Before we go back in time, let’s look at this situation as if it were happening today: Say you came to Alaska a short time ago, have a good job, your cabin not far from Nome is comfortable, there’s plenty of heating oil in the tank and your pantry is well stocked. But your spouse is still at home Outside. Days are getting very short and freeze-up is here. Cabin fever is setting in and you want your spouse to join you.
The solution is simple. You pull out your cell phone and give instructions to catch a plane on which you have purchased a ticket online. You will be reunited in a few days and spend the winter snuggled up with your beloved in comfort.
At the dawn of the Twentieth Century that could not happen. Mail or personal contact was the only way to correspond. To mail a letter Outside in winter required getting someone to take it to either Skagway or Seward by dog team, where it could be posted to go out on the next steamship. No ship would arrive in Nome until late May or early June of the next year.
Even before the Gold Rush brought tens of thousands of people stampeding north, the United States government had trouble keeping up with what was happening in its young possession. Lt. Adolphus Greely led an Arctic expedition in 1882 and was frustrated by being out of contact with the rest of the world for three long years. His 25-man party went without resupply for two summers; when rescuers arrived, only he and five others had survived.
In 1900 radio communication was still to be introduced. Telegraphy using Morse Code sent via cables stretched over land was in wide use in Canada and the States. Near the end of the Nineteenth Century a race was underway to connect North America with Europe and Asia by undersea cable. Western Union proposed to connect telegraph lines across the Bering Strait to link North America with Asia and Europe and in 1886 sent an expedition to explore a route. That plan was dropped, however, when the Transatlantic Cable was completed.
Federal officials were sent north to deal with an invasion by gold-seekers and those who wanted to profit from the rush. Greely, who President Grover Cleveland promoted to brigadier general in 1887, was assigned as chief signal officer. He continued to propose a telegraph system for Alaska.
In 1900 Congress created the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph Service (WAMCATS) and appropriated almost $500,000 to get it started.
An autonomous unit, WAMCATS was to report directly to the Chief Signal Officer. Capt. Charles Farnsworth was put in command of the Signal Corps unit given the job of constructing lines to connect the military installations along the Yukon. Lines were to link with Ft. St. Michael, Ft. Davis at Nome and from Ft. Gibbon at Tanana to the port at Valdez. An undersea cable was laid across Norton Sound to link St. Michael and Nome. That cable was not long after replaced by a wireless (radio) connection.
Lt. William “Billy” Mitchell was assigned to survey routes for the lines and mapped 2,600 miles through the rugged terrain. Construction bogged down that summer, though, when mule-drawn wagons loaded with wire and equipment sank in the mud. Mitchell suggested hauling material over frozen ground in winter with poles and buildings to be erected during the summer. Mitchell reasoned that workers could deal with winter conditions as well as the Natives and the sourdoughs who lived in the area.
Initially 100 soldiers were assigned to the job. In all, 72,000 poles were cut from local timber. Log buildings were constructed about 40 miles apart for use by operators and maintenance people. Soldiers patrolled the line, repaired breaks and removed obstacles that threatened them.
By 1903 a total of 559 miles of line was constructed between Ft. Gibbons at Tanana and Ft. Egbert at Eagle near the Alaska-Canada border. It was then possible to connect to Canadian telegraph lines, linking with the Lower 48 and the War Department in Washington. The Act creating the WAMCATS specified that in addition to military traffic, the lines could also carry traffic for government-related business and also civilian messages.
Military officials became concerned about security of telegrams passing through a foreign country. At the time there were diplomatic differences over the actual boundary lines between our two countries. Also, a large majority of miners who were working along the Yukon in Canada were Americans whose rights needed to be protected.
A second Congressional appropriation allowed for construction of undersea cables linking Valdez to Sitka and Juneau and from Juneau to Skagway and Seattle.
After those cables were connected, all WAMCATS telegrams went through American facilities.
By 1935, military and naval traffic amounted to only 3% of the total carried by the service. Civil government messages represented 30% and commercial and personal communications by far were the majority with 66% of the load. In remote areas where ACS offices were not located, radios operated by traders were linked to allow telegrams to be relayed.
In 1935 the WAMCATS name was changed to Alaska Communication System, still operated by the Signal Corps and reporting to the Chief Signal Officer. ACS headquarters was in the Federal Building in Seattle. In many remote areas throughout the Territory, the soldier in charge of the telegraph office was the only government representative on duty year-round.
Master Sergeant Stanley Morgan, non-commissioned officer in charge of the Barrow ACS station, was there on Aug. 15, 1935, when residents came to his office to report a plane crash in a lagoon not far from town. Morgan rushed to the scene and found that pilot Wiley Post and his passenger Will Rogers had been killed when Post’s monoplane went down. The two were on a world tour and had visited Juneau, Seward, Anchorage, Palmer and Fairbanks before heading to Barrow. Rogers had wired his column about the Matanuska Colony from Fairbanks, written on a typewriter in his lap while enroute.
Morgan went back to his office and tapped out the message that the famed aviator and humorist were dead. Morgan’s message was received by Sgt. Stone at the ACS station in Flat, then relayed to Valdez and from there by cable to Seattle. The sad news was then made public and the nation mourned. Post was considered aviation’s premier pilot, having completed a round-the-world flight. Rogers’ columns were widely-read and his radio programs enjoyed a large audience, his colloquial humor heralded by his fans.
Considerable improvements were made in communication technology over the years.
When World War II broke out, the ACS strength numbered 2,000 soldiers. During the 1943 battle to reclaim Attu and Kiska from Japanese invaders, several among a small detachment of ACS signalmen were killed by friendly fire. They were to set up a radio transmitter atop a hill and surprised an unseen Infantry squad who mistook them for the enemy.
The ACS continued to serve commercial and personal communications until the operation was transferred to the Air Force in 1962. It was sold to RCA Alascom in 1969 for $28 million with the stipulation that the civilian organization continue to provide service to outlying villages previously served by ACS.
This writer was assigned to the ACS in 1948, arriving in Anchorage Jan. 4, 1949. At that time, telegrams and money orders could only be sent from the office in the Federal Building on 4th Avenue. A crew at the public counter received outgoing and handed out incoming telegrams. The operations center had rows of teletype machines. One desk even served a telegrapher who maintained contact by Morse Code with stations along The Alaska Railroad. There was also a marine radio console, its receiver tuned in to the 500-kilocycle emergency channel. A massive frame room was located in the basement. Radio receivers and administrative personnel were located in a two-story building on Government Hill. Transmitters and towers were located on Pt. Woronzof, overlooking Turnagain Arm.
Long distance telephone calls had to be placed from a booth in the ACS office until the mid-1950s.
Lines along the highway linked various Alaska points and Outside. When Matanuska Telephone Association extended service to Chugiak-Eagle River in 1957, residents dialed 110 to connect with the ACS office to complete calls to Anchorage and neighboring numbers.
For someone who remembers picking up the receiver and hearing the operator, who sat at a switchboard in the lobby of City Hall on 4th Avenue, say “Number please,” today’s electronics are truly amazing. Now it’s possible to look at a gadget in your hand and find out what’s happening anywhere in the world. “Apps” let you see who is knocking at your door when you’re away, tell you how to get from here to there and even do your banking. Unless, of course, you’re too dumb to use a smartphone as is the guy who is writing this.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: [email protected].