Travel: The Yukon Telegraph Line 

Relics of 19th century technology are still scattered across B.C.’s northern wilderness

When I first hiked across Raspberry Pass a few of the weather-bleached telegraph poles were still standing, but even those that had toppled over were as sound as the day they were dragged there more than a hundred years ago. In the age of satellite phones and text messaging it's hard to imagine that a single strand of No.9 galvanized wire strung between these spindly jackpine poles was once a crucial link in the nation's communication system. But in 1860 telegraph lines were state-of-the-art and the dots and dashes of Morse code were the Internet of the day.

By 1860 a web of wires had been strung across North America. It took only a few minutes for a message tapped out in New York to be received in Seattle, but getting one from New York to Europe took at least six days by boat, and another six to get a reply. The people who longed for a communication link across the Atlantic didn't even dream of one without a wire. Repeated attempts to string a cable across the ocean had failed, and that's when the idea of the Collins Overland Telegraph Cable was hatched.

The plan was to link the existing North American grid to the European grid by running a line north through western Canada and Alaska, under Bering Strait and across Siberia to Moscow. It so happened that gold was discovered in the gravel bars of the Stikine River at about the same time the route for the telegraph line was being planned. Riverboats that supported the short-lived gold rush also brought in wire and insulators for the telegraph line and, at the very head of navigation, where the line was expected to cross the river, the town of Telegraph Creek was born.

By 1867 construction was well underway. But that's when the Collins Overland Telegraph Line was short-circuited by the first trans-Atlantic cable. The overland link to Paris ended abruptly in Quesnel and everything farther north was abandoned.

If gold had not been discovered in the Yukon that might have been the end of the story, but in the winter of 1897-98 more than 3,000 gold-seekers, on the first leg of their trek to the Klondike, were camped near the forgotten town of Telegraph Creek. The need for a communication link between the north and the rest of the country was obvious and, in 1899, the Dominion government began to link up the pieces of the old Collins Overland Telegraph Line. Unlike its ambitious predecessor the new Yukon Telegraph Line never intended to get to Moscow. But by 1901 it had strung 1,100 miles of wire and an operator in Quesnel could, for the first time, tap out a message to Dawson City in the Yukon.

The Yukon Telegraph Line continued to operate until 1936 and the town of Telegraph Creek prospered as a waypoint where boats from Alaska docked with supplies for both line-crews and prospectors heading north on the trail to Atlin. Twenty years later, when I began a geological survey of the area, a few of the old timers still remembered those days. "The winter of '36 was real bad." Roy told me, "There was so much snow we couldn't keep the line up. Anyway the wireless was getting pretty good by then so when spring come we just walked away and never went back."

Roy had been a lineman, one of the hundreds of men who toiled to make the telegraph line work. And keeping it working was a task at least as daunting as building it in the first place. Because the primitive wet-cell batteries could only boost a signal along the bare wire for a short distance, cabins were built about every 30 miles along the route. Each cabin, many of them in extremely remote locations, supported two workers. An operator received incoming messages and relayed them manually to the next guy up the line and a lineman took responsibility for maintaining his thirty miles of wire. They were re-supplied by pack train once a year. Everything - their food, tools, chemicals for the batteries, and clothing for the winter - all of it came in by packhorse. For the rest of the year they were on their own.

I thought about those guys as I followed the old line westward through Raspberry Pass and down to my helicopter camp in Mess Creek valley. I imagined how it must have been in mid winter when the signals stopped and the lineman had to put on his snowshoes and find where the wire had snapped. Raspberry Pass, high above timberline, is a natural wind tunnel between Mount Edziza and the Spectrum Range. During a winter storm just finding a downed pole would be a challenge and for a single lineman to repair it in that hostile environment seems impossible. But in spite of it all the linemen, working year round from their isolated cabins, kept the wire up and the signals moving for 35 years.

During the 10 years that I worked as an exploration geologist in the Stikine region the old Telegraph Trail provided a welcome route for backpacking between camps. The Cassiar-Stewart road had yet to be built and souvenir-hunters had not yet carted off the ceramic insulators on the poles and rifled through the remains of the line-cabins for relics of the Yukon Telegraph Line. Even then the 30-mile section of trail between Raspberry Pass and Telegraph Creek was heavily overgrown with alder and devil's club, but some segments of the old wire still looped through insulators that some lineman had attached to trees beside the trail at least 70 years before. Although the roofs of the line cabins had collapsed under the weight of decades of snow the relics of a bygone era still lay scattered beneath the fallen timbers - heavy iron frying pans, a rusty 303 rifle, glass battery jars filled with lead plates, and bags of copper sulfate to replenish the cells when the signals began to fade. There seemed to be no concession to weight even though everything had come in on the back of a horse.

Outside one of the cabins I found an old telegraph key. Made of solid brass its long rocker arm had an ornate ceramic knob on one end and the whole contraption was mounted on a slab of polished marble - a touch of 19th century elegance in the midst of the wilderness.

One of my fondest memories of hiking the Telegraph Trail is a camp we put in near one of the old line-cabins north of Telegraph Creek. Because it continued to be used as a route from the Stikine to Atlin Lake this section of the trail was still in pretty good shape and the cabin beside our tent, though now occupied by packrats, still had its roof. But it was the garden, planted decades ago by some long forgotten lineman that made the place special. There wasn't much left except a patch of rhubarb that had managed to out compete the encroaching fireweed and alder. But after weeks of freeze-dried food the fresh pungent flavor of stewed rhubarb was the highlight of our trip.

Except for the trail and the crumbling ruins of the line-cabins not much is left of the old Yukon Telegraph Line. Most of the pioneers who worked on it have died and bit-by-bit the relics they left behind have been carted off by souvenir hunters.

But the story of those heroic days has inspired a new generation of explorers to revisit the Stikine country. The river and the old Telegraph Trail wind through some of the most spectacular wilderness on the continent and Telegraph Creek, no longer just a waypoint to the Yukon, has become a destination for backcountry hikers, river kayakers, and anyone else with a sense of adventure and an interest in the history of Canada's North.


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