This Day in Alaska History: Telegraph in Alaska
Alaska's First Telegraph Message to the Continental United States
by The Alaska Life
History is made because of many different moving parts and elements coming together and doing something for the first time. Historical events in Alaska have a lot of moving parts—parts that travel incredible distances. And when it comes to the elements, especially weather, Alaska’s climate requires a bit more planning and consideration than many other geographical locations. The USS General Burnside, along with a number of other vessels, completed the difficult task of laying telegraph cable in Alaskan waters. On this day in history, they saw the fruit of their labors, and are an amazing example of what making history in Alaska requires.
U.S. cable ship Burnside in Wrights' Sound - Mrs. Eardly - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration Alaska in 1904 wasn’t entirely disconnected from the the ‘outside’ world, but communications were inadequate for the age in which the United States was progressing. To relay a message, depending on where the message originated, could take days, weeks, even months to reach its destination. With Alaska’s strategic global position for the US military, there needed to be a way to expedite correspondence.
Map of Alaska showing transmission lines from Seattle, to Sitka, Valdez, etc. Using the USS General Burnside, a Union gunboat that patrolled the eastern seaboard in the Civil War converted to a line-laying steamship, engineers and crew with the Alaska Communications System (ACS), also known as the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS), set out from Seattle laying line to Sitka, one of Alaska’s largest towns at the time located about 900 miles north of Seattle. Soon, another line was installed at the bottom of the dark open waters of the Gulf of Alaska connecting Sitka and Valdez. While this line wasn’t the first telegraph line in the territory, as several villages had already been connected, it was the first connecting Alaska to the continental US. On July 30, 1904 the first message was sent over the cable. This message, a major breakthrough for Alaska communications, was just the beginning of a transformation of the state. Soon, telegraph stations and railroad lines were installed and interconnected throughout the territory. Citizens of the territory shifted as new towns and villages congregated closer to these spots.
Ice flows beside the government telegraph office, Fortymile, 1905 (NOWELL_131) With the new telegraph lines came new roads. In the same year Congress approved a new tax aimed at raising funds to create roads in place of trails. Native and non-native people followed the construction creating a new life and lifestyle for their families. Different parts and pieces came into place to modernize Alaska’s communications. “WAMCATS and ACS paved the way for later projects that connected all of Alaska’s communities to the nation and the world. In those projects, wireless technologies like microwave and satellites played an important role,” says telecom pioneer Dr. Alex Hills, author of, Finding Alaska's Villages: And Connecting Them.
United Wireless Telegraph Company station at Mile 8 showing man on track car riding railroad tracks, 1908 (HEGG_757) The breakthrough of Alaska’s telegraph system would heighten Alaska's role in WW2 as a vital base in the Pacific theater, which helped lay the foundation for continued settlement and growth in the territory of Alaska.
If you enjoyed this article, check out "Discovering Gold at Pedro Creek."
Hope that you enjoyed the article!
From Sitka to Seattle: Alaska’s First Telegraph to the Continental United States
This is a nitpick, but a nit many Alaskans will pick (probably due to the various ways to exclude Alaska, such as shipping, etc)… there are plenty of websites and ‘authorities’ to support either side of the debate on ‘continental’ vs ‘contiguous’. However, I believe we have definitions for a reason… and that ‘continental’ refers to anything on the continent… and that ‘contiguous’ is the accurate term not inviting a definitional debate. On the other hand, people will argue that we have a ‘living language’ which changes… which is simply a justification for saying anything.
In the end, contiguous is specific, continental is vague and misused… to the extent of trying to justify a phrase (continental United States) having a colloquial definition separate from the meaning of the words. It seems to have become a standard business phrase, although some opt for accuracy with contiguous.
Saying that ‘continental’ means everything not separated by an ocean or another country is a bit ridiculous.
I’ve seen others object to the phrase ‘Lower 48’ as being lower than what(?) since Hawaii is south of Florida, on a latitude level with Cuba.
Oh well… just odd to see something Alaskan refer to the Continental United States. Aren’t we a big island off California (per many maps)? Or ‘overseas’!