks journal 7: WAMCATS Edition, 24.

77 Webb,“Billy Mitchell,” 25; Army in Alaska, 53.

78 CSO-AR, 1905, 219. A quarter of commercial-tariff revenue from fiscal year 1905 went to parties other than the U.S. Treasury, including the Canadian government telegraph svstem and the White Pass and Yukon Railway Company. Once the “All-American” system was permanently in place, the cost of paying outside telegraph service providers was presumably eliminated.

79 CSO-AR, 1905, 216-17; Army in Alaska, 53.

80 Sparks Journal 7: Wamcats Edition, 64, 74.

81 Raines, Getting the Message Through, 339.

82 Jenne and Mitchell, “Military Long-Lines,” 19.

83 Fitch Edwin M., The Alaska Railroad (Washington, 1968). U.S. Department of Transportation report available in the Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks. Fitch also published the book, The Alaska Railroad (New York, 1967).

84 As a part of the project, the Signal Corps supervised the construction of a telephone line alongside the highway. The job required 14,000 miles of wire and 95,000 telephone poles. Coates Ken, North to Alaska (Fairbanks, 1992), 260; Raines, Getting the Message Through, 288–89; see also Stanley L. Jackson, “Stringing Wire toward Tokyo: A Brief History of the Alaska Military Highway Telephone line,” Signal Corps Historical Section, Jan. 1944, typescript copy at U.S. Army Center for Military History, Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.

85 Greely estimated the total cost of the project in his 1909 Handbook of Alaska: “The Congressional appropriations for these lines aggregated $1,352,132, and about 51,000,000 additional was involved in the Army transportation used, and in the pay, clothing, and subsistence of the soldiers engaged in the construction, operation, and maintenance of the lines” (253).

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