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WAMCATS linked Fairbanks to the rest of the world

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Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2011 10:12 am | Updated: 12:59 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

FAIRBANKS - When I started reading early editions of Fairbanks newspapers certain things piqued my interest. For instance, some issues from the 1910s printed announcements for goods soon arriving from Valdez via the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. How did Fairbanks businesses, isolated in Interior Alaska, know when something was coming?

Then I learned that running parallel to parts of the trail were telegraph lines — a segment of the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS). Cargo lists for stages could be telegraphed from Valdez, and travelers had access to the line at telegraph stations about 20-30 miles apart along the trail (often near roadhouses).

Indeed, from its earliest days, Fairbanks, though physically isolated, was connected to the outside world by telegraph.

The U.S. government, spurred by the Klondike gold rush, had established Army posts across Alaska at the close of the 1890s, including Fort Davis at Nome, Fort St. Michael near the mouth of the Yukon River, Fort Gibbon at Tanana on the Middle Yukon, Fort Egbert at Eagle (six miles from Canadian border) and Fort Liscum at Valdez. In 1900 the U.S. Army Signal Corps began constructing a telegraph system to link those posts with each other and the contiguous United States.

Amazingly, the entire system was completed and operating within five years. A link with the rest of the world was actually established by 1901 when a line was run from Eagle to Dawson City in Canada. (Canadian authorities had already strung telegraph lines from Dawson City and Whitehorse to British Columbia.) The U.S. however, wanted an “All-American” system, so submarine cables were eventually laid from Valdez to Southeast Alaska and Seattle.

The system, as completed in 1904, included 1,439 miles of land lines, a 107-mile wireless link across Norton Sound, and 2,079 miles of submarine cable.

Congress judiciously planned for civilian as well as military use of the new system and by 1906 about 80 percent of all messages sent across the government wires were civilian in nature.

The Fairbanks segment wasn’t included in the original plans, but Felix Pedro’s 1902 gold discovery changed that. Telegraph lines were quickly extended along the Tanana River from WAMCATS Eagle-Valdez section, and the “Goodpaster Segment” was completed by 1903. The Valdez­Fairbanks Trail later followed portions of this line.

The telegraph station at McCarty (now called Big Delta and Rika’s Roadhouse) is shown in the drawing. WAMCATS landlines, because of harsh winters and poor soil conditions were extremely hard to maintain, and as sections wore out they were replaced by wireless communications. All the telegraph stations supporting land-lines had closed by 1925 but McCarty received a 50watt radio in 1926 which was in operation until 1935. That same year the WAMCATS buildings were transferred to the Alaska Road Commission.

WAMCATS continued though, and in 1936 it became the Alaska Communications System (ACS).

McCarty Station originally consisted of at least four log structures containing the telegraph office, living quarters and warehouse space. Several of those buildings have been restored and are now part of Big Delta State Historical Park.

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist and writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.

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