CHAPTER I. THE OVERLAND TELEGRAPH LINE TO RUSSIA - SAILING OF THE FIRST SIBERIAN EXPLORING PARTY FROM SAN FRANCISCO.
The Russian-American Telegraph Company, otherwise known as the "Western Union Extension," was organised at New York in the summer of 1864. The idea of a line from America to Europe, by way of Bering Strait, had existed for many years in the minds of several prominent telegraphers, and had been proposed by Perry McD. Collins, as early as 1857, when he made his trip across northern Asia. It was never seriously considered, however, until after the failure of the first Atlantic cable, when the expediency of an overland line between the two continents began to be earnestly discussed. The plan of Mr. Collins, which was submitted to the Western Union Telegraph Company of New York as early as 1863, seemed to be the most practicable of all the projects which were suggested for intercontinental communication. It proposed to unite the telegraphic systems of America and Russia by a line through British Columbia, Russian America, and north-eastern Siberia, meeting the Russian lines at the mouth of the Amur (ah-moor) River on the Asiatic coast, and forming one continuous girdle of wire nearly round the globe.
This plan possessed many very obvious advantages. It called for no long cables. It provided for a line which would run everywhere overland, except for a short distance at Bering Strait, and which could be easily repaired when injured by accident or storm. It promised also to extend its line eventually down the Asiatic coast to Peking, and to develop a large and profitable business with China. All these considerations recommended it strongly to the favour of capitalists and practical telegraph men, and it was finally adopted by the Western Union Telegraph Company in 1863. It was foreseen, of course, that the next Atlantic cable might succeed, and that such success would prove very damaging, if not fatal, to the prospects of the proposed overland line. Such an event, however, did not seem probable, and in view of all the circumstances, the Company decided to assume the inevitable risk.
A contract was entered into with the Russian Government, providing for the extension of the latter's line through Siberia to the mouth of the Amur River, and granting to the Company certain extraordinary privileges in Russian territory. Similar concessions were obtained in 1864 from the British Government; assistance was promised by the United States Congress; and the Western Union Extension Company was immediately organised, with a nominal capital of $10,000,000. The stock was rapidly taken, principally by the stockholders of the original Western Union Company, and an assessment of five per cent. was immediately made to provide funds for the prosecution of the work. Such was the faith at this time in the ultimate success of the enterprise that in less than two months its stock sold for seventy-five dollars per share, with only one assessment of five dollars paid in.
In August, 1864, Colonel Charles S. Bulkley, formerly Superintendent of Military Telegraphs in the Department of the Gulf, was appointed engineer-in-chief of the proposed line, and in December he sailed from New York for San Francisco, to organise and fit out exploring parties, and to begin active operations.
Led by a desire of identifying myself with so novel and important an enterprise, as well as by a natural love of travel and adventure which I had never before been able to gratify, I offered my services as an explorer soon after the projection of the line. My application was favourably considered, and on the 13th of December I sailed from New York with the engineer-in-chief, for the proposed headquarters of the Company at San Francisco. Colonel Bulkley, immediately after his arrival, opened an office in Montgomery Street, and began organising exploring parties to make a preliminary survey of the route of the line. No sooner did it become noised about the city that men were wanted to explore the unknown regions of British Columbia, Russian America, and Siberia, than the Company's office was thronged with eager applicants for positions, in any and every capacity.
Adventurous Micawbers, who had long been waiting for something of this kind to turn up; broken-down miners, who hoped to retrieve their fortunes in new gold-fields yet to be discovered in the north; and returned soldiers thirsting for fresh excitement, - all hastened to offer their services as pioneers in the great work. Trained and skilled engineers were in active demand; but the supply of only ordinary men, who made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in experience, was unlimited.
Month after month passed slowly away in the selection, organisation, and equipment of parties, until at last, in June, 1865, the Company's vessels were reported ready for sea.
The plan of operations, so far as it had then been decided upon, was to land one party in British Columbia, near the mouth of the Frazer River; one in Russian-America, at Norton Sound; and one on the Asiatic side of Bering Strait, at the mouth of the Anadyr (ah-nah'-dyr) River. These parties, under the direction respectively of Messrs. Pope, Kennicott, and Macrae, were directed to push back into the interior, following as far as practicable the courses of the rivers near which they were landed; to obtain all possible information with regard to the climate, soil, timber, and inhabitants of the regions traversed; and to locate, in a general way, a route for the proposed line.