Alaska's Heritage


Communication systems include both written and electronic messages

In Alaska, where communities are so far from one another, communication has been particularly important. Traveling from one place to another to exchange information has always been difficult. Sometimes it is impossible. Thus Alaskans have depended on communication systems to exchange information. These have included postal and telecommunications systems.

Americans begin postal service in Alaska

Although the Russians in Alaska had sent messages from one trading post to another, and between Alaska and Russia, there is little evidence that they operated anything like a postal system in Russian America. Even before the October 18, 1867 transfer ceremonies at Sitka, however, the United States government had taken steps to extend the U.S. postal system to Alaska.

The United States appoints a postmaster for Alaska

The United States appointed John H. Kinkead as postmaster for Sitka on May 26, 1867. The Sitka post office was authorized July 23, 1867. Kinkead traveled to Sitka in October 1867 to look things over, but did not move there permanently until January of 1868. Post offices were also established at Fort Tongass and at Wrangell in 1869. The first mail was apparently not carried to Sitka until December 1867 when the steamer John L. Stephens carried letters from San Francisco to Sitka. Mail at this time consisted only of letters and newspapers, as parcels were not carried as mail until 1913. A regular contract for carrying mail from the United States to Sitka was let in 1869, when Hutchinson, Kohl & Company negotiated an agreement to take mail monthly from San Francisco to Sitka by way of Port Townsend, Washington, the San Juan Islands, Fort Tongass, and Wrangell. A post office was also established at Kodiak in that year, but no mail route served it and the post office at Kodiak was closed in 1875.

Mail service expands to western Alaska

In 1871 the postal department also contracted for delivery of monthly mail from Portland, Oregon to Sitka. Then in 1878 the southern terminus of the mail route was moved to Port Townsend. Letters to places in Alaska other than Southeast Alaska were carried by occasional trading steamers or government ships visiting ports north and west of Sitka. Mail to Unalaska usually went from Sitka to San Francisco; it was carried to the Aleutians by Alaska Commercial Company steamers. By 1888 post offices north and west of Sitka existed at Kodiak, Afognak, Unga, Belkofsky, and Unalaska but they still had no regular mail service.

The Post Office Department contracted in 1891 with the North American Commercial Company for monthly mail service between Sitka and Unalaska by way of Yakutat, Nuchek, Kodiak, Unga, Humboldt Harbor (on Shumagin Island), and Belkofsky. Postmasters were not appointed for these places. The bulk of the mail from the Aleutians continued to be taken by private parties to San Francisco where it entered the postal system.

Interior Alaska receives mail

The next major development in Alaska's mail system came when gold was found in Interior Alaska. Although mining camps began to spring up after discovery of gold on the Fortymile River in 1886, mail continued to move there on an informal basis as it did to the areas of Alaska west of Sitka. Trading company steamboats carried letters to and from the mining camps. When the letters arrived at the mouth of the Yukon River they were transferred to ocean-going vessels, again on an informal basis, before entering the postal system at the first port of call where there was a post office. Little or no mail moved during the eight to nine months of the year when Interior Alaska's rivers were frozen. This changed in 1895, when the United States government gave Jimmie Jackson, son of the chief of the Taku Tlingits, $700 plus $1 per letter to carry mail in winter from Juneau to the gold fields. At the same time, the Canadian government contracted with a courier to carry mail from Dyea over the Chilkoot Pass. The Dyea courier set out but was caught in a snow storm on the top of the pass. He abandoned the mail bag and it was not found until the next July.

Jackson chose to travel, with two Tlingit youths as companions, by canoe to the Stikine River. They went up the river as far as the canoe could go, and then set out overland by dog sled. Although storms and 50- to 60-below-zero weather made the 1,000-mile trip extremely difficult, the Tlingits successfully delivered the mail to Circle City on the Yukon River. Indian carriers continued this service, for which they received $600 per trip, in both winter and summer in subse-quent years. In 1896, the Juneau to Circle City trip took about a month. The first trip of the year, carrying 1,471 letters, left Juneau on June 11 and arrived at Circle City on August 19. Two more trips were made that summer, and four trips were made between November of 1896 and May of 1897.

By this time the Post Office Department was also contracting for mail to be delivered by Yukon River steamboats, which picked it up from ocean-going vessels at St. Michael. In 1899 there were two such routes, "San Francisco & Yukon" and "Seattle & Yukon." Mail via St. Michael also traveled to and from the Seward Peninsula in 1899, where reindeer hauled it on a 1,240-mile round trip between St. Michael to Eaton and Kotzebue. The following year regular weekly mail service began between Dawson, Yukon Territory, and Nome via Eagle, Circle, Fort Yukon, and Fort Gibbon (Tanana). 0n the 1,600-mile winter route, the mail dogs and sleds moved the mail. Mail cabins, built every 25 to 30 miles (about a day's travel), provided shelter for the mail carriers and their dogs. Even with the expansion of mail routes, it still took about 100 days to get an answer by mail from any place in Interior and Northwest Alaska.

In 1901, the first mail was carried over the "All-American Route" from Valdez to Eagle. By 1902, mail service in Alaska included 650 miles of reindeer route, 400 miles of combination reindeer and dog route, 2,160 miles of dog route, 460 miles of dog and horse route, and 112 miles of railroad route (along the White Pass and Yukon Railway operating from Skagway to Whitehorse). These routes kept expanding as mining camps sprang up throughout Alaska. After railroad building began from Seward, and when gold discoveries were made in the Innoko and Iditarod river regions, a combination rail and dog-sled mail route was developed from Seward to Nome via the new gold camps.

Air mail begins in Alaska

As early as 1916, the Post Office Department obtained permission from Congress to contract for air mail service in Massachusetts and Alaska. No one submitted a bid to provide air mail service in either place because no suitable planes were available. The idea died until after World War I (1914 to 1918). In 1919, air mail service began in the contiguous United States. Then in 1924 the department shipped a dismantled military plane, a DeHaviland "Jenny," to Alaska and contracted with Carl Ben Eielson to make eight test flights between February and May. Eielson made the first airmail flight in Alaska on February 21, 1924, flying a 272-mile round trip between Fairbanks and McGrath in three hours.

Dog sled mail between the two points took 18 days. Other "Star Air Routes" followed as aviation developed in Alaska. By 1938, when there were 199 post offices in Alaska, 155 commercial aircraft flying in Alaska were served by 109 territorial airfields. Planes were used on 18 star routes.

As late as 1938, although mail was distributed to some places within Alaska by air, all mail still came to Alaska from ship by Seattle. In Southeast Alaska and along the Alaska Railroad in Southcentral Alaska, all classes of mail were carried year-round. But away from the sea and the railroad, when the rivers were frozen and mail could be carried only by airplane or dog team, only letters and small packages could be sent or received. Thus about 100 of the 199 Alaskan post offices had only restricted service. This did not change until after World War II(1939-1945) when large transport and passenger aircraft came into general civilian use in Alaska. Even in the 1980s, communities whose airports could not accommodate large aircraft or which were not served regularly by large aircraft received only letters and small packages when river or overland travel was impossible.

Telecommunications come to Alaska

Although the term "telecommunication" literally means communication over long distances and has included such things as smoke, mirror, and flag signals, the term is now commonly accepted to mean electronic communications. These are the telegraph, wireless telegraph or radio, telephone, and television. Because of the vast distances between Alaskan communities and between Alaska and the contiguous United States, telecommunications have been very important to Alaska.

Telecommunications came because the U.S. Army needed better communications between the posts it had established to police the gold rushes to Alaska in 1898-1900. Administration of military garrisons was difficult because of a lack of telecommunication and in-frequent steamer travel on Alaska's rivers. It sometimes took as long as a year to send a message from an army post in the interior of Alaska to Washington, D.C., and to receive an answer. The army officer commanding the Military District of Alaska soon recommended a telegraph system to link his posts. John G. Brady, Governor of Alaska at the time, made a similar recommendation. Congress responded in May of 1900, appropriating $450,000 for cable and telegraph connections between the Alaskan army posts. In doing so, Congress specified that the system must carry personal and commercial messages.

The army builds a telegraph

The Washington-to-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS)
The army immediately began to build its telegraph line. Soldiers packed 150-pound rolls of galvanized iron wire on horses into the wilderness and strung it between poles cut from Alaskan timber. By September of 1900, 25 miles of overland telegraph wire extended from Fort Davis outside Nome to Port Safety on the edge of the Bering Sea. From Port Safety, 133 miles of undersea cable completed the link between Fort Davis and Fort St. Michael, headquarters of the Military District of Alaska. Telegraph and cable construction also began north from Fort Liscum at Valdez, east and west from Fort Egbert at Eagle City, east from Fort St. Michael toward Fort Gibbon at the confluence of the Tanana and Yukon rivers, and from both ends between Fort Gibbon and Fort Egbert. Cable construction also began between Skagway and Juneau. By the end of 1901, most of these connections had been made. As early as May of 1901, a line running east from Fort Egbert had connected with the Canadian telegraph running from Dawson to Whitehorse to Skagway. From there, a message sent from Interior Alaska could go to Seattle by steamer, be sent on by telegraph, and reach Washington, D.C., within four days of origination. When the Canadians completed their line between Atlin and Quesnel, British Columbia, in September of 1901, a message from Alaska could go by wire all the way to Washington. By June of 1903, Fort Davis at Nome and Fort St. Michael, the farthest north American army posts, were in direct contact with Washington over 2,500 miles of American and Canadian telegraph lines.

The contact was frequently interrupted, however. Forest fires, vandalism, sleet, and high winds endangered the telegraph line. Soldiers stationed about every 40 miles along the line checked frequently for line breaks, but nothing could be done quickly about natural disasters such as the June 1903 fire that destroyed over 100 miles of telegraph line in the Tanana River valley.

The system, known as the Washington-to-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System or WAMCATS, kept expanding and improving.

Radio begins to replace the telegraph

Beginning in 1907, the army began to replace its telegraph wire with radio connections. Unlike the telegraph and telephone, which depend on wires to carry their electric currents, radio uses antennas to radiate its electronic signals through the air. As early as 1903, the army had used radio, or wireless as it was then called, for the Port Safety to Fort St. Michael section of its network after ice repeatedly destroyed the undersea cable between those two points. During its first year of operation, the radio between Port Safety and Fort St. Michael handled over one million words of commercial traffic. By 1908, the army had added radio stations at Nome, Fort Gibbon, Circle, Fairbanks, and Fort Egbert to its already existing stations at Port Safety and Fort St. Michael. At this time radio could not operate consistently over distances greater than 500 miles, so there had to be a chain of radio stations to relay messages over long distances. The army stations were to communicate with Seattle and San Francisco via U.S. Navy radio stations. Two were planned for Valdez and Sitka. The navy's Sitka station was operating by the end of 1907. The Valdez station was never built. Cordova assumed more importance than Valdez when it was selected as the port for the Copper River and Northwestern Railway that ran to copper mines in the Wrangell Mountains. A navy radio station opened at Cordova in 1908. By 1909 there were also civilian radio stations operating at Katalla, Juneau, and Ketchikan. The following year WAMCATS radio stations were also operating in Kotlik, Petersburg, and Wrangell.

WAMCATS kept expanding. By 1915 there were 55 WAMCATS stations, but its overland wire was reduced to 848 miles. By 1926 its only remaining telegraph link was the 11-mile section between Fort Egbert and the Canadian system.

WAMCATS contracts

The world-wide economic depression of the 1930s affected WAMCATS as it did all government agencies. Between 1933 and 1935 WAMCATS closed stations at Tacotna, Hot Springs, Circle, Eagle, Fort Yukon, St. Michael, Teller, Holy Cross, Wiseman, Livengood, Candle, Ruby, and Tanana. The number of stations closed indicate how ambitious the expansion program had been. Almost all of the expansion had been to serve the civilian community. In 1938, commercial and personal messages accounted for about 66 per cent of the traffic on the WAMCATS system (called the Alaska Communications System or ACS beginning in 1935), civilian government messages accounted for about 30 per cent of the traffic, and strictly military and naval messages accounted for only about 3 per cent of the traffic. Twenty-one ACS stations offered message and money transfer services.

Although the system developed after 1900 was a tremendous improvement over the total lack of telecommunications earlier, WAMCATS and ACS did not compare to the conveniences of the last half of the twentieth century. In order to use either the telegraph, cable, or radio service, a person had to go to one of the system's public offices. There, for 50 cents per 10 words or $1 for 25 words, a customer could print out the message he or she wished to send. The message was transmitted over the telegraph wires, cable, radio or a combination of these, by Morse code--a series of dots and dashes representing letters of the alphabet. In some cases, the message had to be relayed through several stations. When it finally arrived at its destination, an operator there copied down whatever letters came over the wire. The person to whom the message was addressed could then call at the WAMCATS office for it.

Long distance telephone service is limited

Long distance telephone service was available only on a limited basis. Local telephone service had begun in some Alaskan communities as early as the 1890s. By 1904 there were over 200 miles of privately-built telephone line strung on the Seward Peninsula. Long distance telephone service came into being as abandoned WAMCATS telegraph lines were converted to telephone use. One such link, privately operated, existed between St. Michael and Nulato from 1915 until 1943. Individuals also operated telephone service over abandoned WAMCATS telegraph lines between Hot Springs and Rampart and between Gulkana and Chistochina before 1920. While WAMCATS did operate some of its wires for both telephone and telegraph, such as the Chitina to Copper Center line built in 1924, it soon got out of the land line business altogether. In 1926 WAMCATS transferred its last long telegraph line, between Valdez and Fairbanks, to the Alaska Road Commission for telephone use. WAMCATS did not provide voice wireless, or radio telephone service, except between Juneau and Seattle, where it could tie in with the nationwide American Telephone & Telegraph phone system. Between July 1, 1938 and June 30, 1939 only 495 commercial calls passed over this circuit.

Alaskan telecommunications expand during world War II

The onset of world War II soon brought an end to civilian use of even this limited service. Between 1939 and 1941, a military build-up in Alaska caused army and navy traffic over ACS to increase by 200 per cent. This, together with the greater security afforded by cable, resulted in authorization to repair and renew cable operations between Alaska and Seattle that had been discontinued in 1931. After the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and became an active belligerent, civilian use of radio telephone links between Alaska and Seattle was discontinued.

The Alaska Communications System expanded rapidly to meet war-time demands as did other telecommunication facilities in Alaska. By the end of 1943, ACS was operating more than 40 of its own stations. Other government agencies also expanded their own Alaskan communications systems. The war also resulted in completion of the first overland telephone line from Alaska to the contiguous United States--along the newly-constructed Alaska Highway. Overall, 575 telecommunication stations were operating by the time military operations in Alaska began to decline between 1943 and 1945. War's end was a time of retrenchment for ACS, as it was for most other government agencies in Alaska. The Civil Aeronautics Administration or CAA, however, received funds to expand and improve an airfield radio network that it had begun in 1939. Soon the CAA was operating an Alaska-wide air navigation communication system.

Then the Cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union led to another military build-up in Alaska. A chain of radar stations was built in the early 1950s in Alaska to provide warning of air attacks. At first, high frequency radio tied together these stations and the airfields holding the fighter-interceptor aircraft they were to launch in the event of an attack. The radio proved to be unreliable, and a new communications system called "White Alice" (for Alaska integrated communications extension) was begun in 1955. Its 34 stations were completed in 1960. A complementary system along the arctic coasts of Alaska and Canada was called the Distant Early Warning or "DEW" line. Expansion of the system resulted in the construction of nearly 100 sites.

Unlike conventional radio transmissions which depended on radiating electronic signals along the earth's surface or bouncing them off the ionosphere (the layer of the atmosphere closest to the earth's surface) back to earth to be picked up by antennas, White Alice at first depended on tropospheric scatter. In this system of transmission, huge antenna like drive-in movie screens reflected high power radio signals to the troposphere (the layer of the atmosphere between the ionosphere and the stratosphere). While conventional radio signals often did not reach their intended objectives for various reasons, only a tiny portion of a White Alice signal had to be recaptured to complete a transmission. Later, microwave radio links, dependent on line-of-sight transmission, were added to White Alice but over 5,000 miles of its route operated through tropospheric scatter.

White Alice was of limited benefit to Alaska's civilian population. Its circuits were only available to the 15 communities adjacent to White Alice sites that had previously been served by the Alaska Communications System (which the army had transferred to the air force in 1962). Even so, by the early 1960s, White Alice's 6,000 route miles could absorb no more civilian traffic.

Satellites improve Alaskan communications

In 1968, Alaskan Congressman Howard Pollock chaired a Washington, D.C. symposium on "Satellite Communications Potential for Alaska." New methods of telecommunications for Alaska had to be developed. The space age had begun on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite, the world's first, which for 21 days had transmitted radio signals from space. By the late 1960s, Soviet and Canadian uses of satellites for communication were pointing the way for Alaska.

In 1967, however, remote communities in Alaska were served not by satellite but by 14 land radio stations that tied into 300 bush radios. Eighty-eight villages needed improved telephone service, 72 had only "bush" telephone service, and 16 had no telephone service at all. By 1970, 141 of Alaska's 287 communities still had no satisfactory telecommunication ties. Of the 146 with those ties, 84 depended on White Alice or less sophisticated systems. Sixty-two were linked to the rest of the world by microwave or cable systems.

Alaska telecommunications is transferred out of government

As early as 1905, General A. W. Greely, chief of the U.S. Army Signal Corps and in many ways founder of the WAMCATS, said that eventually private industry should operate long distance communications in Alaska. It was almost 70 years later, in 1969, that Congress authorized the U.S. Air Force to negotiate sale of the Alaska Communications System to a civilian firm. In August of that year, the Radio Corporation of America or RCA bought the system for over $28 million dollars.

When RCA purchased the Alaska Communications System, a new company called RCA ALASCOM was set up to operate the system. While maintaining the existing telecommunications systems, ALASCOM also initiated data transmission that allowed commercial users to move large quantities of information at high speed over its circuits. Previously this service had not been available to civilian users in Alaska.

As federal government gets out of telecommunications, private industry and the State of Alaska get in

About the time that RCA purchased the Alaska Communications System, federal policy on satellite use and ownership was changing. Previously, it had been thought that all satellites should be owned and controlled by the federal government. A new policy permitted private industry to launch and operate satellites. As a result of this policy change, ALASCOM was able to buy the satellite earth station at Talkeetna in 1972. In December of 1973 long distance telephone service to Outside via satellite began, and on December 30 of that year Alaskans saw their first live football games transmitted via satellite. The latter was a milestone in radio and television broadcasting in Alaska.

Broadcast radio and television are also parts of telecommunications

Radio broadcasting had a small start in Alaska much earlier. Broad-casting differs from point-to-point communications in that while the former are transmitted for the use of anyone who can manage to receive them, the latter are usually transmitted from one particular place to another and for particular addressees. Commercial and public radio and television stations that offer entertainment and news programs are examples of broadcast communication.

WLAY of Fairbanks was Alaska's first news and entertainment radio station. The Northern Commercial Company sponsored its daily two-hour schedule, begun in 1922. It lasted only a short time. When the company owner discovered that the station also had to carry advertising from competing stores he closed the station. About this same time, the Juneau electric and light company opened a station there, KFIU, which operated sporadically until 1931. In the interval, stations also opened in Anchorage and Ketchikan. By 1935, when the Federal Communications Commission began to supervise radio broadcasting, Alaska's broadcast radio stations were limited to KFQD, Anchorage, and KGBU, Ketchikan.

A new station in Juneau, KINY, and a station in Fairbanks, KFAR, went on the air in the 1930s. KFAR started at the instigation of Mariam Dickey, secretary to Alaska business leader Austin E. "Cap" Lathrop. Dickey did accounting and correspondence for Lathrop. She also scheduled films for his movie theaters and even served briefly as time-keeper at his Healy coal mines. Earlier, while studying at the University of Washington, Dickey had been employed at KFQw, a Seattle radio station. She urged Lathrop to start a radio station. When a Fairbanks committee asked Lathrop for money to help put up a statue of a sourdough, Lathrop said if he was going to do something for Alaska, he would rather put up a good radio station. As a result, Dickey moved to Fairbanks in 1938 to organize the station. KFAR, Fairbanks, went on the air on October 1, 1939.

Radio reception from these early stations was erratic. In Juneau, oil burners, milk shake mixers, and hair dryers interfered with KINY, which went on the air on May 31, 1935. Programs were either produced locally or were played from records purchased outside Alaska. Newspaper reporters did many of the news broadcasts, since the radio stations did not have access to national wire services.

It was not until 1937 that the Alaska Communications System brought in a Christmas Day program from New York for re-broadcast over KINY, Juneau. By May 1940, KFAR in Fairbanks was picking up radio broadcasts in the "lower 48" and re-broadcasting them in Alaska. Alaskans were thus able to hear speeches of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other world leaders. Stations in Anchorage and Ketchikan also began to re-broadcast national programs after affiliating with nationwide news networks.

During World War II, censorship imposed many restrictions on radio broadcasting. The war also brought armed forces broadcasting to Alaska, a service that benefited not only military listeners but civilians. The number of armed forces stations had dropped to seven by 1952.

Television broadcasting came to Alaska in 1953. KATY, Ketchikan, began cable television broadcasting in November of that year. The following month, KTVA, Anchorage, began regular broadcasting in December. By 1964, Alaska had five commercial television stations and 16 commercial radio stations. There was also one non-commercial radio station at the University of Alaska, 32 military radio stations, and 5 military television stations operating.

Although television stations were operating in some of Alaska's larger communities, programs from Outside had to be taped and the tapes flown to Alaska for broadcast. Most arrived several weeks after their original airing. Only the evening news, taped in Seattle and flown to Anchorage, was shown on the same day it was broadcast elsewhere. Even then, it was always several hours late and frequently did not arrive at all due to flying conditions. Satellite communications, in which signals were transmitted from earth to satellites and then relayed to Alaska, did provide a technical means of overcoming this. But satellites were limited and their use expensive. By special broadcast, however, Alaskans did see their first live television programming in July of 1969 when the moon walk of astronaut Neil Armstrong was broadcast live to Alaska.

The State of Alaska gets into telecommunications

When ALASCOM took over the Alaska Communications System in 1970, most Alaskan communities did not even receive radio broadcast service. A few of the larger settlements had their own commercial radio stations. Fewer still, near military bases, could listen to armed forces radio programming.

To correct this, in 1970 the State Legislature created an Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission. The commission was to subsidize non-profit corporations to operate radio stations where commercial stations were not feasible. By 1975, 90 per cent of Alaska's population could listen to one of 18 commercial or 6 public radio broadcasting stations. This set a precedent for state funding of other telecommunications activity.

Earth Satellite stations in Alaska.
With that precedent established, the state experimented with other publicly supported telecommunication programs. By 1974, 15 satellite earth stations were located in rural villages with an average population of 250. In 1975 the state provided $5 million for construction of small satellite earth stations to be located in 100 Alaskan communities. The small earth stations made possible public telephones, emergency medical communication, and eventually television in remote areas of Alaska. In 1976, the state supported television broadcasting of daytime educational programs and evening entertainment. In 191, a second channel devoted totally to educational broadcasting was established. Soon over 200 communities, most of which had been previously without television service, were participating in the state-subsidized programming. This was made possible by ALASCOM's privately-owned satellites and the state-funded small earth stations. The satellites were carrying 24-hour programming including news, education, and entertainment, and also over 50,000 long distance telephone calls each day.