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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

College.

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

savings.

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. [1] 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

unanswered question.

[1] 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).