Connecting Alaska: The Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System

In response to the Klondike gold rush, the U.S. Army established isolated forts throughout Alaska. Between 1900 and 1905, the Signal Corps connected those posts with each other and with the contiguous United States by means of the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS). A significant logistical and technological achievement, the system of thousands of miles of suspended landlines and underwater cable included the first successful long-distance radio operation in the world. The first physical link between the United States and Alaska, the telegraph was also the first major contribution to Alaskan infrastructure provided by the federal government, marking the beginning of the government’s central role in the development of Alaska.

On the evening of February 5, 1901, dogsledders arrived in Nome, Alaska, with a delivery of mail and the most anticipated news of the long winter. Their appearance sparked a furious race among the local newspapers to be the first into print with headlines that would end weeks of earnest discussion, speculation, and wagering. In the end, the Nome Chronicle scooped the Nome News by a little more than an hour, announcing in bold type that William McKinley was still the president of the United States. The big story was hardly news anywhere else in America. McKinley had won re-election against William Jennings Bryan three months earlier, but it had been five months since Nome had heard anything from the outside world. When the last ship had departed ahead of the autumn freeze-up the previous October, the gold-rush boomtown was left in nearly total isolation until the spring thaw.[1] At the dawn of the twentieth century, few things better demonstrated the remoteness of Alaska than the length of time it took for news of any kind to travel to, from, or within the vast territory. But a large military undertaking was about to revolutionize Alaskan communication, permanently tying America’s proverbial last frontier to the modern world. In the next presidential election, the people of Nome would know of Theodore Roosevelt’s victory only hours after he knew of it himself.

Between 1900 and 1905, soldiers constructed a telegraph line linking the U.S. Army posts across Alaska with each other and with the rest of the United States. The Herculean task of building the Alaska military telegraph fell to the U.S. Army Signal Corps, which brought the logistical and technological feat to rapid completion even as it struggled to build and maintain lines in the Philippines and Cuba in the wake of the Spanish-American War. At the turbulent turn of the century, when the United States was committing American troops to military engagements around the world, the remarkable work of the Signal Corps in Alaska attracted little attention, yet its achievement established the first physical connection between Alaska and the contiguous United States. Eventually christened the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS), the network laid the groundwork for the future Alaskan telecommunications system. And as the first of several massive government construction projects, it marked the beginning of the federal government’s dominant role in the development of Alaskan infrastructure.

By David Eric Jessup