Collins Overland Telegraph and the Cariboo gold rush

Collins Overland Telegraph, as it was known, had a huge impact on the Cariboo gold rush. Telegraph signals could be sent from Barkerville to New Westminster, enabling urgent communication.

American entrepreneur Perry Collins had an idea of a telegraph line connecting America and Europe via an overland route through ‘Russia-America’ (Alaska) and under the Bering Sea as early as 1856. In 1864 Collins was able to sell the concept of the overland telegraph venture to the Western Union Telegraph Company, the largest communications company in the world.

Collins obtained charters from both the British and Russian governments, so
the overland line could be built in Canada, Russian America, Siberia and
Russia.

In the fall of 1864, Western Union began purchasing cable and other supplies in support of their three expeditions—one in Canada, in Russian America and in Siberia. Beginning in November 1864, the Western Union Telegraph Company Expedition, with employees, supplies and baggage, boarded the steamers George S. Wright and Ariel, the schooner Milton Badger and the bark Clara Bell in New York, and set sail for the Isthmus of Panama, Nicaragua and San Francisco.  Many of the employees and managers had a U.S. military background.

The British Columbian reported:

Telegraph Waggons – Amongst other articles brought out by the (bark) Clara Bell for the use of the Collins Overhead Telegraph are forty wagons. This will give some idea of the vast extent of the operations of that company.

Telegraph wire was stretched along north of New Westminster at the rate of ten miles a day. Crews worked from different points along the proposed route. By the middle of August 1865, the line had reached Clinton. Another telegraph crew completed the line as far as Quesnel, and cleared bush to 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 a crew who had paddled 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.

The telegraph line was originally supposed to have been built up to Fort Yukon where it would meet up with the Russian-American line, but that never happened.

The Collins Overhead Telegraph project was abandoned in 1867 after news reached the company that a rival had successfully laid cable across the Atlantic. The Western Union Telegraph Company maintained the line from New Westminster to the Cariboo until 1871 when the British Columbia government leased the line in perpetuity.