Long before text messaging, teleconferencing and instantaneous e-mail connected the world with the click of a button, important messages were sent using a series of dots and dashes.
Construction on the telegraph line that connected the Yukon to the rest of the world began in 1899 and was completed three years later.
(Years before any actual telegraph lines were laid in the Yukon or Alaska, one of the area’s most infamous con men made a living by sending telegraph messages.
Soapy Smith and his men conned homesick stampeders during the gold rush by charging them five dollars to send a message home from the Skagway Telegraph Office, whose wires only went as far as the office’s walls.)
The line from Bennett to Dawson ran 660 miles and cost about $225 a mile, according to the Dawson Daily News published September 28, 1899. The one to Atlin ran 75 miles and cost about $200 per mile.
At Bennett, the lines connected to the American telegraph line, which accompanied the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway to Skagway.
At Skagway, electronically coded messages were transcribed on paper and shipped to Victoria, where they were then put back into the telegraph system.
It took four days for a message to travel from Dawson to Ottawa through the system. It seems like a long wait, but at the time it was a huge improvement over the three, or more, weeks it would take to send a message by ship and dog sled.
J.B. Charleson, the man in charge of building the line was compared to “an able general, who has his battle mathematically planned out before the fight,” in the Dawson Daily News. And “…before the public became aware of it the wire was being stretched down the lakes at a rate ranging from five to 10 miles a day.”
In late 1899, the Canadian government decided to cut the travel time down by building an overland route through British Columbia.
The Whitehorse Dominion Telegraph Office, which still sits on the property of the MacBride Museum of Yukon History, is one of the oldest buildings in Whitehorse that is still in its original spot.
The line’s final segments were not completed until 1901, but the change was felt immediately in Dawson.
“Now Dawson’s evening papers give the happenings of the world as they occur; merchants sent their orders by wire, and they are acknowledged at once; anxious friends communicate without delay — in fact, the days of anxious waiting and tedious delays are relegated to the past,” reported the special edition of the Dawson News in 1902.
“Through (the wire) flows the magic fluid, making the pulse of Dawson beat in unison with the outside world; distance is annihilated and Dawson brought 2,000 miles nearer the centres of commerce.”
Though it helped to connect the Yukon with the rest of the world, the medium was not always completely reliable.
Between November 1923 and February 1924 only 20 telegrams had gone through without suffering long delays from telegraph lines breaking.
In 1927, with the rise of radio communication, the Whitehorse telegraph office closed and was turned over to the RCMP, which used the building as a residence.
The telegraph line was abandoned in August 1935.
In 1952, the Mounties leased the building to the newly formed MacBride Museum. And nine years later the museum purchased the office and its adjacent land.
For a few years the office housed the museum and its collection until 1967 when the centennial log building was constructed.
Today, although it is not officially open to the public, visitors can peek into the windows of the Dominion Telegraph Office, which sits on the corner of First Avenue and Elliot Street.
This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail email@example.com.