How wireless telegraphy helped modernize Circle
The Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS) was an approximately 1,550-mile-long Alaska communications system built between 1900 and 1904. It linked a string of U.S. Army posts: Fort Davis in Nome, Fort St. Michael in St. Michael, Fort Gibbon in Tanana, Fort Egbert in Eagle and Fort Liscum in Valdez.
According to a 2010 doctoral dissertation on WAMCATS by Morgan Blanchard, original plans called for bringing telegraph lines from Norton Sound across the Nulato Hills and up the Yukon River through Tanana, Rampart and Circle City to Eagle. From Eagle, a line ran south to Valdez.
Lines reached Rampart by January 1902, but crews struggled fruitlessly to find a route across the Yukon Flats. An alternate route along Beaver Creek proved equally unfeasible.
Planners decided to run telegraph lines up the Tanana River instead. Crews began working on the new route in February 1902, and a link-up between the line from Nome and the Eagle-Valdez line was accomplished in June 1903.
Telegraph lines never reached Circle, but the community was not forgotten. Wireless telegraphy (radio) began supplementing and then replacing land-lines within a few years of the completion of the WAMCATS. The system’s operators built wireless stations throughout Alaska, and in 1908 a station (with a 200-foot tall antenna) was constructed in Circle.
The Circle station was of wood-frame construction, consisting of a 24-foot by 24-foot two-story gambrel-roofed front section housing offices and living quarters, and a 17-foot by 24-foot single-story gable-roofed rear section where the wireless generator and other equipment were located. Most of the building had shiplap siding, but the gambrel-end of the second story was sheathed with cedar shingles. The building originally had a covered front porch, but only its decking remains.
After Circle’s wireless station was completed, lines were run south to creeks in the Circle Mining District. The lines reached as far as Miller House at Mammoth Creek, 45 miles southwest of Circle, and went up many of the creeks.
Those telegraph lines were eventually converted to telephone service, which consisted of one multi-party line. Ruth Olson, a long-time resident of the Central area, related in a 1997 interview that every evening the wireless operator in Circle, as well as everyone with telephone access along the system would get on the phone. The operator called the roll, and someone at each phone location answered. If no one responded, then people knew something was amiss. After roll call, the operator read the daily news to those listening.
The Army, which was responsible for the system, eventually abandoned or transferred to private telephone companies most of the land-lines, including the lines from Circle to Miller House. Nels Rasmussen, a Circle-based freighter, became the first private owner of the Circle telephone system.
Because of economic difficulties during the Great Depression, between 1933 and 1935 many of the smaller, non-self-supporting wireless stations in Alaska were shut down. Circle’s station was one of those closed.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which operated Circle’s school, appropriated the building. The generator room became a classroom. Patricia Oakes wrote in an article in the 1983 book, “Education in Alaska’s Past,” that with its 11-foot ceilings, about 40 cords of wood per year were needed to heat the drafty, uninsulated building. Even after converting to oil heat it remained impossible to keep the building warm. The state of Alaska took over the school in 1959. A new school was constructed in 1965 and the old building abandoned.
The wireless station still survives, located between Willow and Alder streets a few hundred yards from the Yukon River. Obscured by trees, it sits decaying, with only the moss-covered concrete piers for the long-gone antenna keeping it company.
- Conversation with Earla Hutchinson, co-owner of H.C. Company Store in Circle
- “Ruth and Roy Olson interview by Sylvia Bouillion on 1-31 & 2-6-1997.” University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Collection
- “Teaching Conditions at Circle City: 1896-1966.” Patricia Oakes. Alaska Historical Society. In “Education in Alaska’s Past.” 1983
- “Wires, Wireless and Wilderness: a Sociotechnical Interpretation of Three Military Communication Stations on the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS).” Morgan R. Blanchard. University of Nevada, Reno. Doctoral dissertation. 2010