Wires in the Wilderness: The Story of the Yukon Telegraph
November 4, 2013
Review By Georgiana Ball
IT WAS WITH SOME excitement and a little trepidation that I agreed to review Bill Miller’s book. First of all, my father, George Ball, was a Yukon Telegraph Line operator in the early years; and I, being raised along the Stikine River, knew or knew of some of the other characters who worked on the line. Second, I have read a number of articles and books about the North that do not do justice to the events or lives of northerners. I was afraid that I might have to write a somewhat negative review. Fortunately, this is not the case. Bill Miller has produced a comprehensive and well-written account of the history of the Yukon Telegraph Line.
The book begins with the need for the Canadian government to protect its yet undefined borders between Canada and Alaska, and to provide security after the Klondike strike brought hordes of gold-seekers to Yukon in 1897-98. The government did this by stationing North-West Mounted Police, who also served as customs agents, at Canada-Alaska border crossings (provisional boundary agreements were made in 1899) and by deploying 202 officers and soldiers of the Yukon Field Force to maintain order and to provide an official presence in Yukon, where the vast majority of people were American. At the same time, the Canadian government realized that major improvement of the transportation and communication facilities within Yukon, and from there to the outside world, was an absolute necessity.
In 1898-99 the narrow-gauge White Pass and Yukon Railway was built, along with a telegraph line, from Skagway through the White Pass to Bennett City near the BC-Yukon border. Before construction was completed in July 1899, the Privy Council approved the extension of the telegraph line to Dawson City and a spur line to Atlin, British Columbia, where a gold strike had occurred the previous year. These lines were completed in September 1899.
A telegraph message from Dawson City still had to make the boat trip of four to five days from Skagway to Vancouver before it could reach its destination. A land-line from Atlin to where the transcontinental line ended at Quesnel would provide an all-Canadian route. In December 1899 the Department of Public Works decided to extend the line south. This was not to be the comparatively easy construction to Dawson City, which used the Yukon River as its general freighting highway. The southern line would not follow rivers but, rather, go overland, often through mountainous terrain. Still, J.B. Charleson, supervisor of construction of the telegraph line from the beginning, expected to finish the 944-mile (1,519-kilometre) line in 1900. He sent surveyors, line crews, and supplies to Atlin and Quesnel. Supplies were also sent to Hazelton on the Skeena River and to Telegraph Creek on the Stikine. Pack trains of horses/ mules carrying the supplies went along with the crews, who also had to build the many stations and refuge cabins. By late fall, after encountering countless pitfalls, the crews had to stop work (the animals were starving because the forage was dead), leaving a 121-mile (195-kilometre) gap between Hazelton and Telegraph Creek. By the fall of 1901 the gap was closed and a branch line to Port Simpson had been built.
Miller’s descriptions of the events and people involved in the telegraph line construction are quite thorough. He often uses excerpts from the telegraphers’ journals to describe their interesting, and sometimes dangerous, lives. Wires in the Wilderness explains how the telegraph line was replaced gradually by wireless telegraphy, and how the Yukon Telegraph Line finally came to an end in 1952.
Many people travelled on the telegraph trail before and after the closing of the line. Some were regular users, like the packers on the pack trains that annually carried supplies tp the stations and the large pack trains that went along with hunters and their guides on forty- to ninety-day hunts (Miller does not mention the latter). And then there were the trekkers: men and women, including a murderer and a woman travelling to Siberia, who for many reasons hiked or attempted to travel by motorcycle on the trail. Their compelling stories are recounted in this book.
Miller made a few errors that should be noted. He supposedly quoted me describing how three of the four airplanes the US Army flew to Alaska in 1920 landed on Callbreath’s ranch on their return flight, harming the undercarriage of one of the planes (193 n18). The quotation came from Frank H. Ellis (1960, 35) The Cariboo Digest. The source for Miller’s next paragraph (chap. 12, 193-4 n19) does come from a short account I wrote, which is. published in Stan Cohen’s (1998, 97-8). The Alaska Flying Expedition: The US Army’s 1920 New York to Nome Flight. This source is not cited in Chapter 12, note 19. Incidentally, the ranch is ten miles (sixteen kilometres) from Telegraph Creek, not thirty, as Miller wrote; and it was a bonfire on the hill behind the village that notified the pilot that the weather had cleared south of Telegraph Creek so that the plane could take off after having been on the ranch for twenty days.
Unfortunately, Miller (269) uses a sentence in Archie Hunter’s (1983, 96) Northern Traders as a source of information. This sentence incorrectly states that the fifty US Army Engineers who arrived in Telegraph Creek in 1942 (not 1941) were to go into the Interior to work on construction of the Alaska Highway. That was not their mission. They were to survey and cut out a route to Alaska for a railway, a project that came to naught.
The caption for an archival photograph of tractors on the Dease Road is incorrect (261). The US Army Engineers had nothing to do with improving the road for small-truck traffic; rather, it was the Department of Public Works crew from Telegraph Creek that did the work. They were possibly assisted by General Construction, whose trucks and boats hauled the freight on the Dease Road and Dease Lake/River, and who built Watson Lake Airport. Regardless of these errors, Miller has written a captivating book that fills a large gap in the written history of northwestern Canada.
Cohen, Stan. 1998. The Alaska Flying Expedition: The US Army’s 1920 New York to Nome Flight. (Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing.)
Ellis, Frank H. 1960. The Cariboo Digest.
Hunter, Archie. 1983. Northern Traders: Cariboo Hair in the Stew. (Victoria: Sono Nis Press.)