The Telegraph Project in British Columbia: 1865-1866

In the 1860s, the race was on to lay telegraphic cable which would connect North America with Europe.  The invention of the electromagnetic telegraph by Samuel Morse was seen as the technological breakthrough which would allow communication between continents. Cyrus Field planned to lay telegraph cable on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, while American entrepreneur Perry Collins proposed an overland route from British Columbia to Siberia with an underwater cable in the Bering Sea to connect Europe and North America. Western Union Telegraph Company agreed to back Collins.

Under the command of U.S. Army Colonel Charles Bulkley, the Collins Overland Telegraph project was a trail blazing effort on a massive scale. The telegraph line was to be built in separate stages; some would work north while others would work south.

Edmund Conway, in charge of the telegraph project in British Columbia, visited Victoria and New Westminster in November 1864 and met with Governor Seymour who expressed his enthusiasm for the project. When it was evident that Western Union wanted to bring their own supplies, Seymour held them to their original promise: provisions and supplies were to be purchased in the colony, and in turn, the Legislature agreed to admit all telegraph materials free from the usual duties and toll charges.

Harper’s Weekly described the route in their edition of August 12, 1865:

“The wires of the California have during the past winter, been extended through Oregon and Washington Territory as far as New Westminster, the capital of British Columbia and are now in operation to that point. At New Westminster, the Collins Overland Telegraph proper commences, and will extend up Frazer River nearly to its source, and thence nearly parallel with the coast, following the general direction of the valley between the Rocky Mountains and the Coast Range to a point at or near Behring Strait which will be crossed by a submarine cable. The line will thence extend through the eastern portion of Siberia until it meets the telegraph nearly completed by the Russian Government…”

Terminal Station of Collins Overland Telegraph at New Westminster

Terminal Station of Collins Overland Telegraph at New Westminster (sketched by Major Franklin L. Pope, 1865)

The telegraph reached New Westminster from San Francisco on April 11, 1865, and passed through Yale September 19, 1865. Hundreds of workers at a time were tasked with blazing trails and clearing bush to build a right-of-way. They in turn were followed by groups who built telegraph stations, sunk poles and strung wire.

Western Union Telegraph Company, had agreed to finance the project but they weren’t prepared to spend more than they thought what was necessary.  The terrain was more challenging than anyone thought. Construction of the Cariboo Road had not been done in many places and finding a route took many tries. Exploration groups north of Quesnel surveyed various routes which proved impassible. Conway was asked to take over and decided on another route from Fort Fraser to a point on the Skeena River near Hagwilet, a small Indian village.

Conway, a former military colleague of Bulkley, almost quit halfway through the project. His inability to pay enough to workers, and his own salary had proven inadequate because he had “spent a large part of it getting those Legislative grants through.” One man, he continued, could not “explore, construct, organize and manage” a telegraph line. Bulkley gave a raise in salary and Conway withdrew his resignation, but his view remained dismal.

“…one encounters nothing but heavy timber, rum mills, broken miners, plug operators, English aristocrats, loafers and swindlers, all of which tends to drive a man crazy. Banishment in Siberia is a paradise in comparison to this place.”

Conway wrote of their progress:

“We constructed the Telegraph Road, and line to latitude 55.42 N. and longitude 128.15 W. The distance from Quesnel, by the road, is computed at 440 miles, and by the wire 378 miles. There are fifteen stations built, a log house, with chimney, doors and windows 25 miles apart. We built bridges over all small streams, that were not fordable, corduroyed swamps. All hillsides too steep for animals to travel over, were graded, from 3 to 5 feet wide. The average width of clearing the wood for the wire, is, in standing timber, 20 feet, and in fallen timber, 12 feet.”

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.

On June 27, 1866, Cyrus Field’s Atlantic cable arrived in Heart’s Content, Newfoundland and successful communication was made to Europe the following day.

Construction of the telegraph line continued until it was obvious to Western Union that the Atlantic cable was functioning well and fine. Construction was abandoned near Fort Stager (Kispiox) in the winter of 1866. The telegraph line served as far as Quesnel. It proved to be an enormous help to the colonial police force; the murderer of Charles Blessing was caught because a telegraph operator at Soda Creek was able to tap out a message that was received by the police in Yale.