Pack train in front of Yukon Telegraph station “BN” – Burns Lake – in approximately 1912. (Lakes District Museum Society photo)

Pack train in front of Yukon Telegraph station “BN” – Burns Lake – in approximately 1912. (Lakes District Museum Society photo)

Burns Lake a key link in historic telegraph line

By 1844, artist-turned-inventor Samuel F.B. Morse had developed a device capable of transmitting electrical signals vast distances along a metal wire. Known as telegraphy, this ground-breaking technology revolutionized communications, allowing people living thousands of miles apart to ‘talk’ to each other in Morse code.

It wasn’t long before other forward thinkers saw the device’s potential to connect not just communities, but continents. In July 1858, Cyrus W. Field’s Atlantic Telegraph Company finally laid the first undersea cable across the Atlantic, and industrialists on both continents were confident that the endeavour had ushered in a new age.

Their optimism proved short-lived, because by September, the cable had stopped functioning. Yet others, including American entrepreneur Perry Collins, saw Field’s initial failure as an opportunity.

Collins convinced Hiram Sibley, head of the Western Union Telegraph Company, to construct an overland telegraph line from San Francisco (Western Union’s Pacific terminus) to Alaska, and from there across the Bering Strait to Russia. The two men promoted the project worldwide, and on July 1, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln granted the Sibley’s Western Union Telegraph Company a right-of-way from San Francisco to the British Columbia border.

The colony of B.C. enthusiastically endorsed the new telegraph project. New Westminster was chosen as the telegraph’s B.C. terminus, and construction crews began stringing line north along the Cariboo Wagon Road to Quesnel in May 1865. The onset of winter halted work, but in the spring of 1866, it started northwest from Quesnel in earnest. By the end of that year, the line had reached the Bulkley and Kispiox Rivers.

That’s when fate intervened. In 1866, the second trans-Atlantic cable was successfully laid across the Atlantic, restoring telegraph service between London and North America – and in the process, making the Western Union project obsolete.

The Collins Overland Telegraph, which cost investors approximately $3 million before work ground to a halt north of Hazelton, was considered an abject economic failure. However, it did leave behind infrastructure and a trail that others could follow to northern B.C.

The discovery of gold in the Yukon in 1896 created renewed demand for a communications link between Canada’s Far North and its urban centres in the south. The result was the Yukon Telegraph, which followed much of the old Collins route before striking northward from the Hazelton area toward the Yukon.

Cabins were constructed along sections of the telegraph line to house the men required to keep it operating, one of them near the present site of Burns Lake’s sewage lagoons.

Malcolm McKinley was one of this area’s early telegraph operators, and George ‘Boer’ Wallace – the South African after whom Boer Mountain is named – reportedly served as his lineman for a time.

According to some of this area’s old-timers, McKinley and Wallace didn’t get along. Apparently, their mutual dislike eventually reached a level that civil communication between them ceased.

At that point, it’s said, McKinley devised a system whereby the two men could avoid direct contact. Whenever the telegraph connection was broken, McKinley would nail a red arrow to a tree pointing toward the direction of the problem. An arrow pointing west indicated no signals were coming from Hazelton, and Wallace should head in that direction with his tools; one pointing the opposite way suggested the line needed Wallace’s attention somewhere between McKinley’s cabin and the next one to the east.

For a time, the system allegedly worked well for both men. Eventually, though, McKinley became so annoyed with Wallace that he pointed the arrow east or west each morning even when the telegraph line was operating properly.

McKinley’s cabin, which became a favourite stopping point for pack trains run by Cataline and others, was still standing in the 1980s but has since disappeared. A similar one can still be seen adjacent Highway 16 near Quick, and the Lakes District Museum recently completed a new display on the history of telegraphy in this area.

© 2018 Michael Riis-Christianson and the Lakes District Museum Society

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

“Skeena,” by John Hudson and Paul Hanslow is one of five fonts in the running to become the default for Microsoft systems and Office programs. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Font named after Skeena River could become the next Microsoft default

One of the five new fonts will replace Calibri, which has been Microsoft’s default since 2007

Kindergarten class out learning some basic safety and biking skills on Spirit North Day. (Rachelle van Zanten photo/Lakes District News)
Spirit North’s after school program for spring and summer begin

The Spirit North’s after-school program at Morris Williams Elementary school has been… Continue reading

Indigenous count crucial to determining services

Pandemic protection measures in place for Indigenous communities

Kenny Olson in the bakery department where he worked for the past two years. (Priyanka Ketkar photo/Lakes District News)
Community bids adieu to Kenny Olson

Retirement beckons after 40 years with Overwaitea/Save-On Foods

Beth Berlin with Lisa Cant after administering vaccines at the one-day walk-in clinic in Burns Lake last week. (Priyanka Ketkar photo/Lakes District News)
Burns Lake health area sees 50 per cent immunized population

Unknown when further clinics may be held

Jose Marchand prepares Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination doses at a mobile clinic for members of First Nations and their partners, in Montreal, Friday, April 30, 2021. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is coming under fire after contradicting the advice Canadians have been receiving for weeks to take the first vaccine against COVID-19 that they’re offered. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Trudeau says he is glad he got AstraZeneca, vaccines are only way out of pandemic

‘The most important thing is to get vaccinated with the first vaccine offered to you’

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Dip in COVID-19 cases with 572 newly announced in B.C.

No new deaths have been reported but hospitalized patients are up to 481, with 161 being treated in intensive care

Solar panels on a parking garage at the University of B.C. will be used to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter captured to supply a vehicle filling station. (UBC video)
UBC parkade project to use solar energy for hydrogen vehicles

Demonstration project gets $5.6M in low-carbon fuel credits

FILE – A student arrives at school as teachers dressed in red participate in a solidarity march to raise awareness about cases of COVID-19 at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. ‘should be able to’ offer 1st dose of COVID vaccine to kids 12+ by end of June: Henry

Health Canada authorized the vaccine for younger teens this morning

A woman in the Harrison Mills area was attacked by a cougar on Tuesday, May 4. B.C. Conservation Officers killed two male cougars in the area; the attack was determined to be predatory in nature. (File photo)
2 cougars killed following attack on woman in Agassiz area

Attack victim remains in hospital in stable condition

A woman wears a face mask and shield to curb the spread of COVID-19 while walking in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. CDC updates info, acknowledging small respiratory droplets can spread COVID-19

Large droplets, not aerosols had been fixture of public health messaging for many months

A picture of Shirley Ann Soosay was rendered from a postmortem photographer and circulated on social media. (DDP graphic)
B.C. genealogist key to naming murder victim in decades-old California cold case

In July 1980, Shirley Ann Soosay was raped and stabbed to death

Mary Kitagawa was born on Salt Spring Island and was seven years old when she was interned along with 22,000 B.C. residents in 1942. (B.C. government video)
B.C. funds health services for survivors of Japanese internment

Seniors describe legacy of World War II displacement

Most Read