Effort to join U.S., Russia via telegraph through Bellingham ultimately failed
by Al Currier
Samuel Morse’s demonstration in 1835 of the first telegraph, an instrument for transmitting electric signals by wire, was a pivotal event in the development of modern telecommunications.
In 1840, Morse patented his Morse Code to provide a system for using telegraph signals to spell out messages with series of dots and dashes.
Seeing the potential of this new instrument, the federal government sponsored construction of the nation’s first telegraph line, 40 miles between Washington and Baltimore in 1844. With its completion, a revolution in long-distance communication had begun.
Private interests extended the initial line to Philadelphia and New York, and soon numerous private telegraph companies sprang up throughout the eastern United States.
As the nation expanded westward, telegraph lines quickly followed, reaching the Mississippi River by 1851.
Western Union Telegraph Company was formed in 1856 to undertake the challenge of connecting the eastern United States with the Pacific Coast, where population and commerce were expanding following the California Gold Rush of 1849.
While Western Union was preparing to build the line, the Post Office began its fabled Pony Express service in April of 1860. Traveling day and night, the Pony Express’s horses and riders carried mail between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, Calif.
Construction of Western Union’s telegraph line following the Pony Express route began on July 4, 1861. In just four months, on October 24, 1861, the line was completed to Sacramento and Pony Express service was discontinued.
A telegraph line was subsequently built by California State Telegraph Company from the San Francisco area into Washington Territory, reaching Olympia in 1864.
The same year, Bellingham resident John Fravel hired on with the telegraph company, and worked on construction of the line to his home city. Employed with the company and its successor Western Union for many years, Fravel eventually became a central figure in local telegraph operation.
California State Telegraph’s wire and first operator arrived in Sehome (now Bellingham) in March 1865. From Bellingham, the line was extended north through Marietta, Birch Bay and across the Fraser River into New Westminster, B.C. Full service to and from Bellingham began on April 16, 1865, two days following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Bellingham’s telegraph line shortly was to play a significant role in the effort to join North America and Europe by wire. Several attempts in the early 1860s to lay a communication cable under the Atlantic Ocean between the two continents had failed, frustrating hopes of establishing telegraph service and the rapid exchange of news.
Peter Collins, a San Francisco banker with interests in Russia saw potential for building a telegraph line from the West Coast through Alaska (then a Russian territory) and across Russia into Europe.
This line would need only about 40 miles of undersea cable between Alaska and Russia, and Collins predicted it could earn $9 million a year.
Western Union immediately became interested in Collins’ idea and bought Collins Overland Telegraph Company, the firm he had formed to promote it.
The logical beginning point for an overland telegraph line to Russia was New Westminster, British Columbia, end of the existing line through Bellingham.
After securing agreements with the governments of the United States, Russia, and B.C., Western Union began construction of the overland line northward along the Fraser River in June 1865. Work crews including Bellingham’s John Fravel cleared a right of way 50 feet wide in which poles carrying a single wire were set.
During the northward construction, Western Union also built a new line south into Whatcom County from Hope, B.C., through Sumas, east of the original line. The new line adopted a route that was originally an Indian trail used by prospectors heading north in the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858.
Known as the Whatcom Trail, this route began in downtown Bellingham, and ran east through Cornwall Park, cutting cross-country roughly following today’s Hannegan Road to a ferry crossing of the Nooksack River in Everson. After crossing the river, the trail went north to Sumas where it crossed the border into Canada.
By the summer of 1866, the overland telegraph line had been extended 800 miles into northern British Columbia, and some construction had occurred in Russia. However, on July 26, 1866, Cyrus Field completed laying the first transatlantic cable.
When Field’s cable proved successful by weathering the winter, the overland telegraph project was officially discontinued in July of 1867.
Following the overland line’s abandonment, John Fravel returned to Bellingham and remained employed with Western Union, which by this time had absorbed the California State Telegraph Company into its nationwide network.
Fravel eventually progressed from a lineman and troubleshooter to become superintendent of the Western Union’s Bellingham operations.
Improvements in the local economy brought about a revival of the service to the north in 1870, with John Fravel engaged in restoring the downed wire to Hope, and extending it east to Kamloops, B.C. Fravel also dismantled the old line along the shore north of Bellingham in 1881. For 26 days of labor on this job, he was paid $39 by Bellingham financier Victor Roeder.
Bellingham’s expansion due to Fairhaven land development and railroad terminal speculation in the 1880s secured permanent telegraph service to the north as well as south. Along with this growth came a need for improved transportation, resulting in the survey of a road roughly following the telegraph line from Bellingham to Sumas in 1885.
The new Telegraph Road began at Henry Roeder’s home in Bellingham at the corner of Monroe and Kulshan Street. Running north on the east side of Meridian Street, and swinging east after crossing Squalicum Creek, the road ran around the east side of King Mountain and on to Everson and Sumas along the telegraph’s route.
A portion of today’s Telegraph Road between Meridian and James Street follows the original telegraph line and road. The road’s heritage from the overland telegraph project is recognized by a historical marker located near its busy intersection with Meridian Street. Another segment of the original Telegraph Road following the telegraph line remains in use between Nooksack and Sumas, east of Highway 9.
Although Peter Collins’ dream of linking North America and Europe by means of a telegraph line across Alaska and Russia ultimately failed, it played an important role in developing modern communication in Bellingham and British Columbia. Perhaps the greatest significance of the overland telegraph project was its role in awakening national interest in the acquisition of Alaska from Russia.
Collins’ lobbying of Congress to gain support for his project caught the attention of Secretary of State William Seward, who realized the significance Alaska could hold for the United States.
Seward later used the telegraph company’s development of diplomatic connections and agreements in Russia to negotiate the purchase of Alaska by the United States in October 1867 for $7.2 million.