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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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