On the Yukon Telegraph Line
1800 miles of wire, manned by lonely operators, keep Dawson City in touch with civilization
MANY a tear coursed unheeded down the weatherbeaten cheeks of rough-bearded men as they waited in lonely telegraph stations along the Yukon Telegraph Line, in Northern British Columbia, for the dots and dashes which should tell them that the body of their friend and fellow worker, "Scottie” Ogilvie, had been consigned to a grave on the bank of the Linkinsaw River, whose turbulent waters had taken his life a few days before while in pursuit of his duty.
As the few terse words in crisp Morse came over the wire, which brought to an end this strangest of burial services, each of those who stood reverently by their telegraph relays along the thin strand of wire, 1,800 miles in length, which connected Dawson City with the outside world, could visualize the scene the swiftly flowing waters of the stream; the fresh-heajxxi grave on a grassy bank; and the telegraph operator from a neighboring station upon whom had fallen the duty of gravedigger, undertaker and chaplain, tapping out on a portable telegraph set held on his knee at the foot oí a "test” pole, Scotties final "report.”
Traversing almost the entire length of British Columbia and across the Yukon Territory from end to end, over mountains, across streams and through dense forests, the Yukon Telegraph Line has supplied Dawson City and other settlements fringing the Arctic with valuable service for over thirty years. And in the maintenance of this line, forty-odd men are forced to live in semi-exile.
Following the discovery of placer gold in the Klondike and the famous stampede of 1897-8,
Dawson City was a booming metropolis surrounded by thriving mining camps. Means of speedy communication with the outside world soon became imperative, and the Dominion Government undertook to build a telegraph line. Construction was begun in March. 1899. The job was completed in three years, and for three decades the line has stood a monument to Canadian enterprise, resourcefulness and skill.
The southern part of the line, from Ashcroft, on the C. P. R. main line, to the Kispiox River, north of Hazelton. followed the route of the "Collins Overland Telegraph,” which, in 1865, prior to the successful laying of the Atlantic cable, had sought to join North America with Asia and
Europe by way of a land line through British Columbia and Alaska and a short cable under Bering Strait.
Work had progressed from both ends, and on September 28, 1901, at a point between the Fifth and Sixth cabins north of Hazelton, the ends were spliced together. No golden strand was used on the last pole to tie in this 1,800mile stretch of No. 8 galvanized wire that linked Alaska and the Yukon with the rest of Canada and the United States. No silk-hatted, frock-coated statesmen were on hand to witness the notable event. Indeed, there was no ceremony at all except the drawing of corks from two bottles of brandy carried against sickness in the saddlebags of the head packer.
'^TO SOONER was the line open to transmit its first -Lx message -one of greeting from Fred Congdon, M.P., in Dawson, to Sir Wilfrid Laurier in Ottawa—than glaciers on the Naas summit carried away several miles of wire. Poles which had been taken on packhorses high above timber line lay buried for miles under many feet of snow and debris. This interruption tied up communication for six weeks and resulted in an accumulation of telegrams at both ends requiring months to clear away. It also tested to the limit the resources of the repair crews hastily recruited and dispatched to the scene.
Conditions have changed of late years along the southern
section of the line, which now parallels highways in places and the Prince Rupert branch of the Canadian National Railways, but “trouble shooting” on the northern section still presents difficulties as great as of old. Indeed, at no time, perhaps, since the line was built have men had to contend with such difficulties as those which obtained during the extremely mild winter of 1930-31. Sleet and soft snow and ice crashed down upon the already overburdened wire. With snowshoes sinking twelve or eighteen inches at every step, weary linemen and operators trudged their beats in an almost vain attempt to maintain the feeble spark of communication. An attempt has been made to supplant the old line by the use of wireless, but the aurora and other magnetic influences seriously interfere at times with this form of transmission.
Throughout the wilderness, stations were maintained every thirty or forty miles, depending upon the topography of the country. In earlier years two men were assigned to a cabin, a telegraph operator and a lineman, although both were required to do line work. At most cabins there was practically no telegraphing —in the nature of telegrams— to do, but one of the pair must understand Morse, or otherwise they would not know when or where there was line trouble. Later on the need for economy made it necessary to combine the duties in the person of an operator-lineman.
A man and woman, living in isolation, can usually get along together indefinitely. They may quarrel at times, but they will generally make up again. But instances are rare when men have lived together amicably in isolation for any length of time. This fact was soon demonstrated on the Yukon Telegraph Line. One man would fancy “raising” bread—the kind that is made with yeast; his partner would consider this effeminate, perhaps, and a waste of time. Baking powder biscuit or “punk,” in his opinion, was much superior and would require less energy to make. A subject for bitter debate, it would gradually develop into ill-concealed resentment and eventually burst into open warfare.
It was therefore necessary at many stations to erect a second cabin—one for the operator and the other for the lineman. On the arrival of the yearly pack train with supplies, the provisions would be equally divided and each man would continue to live his life in his own way, except w'hén line trouble made communication between them necessary.
The arrival of the pack train was the big event of the year.
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On the Yukon Telegraph Line
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Visitors from outside were few and far between. Mail was passed along from cabin to cabin as the linemen met while patrolling their respective beats.
ABOUT fifteen years ago, in an effort to alleviate somewhat the utter loneliness of the cabin men and also to assist communication, diminutive telephone sets were installed at each station. The first wire concert of gramophone records will long lx: remembered by those who were on the line that night. Checker games between players, perhaps hundreds of miles distant from one another, also helped to fill in the time. These, of course, could only be played late at night or very early in the morning when the line was not busy with commercial business. The plays were telegraphed as made and others along the line besides those immediately concerned in the game could follow the plays. As a means of passing the time and also because it was profitable, many of the men looked after lines of traps throughout the winter, and some of them did very well during the earlier years.
Since it had originally been expected that messages would lx sent direct from Vancouver to Dawson, or vice versa, through instruments known as repeaters placed at such points as Ashcroft, Hazelton and Atlin, no provision was made at first for messages to lx copied at the stations along the way which were intended solely for maintenance purposes. But it was found that often for long periods it w'as impossible to work through the full distance because of "grounds” wire touching the ground or timber, causing escape of current and messages had to lx relayed by operators in some of the strategically placed outpost cabins.
An Unwelcome Interruption
STORY of the Yukon line would lx complete without mention of J. '1'. Bhelan, whose death on October 15, 1929, brought to a close a thirty-year connection with the service, first as operator during construction, then as district superintendent and finally as general superintendent.
To "BN,” as he was known on the wire, the men were his "boys," and he watched over them like a fond parent, counselling them when in trouble, humoring and jollying them along when des|x>ndent. But there were times when lie could be severe.
On one occasion, however, severity, quite justified in the circumstances, was of no avail, for the culprit in question was a thousand miles away and oblivious even to Morse.
It was when the boundary between the Yukon Territory and Alaska was being surveyed. To determine the exact position, it was necessary to get correct astronomical time from the U. S. Observatory at Washington, D C. After considerable delay owing to wire trouble, arrangements were finally completed and Mr. Bhelan, at the invitation of the American officials, went over to Seattle from Vancouver to "hear the time goby.”
The hour was midnight. New Year’s Eve. All stations had previously been warned to keep off the line at that particular time. Everything was set. Mr. Bhelan, sitting in the Seattle office, surrounded by various telegraph and Government officials, heard his manager at Ashcroft lining up the wire with Hazelton, Atlin, White Horse, then Dawson. Dawson, in turn, brought in Boundary, and Boundary got through to Circle City, Alaska, on the U. S. Military line.
Seattle meantime was in contact with Washington and finally, steadily and mechanically, the time signals ticked their way through from the banks of the Botomac to the far distant Yukon. Mr. Bhelan was proud of his "boys” they were on the job and had obeyed instructions.
But just as he was being warmly congratulated by the American officials there came a break in the regular beating of the chronometer pendulum. The American officials frowned. Surely, they intimated, this must be some one on the north line — the Canadian section. But "BN” smiled to himself. The interruption was not caused by any of his boys; of that he felt certain.
They listened. Indistinctly at first, and then more clearly as the persistent one triumphed in the struggle with “time,” came the call, "FN-FN-FN,” and the sign "I IN.” Again and again the insistent signals rang out from the sounder. As yet the American officials did not know that “IIN” was Hootalinqua, a lonely station on the Yukon River, and that the operator there was calling Five Fingers, a near-by station. But they sœn did. For in a moment “FN” answered, and the astounded listeners heard the operator at Hootalinqua, quite unaware of the damage and indignation he was causing, calmly ask if a Siwash had been seen to pass up that way since dark !
Sickness and Accidents
IN THE line’s more than thirty years existence there has been very little sickness among the men keeping up communication. During the influenza epidemic of 1918, which took toll of life in every community, there was not a single case reported among the men on the northern end of the line. But there have been accidents.
Jack Waller, operator at Blackwater, tried to cross the Blackwater River in flood in a rowboat. The boat capsized and Waller was dashed from rock to rock in the raging torrent. He pulled himself to safety by an overhanging willow.
There has been an odd suicide, and a man or two has become insane. But of such happenings very little is heard.
Considering the number of men engaged and their more or less precarious calling, there have been few fatalities. Operators and linemen have, at various times, been chased by grizzly bears. But the Yukon men in each instance either outran the grizzly or outwitted him.
Ed. 1 lawley, relay operator at Fifth cabin, went out duck shooting. Rounding a big boulder, he came face to face with a huge grizzly. Hawley shut both eyes, pulled both triggers of a double-barrelled shotgun, threw down the weapon, and beat all known world’s records back to the cabin. 1 lawley’s lineman later found the bear dead in its tracks. Half its head had been blown away!
Jim Ihxlder, north of the Eighth cabman area above timber line which might aptly lx described as the summer home of the grizzly once fought off a grizzly bear with a newspaper. Hixlder had seen hundreds of grizzlies: none had ever attempted to molest him; but this one seemed dis¡x)sed to dispute the right-of-way with him on the narrow trail. At a distance of ten yards the bear rose on its hind legs. It seemed as big as an elephant and much more formidable. I lodder carried neither rifle nor axe. On one side of the trail was a large boulder, and beside it a quantity of dead grass. Crumpling a newspaper which he happened to be carrying because of a serial story it contained Hodder ran to the boulder, seized a handful of grass, hastily lit paper and grass, and thrust the blazing mass full into tlx snarling jaws of the oncoming bear. Terrified. the grizzly turned and fled down the mountain side.
A Strange Presentiment
A TALL granite shaft in the Hazelton cemetery marks the last resting place of Gilbert McDonald and William Hynes, two Yukon operators. Their deaths, within a few weeks of each other in the winter of l!X)7-8, occurred under tragic circumstances, and their passing cast a gloom over the line which took months to dispel.
Between "Gil” McDonald and Hunter
Comer, his lineman, there existed a friendship that is rarely experienced outside the far distant places. McDonald, returning from covering his north section, was several hours overdue. The ground was covered with about twenty-four inches of snow, and travelling was heavy. The thermometer was several degrees hxlow zero. Anxiously, as the short winter day drew on to dusk, Corner kept glancing out of tlx cabin window. At seven o’clock, unable to restrain himself longer, he set out with a lantern. Three miles up the trail he came upon a huddled form in the snow. It was McDonald. He had been dead for perhaps five hours; the body was already frozen stiff.
Overcome with grief and remorse — because he had not responded earlier to a strange presentiment which several times during the afternœn had caused him to go to the door in the belief that he heard his friend call Corner retraced McDonald’s trail for a mile or more. He saw where the sick man—the coroner’s jury later brought in a verdict of "death from ptomaine poisoning”—had gone to a spring for a drink of water; saw where he had fallen many times in the snow, to rise, stagger along for a few paces and collapse again. The final tracks showed where McDonald had crawled on hands and knees in a last desperate effort to reach the cabin.
Timber wolves and coyotes howled mournfully on the outskirts of the deserted Indian village of Kuldo, near by. Corner dare not leave the body. He would not have done so anyway. McDonald weighed 175 pounds. Corner was of similar weight and build. But even on hard ground such a load would have been difficult to carry.
From the deserted village, after much searching, Corner secured a short piece of rope. With this he made a sling, tied McDonald’s rigid Ixxly to his own shoulders, stocxl erect a difficult feat on snowshoes — and commenced the long, sad journey homeward.
The trail was narrow in places and McDonald’s body, in its rigid state, frequently became fast between trees. Sinking eighteen inches or more with every step in the freshly fallen snow, Corner’s progress was painfully slow, less than a mile an hour. The hills. Corner afterward remarked, while ordinarily fairly difficult of ascent, never seemed so steep as on this night. The thin rope, with the swinging weight upon it. cut into his flesh. Discarding his snowshoes, as the dead man had done before he fell for the last time. Corner crawled across the open space in front of the cabin on hands and knees. It was two o’clock in the morning by this time, but after some frantic calling on the wire Corner was able to get the sympathetic “company” of fellow operators all up and down the line. Two days later a dog team arrived and McDonald’s body was taken over the trail to Hazelton for burial.
Three weeks later the line was to wait in suspense for Jim ILxider to cut in at Burns Lake. Bill Hynes, who had never been known to miss the morning weather report, had failed for two mornings to transmit his report or to answer his call. Hodder, operator at South Bulkley, thirty miles north, was Hynes’ closest friend. Just back from a two-day trip covering his own north section, it was after eight p.m. before he could start south. At five in the morning ILxider knocked at the door of an Indian’s cabin, about a mile north of the Bums Lake telegraph station. The Indian was up early preparing for a hunt. He said he had passed the cabin a day or so before and had seen no sign of Hynes. "Me think him mamaloose (dead).” he casually observed, continuing with his preparations.
Hodder continued on. Approaching the cabin in the winter darkness, he saw no sign of life about the place. Bulling the latch, he entered the kitchen part of the cabin and, groping in the darkness, felt for the d(x)r leading into the sleeping part. Hynes was a handy man. In his spare time he had
added an extra room and furnished the place with many comforts.
Hodder had been a frequent visitor at “BN” and he knew his way about the cabin. Still feeling around in the darkness, he struck a match as he approached the table where he knew Hynes’ reading lamp would be. Glancing back over his shoulder as he applied match to wick, he saw Bill Hynes lying in his bunk. I lis face was set in a grim smile, and his hands were folded across his breast. He had apparently been dead for hours.
An Unsolved Mystery
LEANING against the lamp were three J letters. The first was addressed to Jim Hodder. The second, to Hynes’ brother in the States. The third was addressed to a girl in Vancouver.
Three years before, Hynes had gone outside for his holidays. There he met a girl. And when the time came for him to return to his lonely cabin he did so with a fairly light heart. The next three year stretch would be long, but there would be somebody waiting for him when he came out. And in the interval there would be somebody to write to; there was the memory of a brief courtship to cherish—the first in Hynes’ forty-odd years.
Hynes kept his part of the bargain. He wrote regularly each month and sent out the major part of his salary.
Bill Clark, his cabin mate, was away that winter on a holiday, and Hynes had expected to go out himself as soon as Clark returned. Hodder had seen him only a few weeks previously and had noted particularly how cheerful he seemed and how pleased he was at the prospect of his coming holiday—and now he lay still with hands folded across his breast, his eyes wide and staring at the low cabin ceiling. There was no mark of violence upon the body ; the features showed no sign of physical pain.
To this day the manner of his death is more or less a mystery. “Died of a broken heart, if ever a man did,” is the considered opinion of his former companion. Bill Clark, still in the service of the Yukon Line.
And this opinion is shared by Jim Hodder. who remained with the corpse for two days and two nights till help came. He had ample time to think things out during the two long days and nights alone in the “BN” cabin, and afterward in the days and nights that followed as he struggled over the trail to Hazelton with his friend’s body lashed to a narrow sled.
"Bill just naturally lay down and died,” is the way Hodder expresses it. “The small blood clot found in his brain might have, but did not necessarily, cause his death.”
In the letter to Hodder were brief instructions concerning personal matters that Hynes wished attended to. Hynes knew he was going to die. The telegraph key was within reach. Yet he did not make use of it. Instead, he wrote a letter to a girl. Generous himself, and trusting, he saw no guile in those who sought his friendship or affection.
"Life is uncertain,” Hynes wrote. He made no other explanation to his best friend. What passed between Hynes and the girl is a secret Bill Hynes kept to himself. The letter to the girl was sealed. Hynes knew that Hodder would be the first to enter the cabin. He asked him to mail the letter, and in doing so knew also that the request was as good as accomplished.
Several weeks later Hodder received a note of acknowledgment from Vancouver. It was brief. "Received Bill’s cheque O. K ,” it read. What Jim Hodder said will not bear publication.
The line subscribed handsomely for a granite headstone, simply inscribed, and beneath it lie McDonald and Hynes awaiting their last ”23”—the signal that calls all telegraphers to the wire.