Washington/Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS)

Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS)

On 26 May 1900, Congress appropriated $450,550.00 to build a military telegraph system in Alaska and link it with the rest of the nation and the world. The system became known as the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS). Washington referred to the state where the southern section of the system terminated and not Washington, DC.

In addition to authorizing the funds, the act also provided: “That commercial business may be done over these military lines under such conditions as may be deemed, by the Secretary of War, equitable and in the public interest.” It further stipulated that: “All receipts from such commercial business shall be accounted for and paid into the Treasury of the United States.” The Federal Government realized that Alaska could not provide its own long-line communications.

On 15 September 1900, U.S. Army Signal Corps completed the first segment of WAMCATS, a 25-mile telegraph line strung by men of the 7th Infantry Regiment between Nome and Port Safety on the Norton Sound.

By August 1901, Lieutenant William “Billy” Mitchell arrived at Fort Egbert, Eagle. Major General Adolphus W. Greely, Chief of U.S. Army Signal Corps, sent him north on a fact-finding mission after becoming concerned about the slow progress on the Eagle to Valdez WAMCATS link. Lieutenant Mitchell and his party 17 signalmen departed Fort Myer, Virginia on 13 August 1901, traveling across the country by train and then by steamship to Skagway. They boarded a train on the narrow gauge railway between Skagway and Whitehorse. On arrival at Whitehorse, Lieutenant Mitchell and his party traveled on a 40-foot flatboat down the Yukon River to Eagle. After spending 17 days inspecting work in progress, LT Mitchell traveled along the Yukon River to St. Michael, stopping to visit Fort Gibbon near Tanana. Lieutenant Mitchell arrived at Fort St. Michael on 25 September, where he boarded a steamer for Seattle. He arrived in Seattle on 17 October 1901.

On 4 September 1901, Canada completed the promised extension of its telegraph system from the northern extension of the Canadian Pacific Railroad to Dawson, where the line connected with Eagle just across the border. For the first time, Alaska was connected with the rest of the world by telegraph.

On 4 January 1902, LT Mitchell arrived back to Fort Egbert to supervise the telegraph line construction between Eagle and Valdez. He and his crew began work on the northern line section in early February.

By 24 August 1902, Lieutenant Mitchell’s crew met that of Captain G.C. Burnell near Tanana Junction, completing the telegraph section between Eagle and Valdez.

In July 1903, after exploring the Goodpaster River by dog team during the winter of 1902-1903, Lieutenant Mitchell left Alaska for Washington DC. He used periods of enforced inactivity to study for his captain’s examination. The U.S. Signal Corps exam included subjects on balloons and aeronautics.

On 6 October 1904, the Army completed work on WAMCATS with the laying of a submarine telegraph cable between Valdez and Sitka. The system consisted of 2,128 miles of submarine cable, 1,497 miles of landlines, and 107 miles of radio communications. The estimated cost per mile for landline communications came to $617.00, and for the submarine cable, $431.00 for a total cost of $1,144,907.00. The system served both military and civilian needs, and revenues to the government averaged between $170,000.00 and $190,000.00 per year.