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Making Good in Canada
Chapter VIII - On the Frontier Telegraph Line

In Canada, as in other countries, the telegraph is the herald of the settling forces of civilization. Although the greater part of the telegraphic network embraces settled country, linking cities, towns, and villager together iii a continuous chain from coast to coast, yet there are several hundred miles of line which even yet droop in festoons through virgin forests forming a hairlike, albeit potential means of communication between the remote isolated districts and civilization. These are pioneer telegraphs in the fullest interpretation of the word. They are laid out by the Government, upon inexpensive lines, being regarded as of a temporary character, to await the coming of private enterprise as the country is opened up to establish a permanent, up to date installation. The Government merely breaks the ground with the initial frail link, and generally in the end the system is handed over to a railway.

It is along the route of the pioneer line where the most attractive atmosphere of adventure and romance is encountered. There is nothing humdrum about the telegraphist’s life in the lonely cabin on the mountain side, in the swamp, or forest. “Tapping the key” upon a frontier electric wire had none of that monotony associated with the selfsame calling in the crowded cities. It offers an excellent opportunity to make good, not only in regard to the pocket but to health au well.

It must be confessed that in some situations the life is terribly lonely, but the wire-tapper is far better off than his colleagues engaged in other up-country occupations. He is in touch with the world at large. The ghost of the wire ticks out in dot and dash precisely what is happening between the two poles, and very often the operator in his cabin, five or six hundred miles from the nearest town, will be found to be better posted up with the affairs of the world, than the city dweller. The key and the sounder are placed conveniently beside his bunk, and more than one operator has confessed to me that during the darkest hours of the night, when the forest is hushed save for the sounds of the prowling animals, and he has endeavoured to woo sleep in vain, he has merely cut into the wire to listen to what the world beyond is doing. If the business over the line is slack, then the operator calls up a “chum” in a distant cabin, perhaps 100 or 200 miles off, and holds a conversation, with as much ease as if the two wore chatting round a camp fire.

One of the most important and busiest of these frontier telegraphs is the “Yukon Wire,” whereby the Klondyke is hitched up to London. One end of this line taps the All-red cable route at the station of Ashcroft on the Canadian Pacific Railway, 204 miles east of Vancouver, so that it cuts into the main current of conversation between Britain and the Antipodes. From this point it stretches in an unbroken line northwards through the length of New British Columbia, piercing dense forests, touching isolated Hudson Bay trading posts, spanning the wide shadowy valleys of the north, and topping the snow-crested mountains hemming in Dawson City and its hoard of yellow metal.

That line has a history. The wire now trailing across the skyline was born of the Klondike gold rush, but that wire, for the greater part of its distance, was laid over the corpse of another brilliant undertaking. In the sixties of the last century a group of financiers conceived the idea of linking Now York with Paris and London, not by means of a cable resting upon the bed of the Atlantic, but by means of an overhead wire running through Asia. The United States system was to be tapped and led northwards through British Columbia and Alaska to the shores of the Behring Straits. A short length of submarine cable was to connect the shores of the American and Asian continents, and then the wire was to push its way through Siberia and European Russia to London. It was a magnificent idea, which ended in a magnificent failure. Le Barge was at the head of the scheme, and with his little band he set out axing a path through the wilds with heavy pack-trains laden with wire. The going was heavy, but by dint of dogged perseverance, the overcoming of prodigious difficulties, and the experiencing of terrible privations, they hoisted the wire as far as Telegraph Creek, south of the Klondyke, and clicked with New York While the men were busily engaged in their round of toil one day, the temporary sounder at the end of the line ticked out the message that the Atlantic cable was laid and was working successfully. The cable sounded the death-knell of the overland wire from New York to Paris and London. The work was stopped there and then; the men throw down their tool, the machinery was pitched into the ditch, and the party made a mournful retreat southwards.

The line was forgotten almost. It looped mournfully and silently through the trees so long as the pots upon which it was supported braved the storm, and then came crashing to the ground. The roaming Indians, when they desired a short length of wire, clipped it from the overland telegraph, while the remaining lengths writhed and twisted upon the ground under the accumulation of falling and decaying vegetation. When 1 made my way along this telegraph trail more than once my horse tripped over a protruding loop of wire, and on several occasions while exploring I was thrown unceremoniously to Mother Earth through my foot fouling the same obstacle.

When the Yukon telegraph line was built the same trail was followed. The broad straight path winding over hill and dale which Le Barge’s forces had cut through the bush half a century before was followed. It had become somewhat overgrown with scrub, but this was quickly and easily cleared out, and down the centre of the cleavage the poles were run, and the wire looped and strained into position.

At intervals of about thirty or fifty miles the operators and their cabin are stationed, the distances between varying according to the country traversed. The cabin comprises a wooden shack of the type common to the backwoods, containing two or three compartments for the purposes of living and sleeping. The instrument itself is set up on a small bench or even a table in a convenient corner, lighted possibly by a candle thrust in the neck of a bottle. Were it not for the two wires trailing from the post outside the shack into the building, one might be pardoned for conceiving that the home belonged to a homesteader, especially as it is generally surrounded by a small well-stocked garden. There is very little evidence within of the actual purport of the cabin. Possibly it is empty, but if not a cheery Halloo is sure to be received, as the sight of a stranger is welcomed by the lonely inmates.

Beside the shack is another substantial log building. This is the cache, containing 6.000 pounds of supplies— sufficient for twelve months—and as already mentioned, this larder is restocked once a year by the pack-train. The Government is exceedingly attentive and liberal in ministering to the wants of its isolated telegraphic employes, inasmuch as the comestibles are of infinite variety, so far as is possible with preserved and dried edibles, and there is very little likelihood of the party ever being overwhelmed by famine. In regard to the fresh delicacies for the table, their rest with the operators. Vegetables may be cultivated in the patch around the shack, while the forest and streams yield abundant supplies of game. In the more remote districts the table menu may be varied in season with juicy bear-steaks, venison, grouse, mountain goat and sheep. salmon and trout, which fall to the telegraph-operator’s rifle, or line.

Each cabin has two men. Ore is the operator proper, and he is responsible for the transmission of the messages. He has to be constantly on the alert, as often his particular cabin has to serve as a relay station. That is to say, the electric messages received from four or five cabins behind have to be forwarded onwards, as it is not possible to despatch from Dawson City direct to Ashcroft with the instruments employed. At first sight it may seem a somewhat easy life, as there does not appear to be much cause for heavy business with the Klondyke now that it has quietened down, but this is far from being the case. At times the traffic is exceptionally heavy, and the operator may be on relay duty for four or five hours at a stretch going as hard as he can.

South of the Skeena River the work is somewhat more arduous, as a branch line from Prince Rupert, the new terminal port of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway cuts in at Hazleton, and recently another wire has been carried to Stewart, tapping the goldfields at that point. This renders Hazleton an important clearing centre, as railway building operations have kept the line busily engaged, for the simple reason that Prince Rupert has no other telegraphic communication with the rest of the country.

The second operator is the linesman, and his duty is to “ look for trouble,” otherwise to keep the thin steel thread intact. He generally finds it, and it keeps him going from morning to night, often the latter as well, as breakdowns must be repaired instantly, so that the stream of dots and dashes flashing to and fro may not be interrupted. The task is by no means pimple, especially when the elements are antagonistic. The line is very flimsily built, and it does not require a very great jolt upon the part of the wind to bring the pole crashing to the ground. The forest fires, however, are the greatest scourge, for they sweep through the parched country, scorching up the posts by the score, or precipitating “dead earths,” by which the current runs into the ground, in all directions.

Situate about midway between each station is a small log shack, which is known as the “halfway cabin.” This is the limit of the linesman’s patrol north and south of the station to which he is attached, and as these halfway houses may bo from fifteen to twenty-five miles apart on either side of his station he may be responsible for the upkeep of thirty to fifty miles of wire.

When the line has broken down, and the fault has been located between two adjacent cabins, the respective linesmen from each sally out looking for the cause of the interruption. A few articles of food are slung across a horse’s back, together with a blanket, and the linesman’s repair outfit, which comprises the indispensable axe, a shovel, and one or two small tools. He covers the trail beside the wire on his section where the fault exists. Maybe he reaches the halfway cabin without discovering any interruption on his part of the line. With his testing instrument he taps the wire to call up his colleague. If it is all right and the day is not too far advanced, he will return homewards straight away. If late he will shake himself down for the right in the halfway house. The shack is equipped with a stove, and it is not long before the evening meal is ready, upon the conclusion of which he shakes up his rude bed in the bunk and turns in. Maybe his chum from the next cabin who has patrolled his section of the line for the fault reaches the halfway house the same evening, and then the time is passed by the exchange of news-items, anecdotes, and yarn*. The morning sees each remounting his horse, and departing in an opposite direction back to his respective cabin.

Such a recital of the day’s routine does not appear to offer much attraction or excitement, but as a matter of fact, on the exposed stretches of the line the linesman is out day after day, and sometimes does not pull into his cabin for a week. Or perhaps, after riding hard for the whole day over the length of line to the south to locate and repair a break, he reaches home jaded and worn out, only to find that another interruption has occurred on the north side, and without delay ho is off again. One of the boys related to me that on one occasion he did not have a complete night’s rest for about a month. The forest fires were fierce, and they brought down the posts one after the other. Seeing that the posts are slender trees about 4 inches in girth at the butt and about 15 feet in length, rudely trimmed, they do not offer a very strong resistance to the flames. As a matter of fact, the wire is far stronger than the posts, and undoubtedly the wire does as much to hold up the posts as the latter nerve to support the wire. If a post has collapsed under the strain, out comes the axe, a young pine is soon levellod to the ground, and a few minutes later it is stripped of its branches and crown. A wooden bracket, carrying the glass insulator, is nailed to the top in the twinkling of an eye, the wire is released from the prostrate post, attached to the new one, a hole is dug, the pole is warped round until its base is over the hole, there is a jerk and a hoist, and the next moment it is standing more or less upright and rammed home.

Some of the experiences of the linesmen in their search for trouble provide amusing reading. The telegraph runs through the heart of the Indian country, and one might be prompted to think that when the Red Men desired a piece of wire to secure their fences or for some other purpose they might raid the telegraph system. But it is not so. The Siwash has a profound regard for that speaking wire; its potentialities have been brought home to him time after time. Instead of regarding it in the light of a free ironmongery store, he spares no effort to apprise the linesmen of any defect that may become manifest, and will himself often re-erect a pole that has tumbled down without breaking the wire, in order to save the linesman a journey, and to earn his gratitude. But at times this desire to be obliging oversteps the bounds of discretion.

The operator at one cabin one night was relaying away merrily when suddenly to his amazement he found that he was displaying his energy to no purpose; he was up against a dead earth. The weather was calm, and outside there was not the slightest glimmer of a forest fire reflected in the sky. What was the matter? He roused his companion, the linesman, and the latter, dug out of his bed, stole off amid many mutterings with the first streaks ox dawn to ascertain the cause of the breakdown. He jogged along for mile after mile, but there was no sign of a leak or break anywhere on his section; the wire was as tight as a drum. In the course of a few hours he drew up at the door of the halfway cabin, twenty miles distant, and cut into the wire. He called his mate desperately, but without avail. Then he tried the next cabin, and got the “O.K.” There was no doubt about it; the break was somewhere on his own section, and he must have missed the fault on his outward jaunt.

He turned his horse’s head homewards, and sauntered slowly along, his eye glued to the wire. When he reached home without striking success in his trouble, the operator met him with the remark: “Why, can’t you find it?” The linesman growled menacingly, and consigned the whole telegraph system to perdition, for he was dead-beat, and, disgusted, turned into his bunk.

Early the next morning he was out again, and made another run along the trail to see what was the matter. He arrived at the halfway cabin as before with no luck. Once again he went to call up his mate, and found that he was running to earth. Scratching his head puzzlingly while he stood in the middle of the shack, his eyes wandered round the gloomy abyss within the four wooden walls, and then ho gave voice to a healthy curse. There, hung from the stove, was a piece of wire which had been strung up by an ingenious Siwash Indian to form a clothes line, and one end of this wire was tangled round the telegraph wire, giving a “dead earth.” The dots and dashes which were being poured so valiantly into that wire for London were running into the ground via the stove! With an oath he pulled down the offending makeshift, and gave another call through. His mate answered instantly. Then, as he explained, he gave full vent to his feelings for a whole five minutes, mounted his horse, and rode off homewards at a gallop with his gun in his hands. It was fortunate for the Siwash that the maddened linesman did not meet him, or there would have been trouble of another description, for the man on the wire rained curses innumerable upon the Red Man’s head, and would assuredly have emphasized thorn with a hail of shot had the offender come within sight. That improvised clothes line had held up the wire for two days, had demanded a ride of eighty miles, and had ruined two nights’ peaceful slumber.

Such incidents are a mere interlude to the daily round, however. As a rule the search for trouble is far more grim. Between Hazleton and Prince Rupert the slender link threads heavy country, which is exposed to frequent rainstorms of torrential fury, which play havoc with what is the hardest worked section of the line. This stretch is nearly 300 miles in length. I rode into one of the cabins between Hazleton and Fraser Lake one day, and the operator, heavy-eyed and sleepy, was pounding away at his key for his very life. He had been relaying for some few hours without a break. The night before every man, both operator and linesman, on the stretch between Hazleton and Prince Rupert, had been out in the pelting rain, swathed in heavy slickers and top boots, trying to fix up the line which had come down at a score or more places. When communication was restored it was found that the Prince Rupert office was simply jammed up with a heap of messages, and as the men who had been out were in urgent need of rest, my friend was called upon to take over the duty of relaying for a few hours.

When the line was first opened only one man was stationed at each cabin, and he had to act both as telegraphist and linesman. The result was somewhat disconcerting at times, as occasionally the operator at a. station fell ill, and then there was trouble of another description. One evening an operator between Hazleton and Telegraph Creek endeavoured to call up his chum at the next cabin north. To his dismay he could get no answer, though the line was open. lie called and called, wondering what was the matter. Presently there came a slow, long-drawn-out reply. The operator was relating that he had been taken ill, and could hardly move the key. The jerks and slowness with which the dots and dashes were rapped out testified to the fact only too plainly that it was serious.

The first operator switched his line through to the next cabin south, intimating the trouble beyond, and that he was off to lend assistance. He had wellnigh twenty miles to go through broken, densely forested country, and to make matters worse the rain was tumbling down in bucketsful. Slipping on his heavy waterproof, jamming a hunk of bannock and bacon in his pocket, and with his gun in his hand, he set off. It was as black as pitch, and he scarcely could keep to the trail, while time after time he made a graceful toboggan along the ground when he stumbled over s deadfall. Such unexpected incidents provoked bruises innumerable, and at last, owing to the darkness, he struck a blind lead. It was some time before he was able to realize that he had missed the trail owing to the blackness of the night, but instinctively ho knew he had borne too much to the west, and endeavoured to make up time by crashing through the undergrowth to regain the correct path. As a result ho got more tangled up than ever. He had been wandering around for nearly eight hours according to his watch, which was nearly four o’clock in the morning. He was quite lost, but piercing the gloom and spring an eminence rearing above the trees he climbed to its summit in the hope that he might be able to pick up his bearings. He was somewhat familiar with the country, and only required some landmark to regain the trail. To his chagrin when he gained the crest of the knoll he found that his perspective was blotted out by the driving rain. Shivering with the cold, he waited some time, vainly endeavouring to determine his position, but with no luck. He was just on the point of giving up his efforts to pierce the gloom, and about to trust to fate, when a faint light flickered through the mist about two miles behind him.

It was the cabin, and through missing the trail be had blundered beyond it. He strode off towards this beacon and in less than an hour clicked up the latch. He found the telegraph operator lying in his bunk almost delirious, in a raging fever. Without any delay he called up the station south, explained the situation, and asked for immediate assistance; then he turned his attention to his companion. It was the hardest night’s work he had ever put in according to his own statement, although ho had roved the whole country through between Ashcroft and Dawson City. He had no palliatives to his hand wherewith to relieve his wring c-hum, but ho did the best he could until late the next day, when a relief hand and a doctor pulled in. The operator had been knocked over by pneumonia, but not realizing the gravity of his illness had held on uncomplainingly until he collapsed. Under skilled attention he rallied quickly, and a few days later went out for a rest and to recuperate.

The incident which brought about the appointment of two men to each station was one of the most convincing that could ha’s e been advanced for achieving an end for which the men had agitated for some time previously. One of the officials was making a journey of inspection over the line, and while riding along one day his horse tripped over the languishing wire of the old Overland telegraph, throwing him so heavily to the ground as to break one of his legs. His companion restored the official as best he could to Ms saddle, and although suffering excruciating agony, the two made their way with painful slowness to the nearest cabin, intending to call up assistance. They gained the shack, and to their dismay found that the wire was broken down on either side, and that the solitary operator was out looking for the trouble.

The cabin was as isolated as if in the middle of the Sahara. It was useless to wait the operator’s return or the restoration of the communication, so getting astride his horse once more, despite the terrible pain it caused, the two pushed on to the next cabin twenty miles away. What the official suffered on that journey only he himself knew, but the climax wan reached when the next cabin was gained after a journey of several hours, because here communication was broken on either side through forest fires, and the cabin was just as cut off as the next one north. Fortunately the operator had not started off to repair the trouble, so he was despatched for help as fast ab his horse would carry him. While languishing in awful pain, accelerated by the long and aggravating jaunt in the saddle over an exasperating trail, the official vowed that two men should be appointed to every station, so that one man might always be available for any emergency such aw this. It dawned upon him that a lonely operator would be in a sad predicament if he met with such an accident under such conditions during his duties. Forthwith each cabin was given an operator and a linesman.

The wages paid to the operators upon a frontier line vary according to the situation. On the Yukon telegraph those engaged on the stretch between the Hkeena River and Ashcroft receive a dear €15 per month, with everything found. This country is more accessible than that between the Skeena River and Klondyke, and the life is not so lonely. To make up for these adverse influences, therefore, the operators on the latter section receive a higher salary, averaging about £13 per month, with everything found.

The majority of these operators who have been able to tolerate the lonely life have made good in other directions. The telegraph brought them into the country years before the ordinary settler, speculator, and others who dabble in the acquisition and disposal of land had learned of its arable fame. In their leisure they scoured round, and staked fine stretches of Canadian freehold at the prevailing figure, and by development have been able to enhance its value very appreciably. More than one operator whom I met had invested the whole of his salary in stretches of farming land, buying it at the lowest figure, and to-day is in a position to command whatever price he cares to demand. The operators have been compelled to combine agriculture with telegraphy in order to occupy their spare moments, which are many and frequent, and more than one has found the job to be a means to an end; he has brought his holding of land to a fine state of perfection while dwelling in the cabin housing the ticker, so that in a few years he has been able to forsake the “key” for the plough.

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