Published by EH.NET (January 2002)
John B Dwyer. To Wire the World: Perry M. Collins and the North Pacific
Telegraph Expedition. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001. xv + 183 pp. $68
(cloth), ISBN 0-275-96755-7.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Tomas Nonnenmacher, Department of Economics, Allegheny
This book is an account of the construction of Western Union’s failed
Russian-American telegraph (RAT). The RAT was Western Union’s attempt to
capture the very lucrative transatlantic telegraph business. Beginning in
1857, Cyrus Field made several attempts at connecting North America with
Europe using a submarine telegraph, but he was unsuccessful until 1866. Prior
to that success, Western Union executives had anticipated the possibility that
a transatlantic cable would never succeed, making the daunting and expensive
RAT worth an attempt.
Perry Collins, who traveled across Russia in the mid-1850s to gauge the trade
possibilities along the Amur River, conceived of the idea of the RAT. Collins
was enamored with the potential of the Amur and inspired by the writings of
D.I. Romanoff, a Russian telegrapher who was designated to construct a
telegraph line along the Amur. Collins’ plans for trade grew to encompass an
American telegraph connection with Europe through Russia. The proposed line
connected Sacramento with New Westminster, went up the Fraser River, crossed
to the Yukon River, traveled down its length to St. Michael, crossed the
Bering Strait, and ultimately linked the coastal cities of Gizhiga, Okhotsk,
and Nicolayevsk. From there, it would connect with a 7,000 mile long Russian
line from St. Petersburg. Although much longer than the transatlantic route,
the RAT would only use submarine telegraphy over short distances, a true cost
Dwyer, a military historian, builds his story largely from the diaries,
reports, and memoirs of men engaged in building the various sections of the
line. It is a story about individuals rather than a study about the RAT’s
place in the broader history of either the telegraph or the development of a
worldwide communication network. Little is said about the technology used, nor
is much analysis about the executive decision-making at Western Union offered.
A more succinct account of the RAT is available that places the venture in
its broader history, but Dwyer offers a “who did what and when” narrative of
the undertaking that is unobtainable elsewhere.  The book’s nine chapters
are accompanied by six photos, seven drawings, and four maps. More detail in
the maps would have been helpful to a reader unfamiliar with the geography of
Alaska and eastern Siberia. I recommend having an atlas handy.
The first chapter covers Perry Collins’ early forays into Siberia, his
courting of the federal government for aid, the agreements made with the
Russians and British for rights of way, the support of Western Union, and the
early planning of the project. Chapters 2 through 4 are histories of the U.S.
military corps, Western Union’s telegraph “army,” and Western Union’s
telegraph “navy.” Each chapter includes background information on the
individuals engaged in the venture, for example, Charles Bulkley, a former
superintendent of military telegraphs, was Engineer in Chief of the RAT and
Captain Charles Scammon, a Revenue Marine officer, was the Chief of Marine
for the expedition. Dwyer also offers a brief history of some of the ships
used, such as the Nightingale, the flagship of the RAT that had previously
transported gold, tea, and slaves.
The next four chapters each cover one section of the telegraph line: British
Columbia, the Bering Strait, Russian America, and Siberia. The line was
ultimately completed through Quesnel, British Columbia and then north to the
Skeena River. The other sections of the lines were partially surveyed and
partially constructed but were never integrated into the larger telegraph
network. Dwyer tells us, for instance, that in Siberia, the crew had “surveyed
the entire 1,500-mile-line route from the Amur River to the Bering Strait,
prepared 15,000 telegraph poles, cut fifteen miles of road, and built fifty
station houses” (p. 151).
Western Union spent $3 million on the RAT, of which only a small portion would
ever be recouped. What were the ultimate payoffs of the venture? The RAT
focused the attention of the federal government, especially Secretary of State
Seward, on Russian America. Generated from this interest was perhaps the most
lasting effect of the project: the purchase of Alaska for $7.2 million by the
United States in October 1867. The project also led to the surveying and
opening of portions of Alaska and British Columbia. Ultimately, Western Union
was quick to abandon the RAT once it was clear that the Atlantic cable would
work. Whether the undertaking could have ever been technologically or
financially successful had Field’s transatlantic line not worked remains an
 See Chapter 29 of Robert Luther Thompson, Wiring a Continent: The
History of the Telegraph Industry in the United States, 1832-1866.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947.
Tomas Nonnenmacher is Assistant Professor of Economics at Allegheny College,
Meadville, PA. He is the author of “State Promotion and Regulation of the
Telegraph Industry, 1845-1860″ (Journal of Economic History, March 2001).