Remote communications

🕔Jun 02, 2010

The Collins Overland Telegraph – 1864
Every spring for the last three years Ryan Holmes and Jim Foulkes have slashed their way through thorny devil’s club and battled thirsty mosquitoes in search of buried strands of wire, the remains of a shelter, or the tell-tale blue glass insulators from the Collins Overland Telegraph—the line that connected BC to the world in 1866.

The Collins Overland Telegraph was Mr. Perry Collins’ ambitious project in 1864 to connect North America with Europe via telegraph. The $300,000 project aimed to cross the western US to New Westminster in BC, then north to Quesnel and west to Hazelton; crossing 850 miles (1,400 kms) of British Columbia before crossing the Bering Sea and spanning 1800 miles (2,900 kms) of Russia. Several unsuccessful attempts had been made to lay a telegraph cable across the Atlantic between Newfoundland and the UK. But Perry Collins and many other investors thought the transatlantic cable had little chance of permanent success.

The Collins Overland Telegraph project was a massive undertaking, and run with military precision. Uniformed men had strict roles and clear orders from US Army Colonel Charles S. Bulkley, the project’s engineer-in-chief.

By the summer of 1865 the telegraph crew had completed a line as far as Quesnel, and had struggled through the bush, clearing right-of-way, as far north and west as Fort Fraser. The men drove their own herd of beef cattle and 200 pack animals. In the spring of 1866, 150 men blazed a trail, built log cabins and strung telegraph wire out of Quesnel northwest to the confluence of the Bulkley and Skeena Rivers. There they met with the men who had toiled up the Skeena in canoes laden with hundreds of pounds of supplies and telegraph wire.

Together, the land team and the river team cleared the 12- to 20-foot wide right-of-way, constructed bridges, graded slopes, built cabins and strung telegraph wire to the village of Kispiox. Here the men built Fort Stager, where they stored 240 miles of wire, insulators and brackets. By winter the line was built 25 miles (40 kms) northwest of Fort Stager and work was expected to resume in the spring of 1867.

But work never resumed. Unbeknownst to the workers, the transatlantic cable had proven itself in the summer of 1866. No further work was done on the line after the winter of 1866. S. A. Cunliffe, in From Pack Trail to Radio and Then What?, stated that in 1868 Mr. McCutcheon, an operator, abandoned Fort Stager, bringing out with him thirteen large canoes loaded with provisions and clothing. Rosemary Neering, in her book Continental Dash, writes, “The Company [Western Union Telegraph] maintained the line from New Westminster to the Cariboo…until 1871 when the provincial government leased the line in perpetuity.”

The Dominion Telegraph – 1897
When gold was discovered in the Yukon in 1891, the world wanted to know all about it. The provincially owned Dominion Telegraph Services began work in 1897 intent on resurrecting the old Collins Overland Telegraph line out of Quesnel to Kispiox then branching off overland to Telegraph Creek and the Yukon. They built 37 cabins—one every 30 or 40 miles. Two men were stationed to a cabin: a telegraph operator and a lineman. The lineman would patrol the line on either side of the cabin, repairing it when it was broken by falling trees, wind or heavy snows. Because they were responsible for a long section of line there were refuge cabins built at the halfway points with a bed, a stove and provisions. Due to extreme weather (like the 10 feet of snow that fell in one day at head of the Nass River), some linesmen also built an additional shelter between the refuge cabin and their main cabin. By the fall of 1901 the line was complete and Dawson City was connected via telegraph to the rest of the world.

That first winter, 1901, was the hardest, the men having underestimated their supplies and the duration of the winter weather. At first the pack trains that supplied the cabins were sent out annually, but due to near starvation the pack trains (some 75 animals) soon operated more frequently. Conditions along the line were tough: the men battled forest fires, spring floods and week-long blizzards. The work was hard; some claimed to have walked 300 miles in one month as they constantly repaired their sections of line.

There were the inevitable reports of fist-fights, men going stir-crazy, and even a shoot-out. One linesman, desperate to get farther away from his co-worker, built his own cabin next door. Former lineman S.A. Cunliffe wrote of a man murdered over the position of the salt-shaker on the table.

In spite of the hardships, some who had come intending to stay just one season instead stayed for years. Most of the men played cards and some played musical instruments. Companionship was found in their pack dogs, the daily 8:00 pm roll-call and the repeating of the daily news headlines. The mailman, who walked or mushed the route, became an important link to the outside world. The linesmen helped out the occasional traveller and were known to rustle up a rescue team, provide shelter in emergencies and literally give the shirt off their back to a stranger in need.

For the more than 30 years the line was maintained, the telegraph linesmen changed but the routine was the same: they maintained the line and passed news along the wire, relaying the signals from cabin to cabin.

During a spring flood in 1936 a large portion of the line between Hazelton and Telegraph Creek was washed out. Since radio communication had begun by this time, the decision was made to not re-build the telegraph line to the Yukon.

The linesmen dispersed, the cabins fell into disrepair, the forest grew over the poles and wires, and the once 12-foot-wide trail steadily grew in.

Heritage Significance
A report by the Kitimat Stikine Regional District states that the telegraph trail to the Yukon is valued for “...its scientific and engineering feats, which included the physical construction of the trail and telegraph line through difficult terrain, developments in communications technology of the time, and the physical presence of a continuous wire through the wilderness.” The report notes “...the use of the trail by many diverse people over time including First Nations, prospectors, trappers, packers and outlaws adds to its social and cultural significance.”

Some push for the trail to be officially designated a heritage trail, mapped and marked and promoted as a hiking route through the wilderness. Jim Foulkes and Ryan Holmes appreciate the heritage significance of the telegraph trail to northern British Columbia; if they do find the end of the Collins line they will GPS it, photograph it and share the information with local and provincial museums. Foulkes says that the telegraph route, both the early Collins and the later Dominion line, are monuments to the vision these people had to link BC with the world more than 140 years ago.