Black, White, and Read All Over: News Wire Access in Alaska

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WAMCATS telegraph tower at Fort Gibbon, Alaska.

One quirk of the Alaska Digital Newspaper Project is the prevalence of news coverage from all over the world. One would think that the remoteness of Alaska would make it difficult to receive news coverage from all over the state, much less the rest of the Lower 48. Instead, world news dominates the headlines of Alaska papers such as The Nome Nugget and The Cordova Daily Times with very little local news coverage; the Alaska Daily Empire is a member of the AP wire service.

This begs the question: How did Alaskans get wire news service?

The sheer remoteness of Alaska, especially during its days as a US territory, fueled demand for national news and world events. People from connected villages depended on dogsleds to deliver news and letters. The Klondike Gold Rush expedited this need for news with miners anxious to read about events in the Lower 48. In 1900, $450,000 Congress approved funding for the U.S. Army Signal Corps to construct cable and telegraph connections between outposts in Washington state and Alaska, called the Washington Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System: “WAMCATS” for short.

 

 

These signal outposts were vital in transmitting radio and wire service- not only from the Lower 48, but throughout the state as well. In 1902, The Alaskan from Skagway and The Record-Miner from Juneau became the first Alaska newspapers to use WAMCATS to receive news bulletins that were then printed in papers. Newsrooms first used a “telegraph typewriter” or “teletypewriter” in 1914 by Melville E. Stone, general manager of Associated Press. The introduction of a teleprinter, which transmitted directly to printers over telegraph wires (60 words per minute), further hastened the spread of information.

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Image credit: The Cordova daily times. (Cordova, Alaska), 26 Jan. 1922. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072239/1922-01-26/ed-1/seq-4/>

On May 15, 1936 WAMCATS was renamed the U.S. Army Alaska Communications System, which remained under the control of the Army Signal Corps until 1962, when it was taken over by the U.S. Air Force.

The WAMCATS Army-built telegraph was the first major contribution to Alaskan infrastructure funded by the U.S. federal government. We owe the wide-ranging news items featured in Alaska’s historical newspapers to this massive effort- completed in a mere 5 years, no less. Today it’s easy to take worldwide connectivity through the Internet for granted. But this development through radio and newspapers meant giving Alaskans the ability to read about events outside the territory- and to feel more connected to the rest of the world.

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Image credit: The Alaska daily empire. (Juneau, Alaska), 19 Nov. 1917. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020657/1917-11-19/ed-1/seq-4/>

wamcats float

Parade float commemorating 50 years of WAMCATS. Image credit: From the John Sigler Photograph Collection as part of Alaska and Polar Regions Collections, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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