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Life on the Yukon Telegraph line

Heinz was one of the first telegraph operators stationed in Burns Lake
Granite Memorial, Old Hazelton Cemetery 2021. Granite memorial purchased by subscription by employees of the Yukon Telegraph . Marks the graves of Gilbert McDonald, who died in telegraph cabin north of Hazelton on Dec. 17, 1907, and William Heinz, who died Jan. 20, 1908, in the telegraph cabin at Burns Lake. burial death. (Lakes District Museum Society photo/Lakes District News)

Life on the Yukon Telegraph line was difficult. The food and accommodations provided by the federal Department of Public Works were uniformly poor and working conditions were not much better.

No one got rich by pursuing a career in telegraphy, either. When the line became operational in 1900, linemen who kept the wire free of obstacles received $110 a month, while the operators who worked the telegraph key got $20 less. Later, when the Klondike gold rush waned and revenue from telegrams dwindled, the federal government cut the wages of telegraph employees by 20 percent, forcing most men to supplement their meager incomes by running trap lines.

Loneliness was an occupational hazard. Telegraph linemen and operators were often alone for months at a time. The boredom and isolation drove some men insane, while others kept their wits, but sacrificed their physical health. A select few, like Guy Lawrence, who spent forty years on the Yukon Telegraph, thrived in these adverse conditions.

William Heinz was not so lucky. For him, the job ended in tragedy.

Heinz, a man of German descent, was one of the first telegraph operators stationed in Burns Lake. He shared his cabin along what is now Richmond Loop with lineman William “Bill” Clark—and unlike other men forced to live in close proximity, the two got along well.

Heinz, according to contemporaries, was a lively, intelligent man and a good employee. His fellow telegraphers said he was punctual (he never missed his daily check-in) and efficient (his weather reports were always submitted on time). Visitors who stopped at telegraph station “BN” (Burns Lake) said he had a good sense of humour and a keen mind.

Yet there was another side to Heinz, according to some. At times, they said, he could be melancholic and brooding—and these traits might have played a role in his untimely demise.

Things started to go sideways for Heinz in July 1907, when his co-worker and roommate left to visit a sick relative in Eastern Canada. For one reason or another, the telegraph service did not send a replacement for Clark, and Heinz was left to handle the Burns Lake station on his own for more than six months.

By all accounts, he managed well enough. He continued to make his daily weather reports, and never missed a check-in.

Some sources suggest that Heinz experienced medical problems during Clark’s absence, yet he did not report any health issues. Jim Hodder, the telegraph operator stationed about thirty miles (48 km) away in South Bulkley (near the present site of Forestdale), said he saw Heinz in late December 1907 or early January 1908, when the Burns Lake man had been cheerful and looking forward to going on leave as soon as Clark returned.

Rev. Fred L. Stephenson, the Bulkley Valley’s itinerant Anglican parson, found nothing amiss when he and George Findlay visited Heinz on January 21, 1908.

“At Burns Lake, we were hospitably entertained by the telegraph operator on the Yukon Telegraph line,” Stephenson wrote later. “He was a native of Germany but spoke English fluently, and was entirely self-taught. He was most interesting. We sat long into the night talking on various subjects, electricity being his particular hobby. He had some very interesting models he had set up, and took great delight in exhibiting [them].”

Heinz seemed fine when Stephenson and Findlay left for Aldermere (now Telkwa) the following morning, and even telegraphed the South Bulkley station later in the day to see if they had arrived safely.

It was the last time anyone heard from Heinz.

Station “BN” went silent. When Heinz failed to transmit his weather report or respond to messages for several days, Hodder was sent to check on him.

Hodder left South Bulkley in a snowstorm, traveled all night, and arrived at his destination before sunrise. He stopped first at the cabin of an Indigenous man who lived about a mile from Heinz. The man said he had passed the telegraph station a day or two earlier and had seen no signs of life.

“I think he might be dead,” the man told Hodder.

Growing more concerned by the minute, Hodder continued to the Burns Lake telegraph station and went inside. Though it was still dark, he had been there many times before, and knew the cabin’s layout. He groped his way to the table, struck a match for illumination, and found his missing friend.

Heinz was dead—and had been for several days. He was lying in his bunk, and there were no signs of a struggle or anything to suggest he had met a violent end.

It was as if Heinz had just lain down and died, Hodder said later.

Hodder loaded his friend on a sled, and with help from two Indigenous men, dragged him as far as Aldermere. In due time, the body was delivered to Hazelton, where coroner Hicks Beach performed an autopsy.

Beach found a small blood clot in the dead man’s brain, and concluded Heinz had suffered temporary or partial paralysis sometime after Stephenson and Findlay left him on January 22. Unable to help himself or keep the fire going, the telegrapher had likely frozen to death.

It couldn’t have been pleasant.

Heinz’s death caused quite a stir, both along the telegraph and in the world beyond. In late February, Reginald Leake Gale, a respected magistrate who heard cases in the Bulkley Valley, accused the Department of Public Works of gross misconduct.

“This is the second case this winter of operators in these isolated places being found dead,” stated Gale in a letter to the Victoria Times Colonist. “Is the government to blame for this sad state of affairs? Is it the policy of the Department of Public Works that only one man shall be placed in these isolated places, or is it the work of some of his underlings? There always used to be two men in these cabins … The yearly rations supplied to the men are of the meagerest, Mr. Heinz, I know, getting no bacon this year, and as I have myself witnessed, that which is supplied is entirely unfit for consumption. The linemen seemingly have no redress, as their protests have been ignored.”

John T. Phalen, superintendent of the Yukon Telegraph, did not appreciate the criticism and responded a few days after the publication of Gale’s letter. Showing little regard for the victim’s friends, Phalen said Heinz had specifically asked that Clark not be replaced because “he could get along very well alone.” He went on to suggest that Heinz had purchased a quantity of morphine during his last leave and had likely died of an overdose.

The men of the Yukon Telegraph believed none of it. They had a different explanation for what transpired in that lonely telegraph cabin along Burns Lake—and documentary evidence to prove it.

Heinz’s body wasn’t the only thing Hodder found that morning in late January. Heinz had written three letters and left them on the table near his lamp for Hodder to find. One was written to the telegraph man from South Bulkley, and contained instructions on what should be done in the event of Heinz’s death. Another was addressed to Heinz’s brother in the United States, and the third to a girl in Vancouver.

The letters told a very different story.

Heinz, fifty years old at the time, had gone to Vancouver during his last holiday, and there met a young girl working in the city’s red-light district. Despite being old enough to be the girl’s grandfather, Heinz had taken an interest in her. Some accounts suggest they were romantically involved, while others say the elderly telegrapher merely wanted to better the young girl’s life.

Whatever the reason, Heinz wrote the girl regularly and sent her considerable sums of money in the months before his death. His efforts, though, were in vain, and the liaison eventually ended.

According to Hodder and others, it was this sad turn of events that killed Heinz, not a blood clot.

“[Heinz] died of a broken heart, if ever a man did,” Clark told fellow telegrapher and writer Louis Lebourdais after the incident. “[He] could easily have called up on the wire and told them he was sick.”

Hodder agreed. In a final twist of fate, he obeyed Heinz’s last wishes and mailed the letters. Several weeks later, he received a brief note of acknowledgement from the girl in Vancouver.

“Received Bill’s cheque OK,” was all she wrote.

Hodder never heard from her again.

The version of events put forward by Hodder and Clark appealed to men of the Yukon Telegraph, all of whom had known loneliness and despair during their years on the line. When Rev. Stephenson finally laid the dead telegrapher to rest in the Gitanmaax cemetery overlooking Hazelton, they donated enough money for a large headstone.

Today, it remains a monument to the price Heinz and others paid to keep the lines of communication open in Northern BC.

2022 Michael Riis-Christianson and the Lakes District Museum Society