CABLES, TRAILS AND TAKE-OVERS by MIKE CREASY
You’ve heard of Bamfield - the old cable station on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The spot where the new British- Australia Cable was to begin, starting in 1902 as part of Sir Sanford Fleming’s idea for a telegraph system to link the Commonwealth.
The cable was to go all the way to Fanning Island (about 900 miles south of Hawaii), then to Fiji and on to Norfolk Island. From there the cable split, one line going to Australia while another line went to New Zealand. The Bamfield end was connected by the CPR telegraph system to Montreal, and then to London via the trans-Atlantic cable through Ireland. The stretch from Bamfield to Fanning Island was nearly 3500 nautical miles, and no cable ship existed that could carry that amount of line. So, the CABLE SHIP COLONIA was built for the job. 487 feet long, 7800 tons, this ship could carry and lay the miles of uninterrupted cable needed to reach Fanning Island. You’re probably wondering why the cable didn’t take the much shorter route to Hawaii, which is only a little over 2,500 miles, before going on to the South Pacific. Well, in those days it just wouldn’t do for this new communications system to cross anything but British holdings – in fact the tiny, uninhabited atoll of Tabuaeran (or Fanning Island) was formally annexed by Britain in 1888, specifically to provide the needed “dot in the ocean” for an all - England route.
The upstart Americans couldn’t be trusted, since they had annexed the Polynesian Kingdom of Hawaii in 1898 after a little tinkering with local politics. They supported a group of local Hawaiian and American businessmen, who overthrew King Kalakaua and promised to bring in democratic reforms in return for US trade and military support.
The Kingdom had considered itself loosely aligned as a British protectorate since the 1778 visit of James Cook, but no formal agreement existed. The new revolutionary government wasn’t very popular with the Hawaiian population, which was strongly loyal to their own King and country. Not surprisingly, the whole thing turned into a political mess and the Americans were “forced” to take over (does any of this sound familiar?).
Bamfield cable station continued in use until 1959, when a new station was built at Port Alberni. Most of the old buildings were demolished in 1965 although the site remains the northwestern trailhead for the West Coast Life-Saving Trail, built in 1907. But the most interesting part of this story is that Bamfield wasn’t first in the trans-Pacific cable sweepstakes. Not by a long shot.
Way back in 1865, the Collins Overland Telegraph line, also known as the Russian-American line, began construction, linking New Westminster with the Western Union telegraph system in the United States. Perry MacDonough Collins, a part owner of Western Union, saw the need for a communications link through Russia to Europe, and planned to build north from San Francisco across BC and Alaska, then across the Bering Straits to Russia.
At the time, British interests were attempting to lay a cable across the Atlantic, but were finding the going very difficult due to the great depths of the mid-Atlantic. Collins’ idea would avoid deep water and keep most of the line on dry land, where maintenance should be easier even though the distances were stupendous; something approaching 16,000 miles. The Russians were already on board – they had committed to build 7,000 miles of line from the Bering Straits to their western borders.
From New Westminster, the Collins line would go to Yale, and then alongside the new Cariboo Wagon Road to Quesnel. From there it would head northwest through Burns Lake and Telegraph Creek before crossing into the Russian Territory of Alaska and on to the Bering Strait. Work continued through 1866 and ’67 to clear the right of way, erect a line and build linemen’s cabins, until word of British success at laying an Atlantic cable made a Russian connection obsolete. The project was abandoned and left to decay in the wilderness.
One thing the Collins line did help to achieve was the Russian sale of Alaska for the princely (czarly?) sum of $7.2 million, or about 2 cents an acre. The purchase soon came to be known as Seward’s Folly, after the (then-) US Secretary of State who championed the deal, William Seward. Public opinion in the US was generally negative, although New York newspapers were quick to point out that Britain was now surrounded in North America and would soon have to quit the field and cede Canada to the US.
Strangely enough, the Americans left Alaska to its own devices and a sort of frontier anarchy soon prevailed. Things got so bad that in 1879 a group of citizens from Sitka sent a petition to the Captain of an Esquimalt based man of war, asking for protection from savage Indians and unruly whites. Just to make it all even more interesting, the Russians were a bit vague about just where the fence posts were, leaving the new owners to set their own boundaries. This led to a dispute with Canada that was resolved in the American’s favour in 1903 after Teddy Roosevelt threatened to send in the Marines.
No doubt Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier had heard what happened to King Kalakaua just a few years earlier!
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Pioneer Legacy, Norma V. Bennett, Dr.R.E.M.Lee Hospital Foundation,1997
Wikipedia online encyclopedia
University of Alaska, online archives
New York Times archives