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.

The two American parties would have comparatively advantageous bases of operations at Victoria and Fort St. Michael; but the Siberian party, if left on the Asiatic coast at all, must be landed near Bering Strait, on the edge of a barren, desolate region, nearly a thousand miles from any known settlement. Thrown thus upon its own resources, in an unknown country, and among nomadic tribes of hostile natives, without any means of interior transportation except canoes, the safety and success of this party were by no means assured. It was even asserted by many friends of the enterprise, that to leave men in such a situation, and under such circumstances, was to abandon them to almost certain death; and the Russian consul at San Francisco wrote a letter to Colonel Bulkley, advising him strongly not to land a party on the Asiatic coast of the North Pacific, but to send it instead to one of the Russian ports of the Okhotsk Sea, where it could establish a base of supplies, obtain information with regard to the interior, and procure horses or dog-sledges for overland explorations in any desired direction.

The wisdom and good sense of this advice were apparent to all; but unfortunately the engineer-in-chief had no vessel that he could send with a party into the Okhotsk Sea, and if men were landed at all that summer on the Asiatic coast, they must be landed near Bering Strait.

Late in June, however, Colonel Bulkley learned that a small Russian trading-vessel named the Olga was about to sail from San Francisco for Kamchatka (kam-chat'-kah) and the south-western coast of the Okhotsk Sea, and he succeeded in prevailing upon the owners to take four men as passengers to the Russian settlement of Nikolaievsk (nik-o-lai'-evsk), at the mouth of the Amur River. This, although not so desirable a point for beginning operations as some others on the northern coast of the Sea, was still much better than any which could be selected on the Asiatic coast of the North Pacific; and a party was soon organised to sail in the Olga for Kamchatka and the mouth of the Amur. This party consisted of Major S. Abaza, a Russian gentleman who had been appointed superintendent of the work, and leader of the forces in Siberia; James A. Mahood, a civil engineer of reputation in California; R. J. Bush, who had just returned from three years' active service in the Carolinas, and myself, - not a very formidable force in point of numbers, nor a very remarkable one in point of experience, but strong in hope, self-reliance, and enthusiasm.

On the 28th of June, we were notified that the brig Olga had nearly all her cargo aboard, and would have "immediate despatch."

This marine metaphor, as we afterward learned, meant only that she would sail some time in the course of the summer; but we, in our trustful inexperience, supposed that the brig must be all ready to cast off her moorings, and the announcement threw us into all the excitement and confusion of hasty preparation for a start. Dress-coats, linen shirts, and fine boots were recklessly thrown or given away; blankets, heavy shoes, and overshirts of flannel were purchased in large quantities; rifles, revolvers, and bowie-knives of formidable dimensions gave our room the appearance of a disorganised arsenal; pots of arsenic, jars of alcohol, butterfly-nets, snake-bags, pill-boxes, and a dozen other implements and appliances of science about which we knew nothing, were given to us by our enthusiastic naturalists and packed away in big boxes; Wrangell's (vrang'el's) Travels, Gray's Botany, and a few scientific works were added to our small library; and before night we were able to report ourselves ready - armed and equipped for any adventure, from the capture of a new species of bug, to the conquest of Kamchatka!

As it was against all precedent to go to sea without looking at the ship, Bush and I appointed ourselves an examining committee for the party, and walked down to the wharf where she lay. The captain, a bluff Americanised German, met us at the gangway and guided us through the little brig from stem to stern. Our limited marine experience would not have qualified us to pass an ex cathedra judgment upon the seaworthiness of a mud-scow; but Bush, with characteristic impudence and versatility of talent, discoursed learnedly to the skipper upon the beauty of his vessel's "lines" (whatever those were), her spread of canvas and build generally, - discussed the comparative merits of single and double topsails, and new patent yard-slings, and reef-tackle, and altogether displayed such an amount of nautical learning that it completely crushed me and staggered even the captain.

I strongly suspected that Bush had acquired most of his knowledge of sea terms from a cursory perusal of Bowditch's Navigator, which I had seen lying on the office table, and I privately resolved to procure a compact edition of Marryat's sea tales as soon as I should go ashore, and overwhelm him next time with such accumulated stores of nautical erudition that he would hide his diminished head. I had a dim recollection of reading something in Cooper's novels about a ship's deadheads and cat's eyes, or cat-heads and deadeyes, I could not remember which, and, determined not to be ignored as an inexperienced landlubber, I gazed in a vague way into the rigging, and made a few very general observations upon the nature of deadeyes and spanker-booms. The captain, however, promptly annihilated me by demanding categorically whether I had ever seen the spanker-boom jammed with the foretopsailyard, with the wind abeam. I replied meekly that I believed such a catastrophe had never occurred under my immediate observation, and as he turned to Bush with a smile of commiseration for my ignorance I ground my teeth and went below to inspect the pantry. Here I felt more at home. The long rows of canned provisions, beef stock, concentrated milk, pie fruits, and a small keg, bearing the quaint inscription, "Zante cur.," soon soothed my perturbed spirit and convinced me beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Olga was stanch and seaworthy, and built in the latest and most improved style of marine architecture.

I therefore went up to tell Bush that I had made a careful and critical examination of the vessel below, and that she would undoubtedly do. I omitted to state the nature of the observations upon which this conclusion was founded, but he asked no troublesome questions, and we returned to the office with a favourable report of the ship's build, capacity, and outfit.

On Saturday, July 1st, the Olga took in the last of her cargo, and was hauled out into the stream.

Our farewell letters were hastily written home, our final preparations made, and at nine o'clock on Monday morning we assembled at the Howard Street wharf, where the steam-tug lay which was to tow us out to sea.

A large party of friends had gathered to bid us good-bye; and the pier, covered with bright dresses and blue uniforms, presented quite a holiday appearance in the warm clear sunshine of a California morning.

Our last instructions were delivered to us by Colonel Bulkley, with many hearty wishes for our health and success; laughing invitations to "come and see us" were extended to our less fortunate comrades who were left behind; requests to send back specimens of the North pole and the aurora borealis were intermingled with directions for preserving birds and collecting bugs; and amid a general confusion of congratulations, good wishes, cautions, bantering challenges, and tearful farewells, the steamer's bell rang. Dall, ever alive to the interests of his beloved science, grasped me cordially by the hand, saying, "Good-bye, George. God bless you! Keep your eye out for land-snails and skulls of the wild animals!"

Miss B - - said pleadingly: "Take care of my dear brother"; and as I promised to care for him as if he were my own, I thought of another sister far away, who, could she be present, would echo the request: "Take care of my dear brother." With waving handkerchiefs and repeated good-byes, we moved slowly from the wharf, and, steaming round in a great semicircle to where the Olga was lying, we were transferred to the little brig, which, for the next two months, was to be our home.

The steamer towed us outside the "heads" of the Golden Gate, and then cast off; and as she passed us on her way back, our friends gathered in a little group on the forward deck, with the colonel at their head, and gave three generous cheers for the "first Siberian exploring party." We replied with three more, - our last farewell to civilisation, - and silently watched the lessening figure of the steamer, until the white handkerchief which Arnold had tied to the backstays could no longer be seen, and we were rocking alone on the long swells of the Pacific.