Victorian Canadians looked to technology to make sea-to-sea nationhood a reality in the mid-19th century.
The steam locomotive and the electric telegraph promised to tame the North-West wilderness by effectively shrinking the vast distance between central Canada and the Pacific Coast.
It was all a relatively simple matter of plotting a route for the telegraph and railway. Any engineering challenges, according to Canadian expansionists, would “dissolve … into insignificance.”
The two projects were to be built in succession. The transcontinental telegraph line would be tackled first, followed by the national railroad along the same general route, if not the precise line.
The telegraph was expected to facilitate settlement and development of the western interior. It would not only lessen isolation by providing a link to the outside world, but provide logistical support for construction of the railway. Messages, for example, could be exchanged the same day rather than take weeks, if not months.
CPR Chief Engineer Sandford Fleming likened the telegraph line to a kind of “spinal cord” in the eventual communication and transportation network.
From the outset, it was assumed that the telegraph and railway would travel along the North Saskatchewan country (the fertile or settlement belt) and then through the mountains by the Yellowhead Pass. But the exact route across the northern prairies had still not been defined by 1874, when the federal government called for tenders “to provide a pioneer line [telegraph] throughout the whole extent of the country.”
The successful contractors had to clear the right-of-way along their section of the telegraph, string a one-wire line, and erect stations within at least 50-mile intervals.
Over the next two years, surveying of the telegraph line proceeded at a feverish pace. Starting at Fort Livingstone, the first territorial capital near the present-day Saskatchewan-Manitoba border, a general line was marked out west to Edmonton. Surveying parties then performed a more detailed location survey — remaining in the field for two consecutive winters — so that construction of the telegraph sections could commence immediately.
By the end of 1876, 800 miles of telegraph line had been erected between Winnipeg and Edmonton. The only delay was caused by a band of Cree who temporarily halted the cutting of poles and laying of wire along the North Saskatchewan River to accelerate treaty discussions with the government.
The “pioneer” telegraph lived up to its name.
Because of the speed with which the line was located, its routing was largely based on the ease of grades and availability of construction materials.
Wide river valleys were avoided whenever possible in favour of sending the line northward, sometimes through wet, unstable ground. In other places, the line ran close to timber stands.
These sections proved a construction nightmare — something that was not fully appreciated, let alone anticipated, because the detailed survey work had been done in winter.
Once the line was in place, poles kept falling over and damaging the wire, throwing sections of the line out of commission for days, if not weeks.
Service consequently varied from day to day and could be depended on with any certainty only during the winter months — when the poles remained frozen in place.
Surveyor W.F. King complained bitterly about the unreliability of the line. He wasted the better part of the summer of 1876 trying to use “this worse than useless telegraph line” in his field work in the Battleford area. His experience at Edmonton the following year was another “complete failure.”
By the end of the 1870s, the federal government found itself saddled with a telegraph that was a drain on the federal treasury.
Then, in 1881, Ottawa reached an agreement with the CPR Syndicate to take over and complete the railway project. One of the syndicate’s first acts was to send the main line across the southern prairies — a decision that effectively undermined the rationale for the location of the government telegraph line. In fact, the CPR decided to erect its own telegraph along the new right-of-way.
It was not until January 1887 that a reliable transcontinental telegraph was in operation — ironically, more than a year after the driving of the last spike.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo credit: Saskatchewan Archives Board
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