The Overland Telephone
It began in August of 1942, this little known, yet vital link in the Northwest Service Command's operations. A little more than a year later,…
For its time, Morse code, like the worldwide-web today,was the technology for instant communication that made the world a smaller place. Samuel Morse was given a patent for his code in 1830s.
In 1844, the first commercial Morse Code system was operating between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. Not long after, the Montreal Telegraph Company provided communications from eastern Canada to the United States.
In Europe, thousands of miles of telegraph lines were strung, and the code was being transmitted in all directions. In 1858, the Western Union Telegraph Company was formed to build a line across the U.S.
World wide, communication by code was king, but not in the north until a New Yorker named Perry Collins saw the possibilities of trade with Russia. He had travelled extensively in Russia and sensed there was a mammoth market for American goods. Without communications, however, it would never happen, so he devised a plan to build a telegraph line from the western U.S.A. to Russia.
The cable-line would begin in New Westminster, follow the British Columbia interior, traverse the unknown Yukon and Alaska, cross the Bering Sea, then through Siberia to connect with Russian lines to Europe. Total length? More than 10,000 miles. The plan was approved in 1865, with backing of British, Russian, American and Canadian governments and money provided by shareholders of the Western Union Company.
The popular name of the project was the Collins Overland Telegraph Company. Construction started in 1865 from New Westminster and continued north through the B.C. interior. Twenty-foot poles were spaced thirty to the mile to support a heavy gauge iron wire.
Through the summer and fall of 1866 workers on the Collins Overland line battled the elements. One worker was Michael Lebarge of Chateauguay, Quebec, for whom Lake Laberge is named. However, events were overtaking the Collins project - in the North Atlantic where attempts were underway to lay a cable under the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. Once this underwater cable was working, the Collins project was dead.
However, after two years of toil and three million dollars, all was not lost. About 600 miles of line, with cabins for linemen, was completed into the of Cariboo gold fields, in the B.C. interior.
When B.C. became a province in 1871, the government took over the line. For the next ten years, they rebuilt and renamed the Dominion, or Yukon, telegraph line. Construction continued into the Klondike and finally arrived in Dawson City on September 24th, 1901.
In one of the first messages to Ottawa, Commissioner William Ogilvie wrote: "Time and space are annihilated. We are of the world now."
Often called the first Internet, this telegraph service operated for one hundred and thirteen years until it was decommissioned by CNCP Telecommunications in 1974. You can still see remnants of line along the Yukon River, and visit the old telegraph office at the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.