The planning for communications projects seeking to traverse the North American Arctic and link communities with high-speed, global Internet access, brings to mind events that played out in the Bering Strait region more than 150 years ago. Between years 1865 and 1867, our region was the westernmost extension of a project that would join Europe and North America with a telegraph cable across the Bering Strait.
In 1865, a crew working for the Western Union Telegraph Expedition set up a camp in St. Michael, then the location of a Russian outpost and village composed of Yup’ik and Inupiat residents. The goal of the expedition was to build a telegraph line from Nulato to St. Michael and Unalakleet, then on to Port Clarence and Wales and finally across the Bering Strait. Even though the competing Trans-Atlantic cable was successfully laid in July of 1866, a crew arrived near present day Teller that year and constructed four buildings, naming the place Libbysville.
During their time in the Bering Strait region, the Western Union employees relied on the residents for food and to guide and assist in their travels. In the records of the expedition, it was noted that they came to know the “chiefs” of many of the communities: “Itak-tak” and “Aya-pana” of Igniituk (Rocky Point), “Attzik” of Fish River, “Kamokin” of Kawerak, “Illiac” of Wales, “Alluyianauk” (a Malemiut) from Unalakleet, and “Utamanna” of Cape Douglas. They visited villages at Unalakleet, Egavik, Koyuk, Kwik River, Rocky Point (Igniituk), Cape Darby (Atnuk), Nook, Cape Douglas, Peluzuk, Walse, and others along the inland waterways.
During the spring of 1867, the Norton Bay crew had erected 45 miles of poles, but was informed that the Trans-Atlantic cable was successfully completed and their work was to be abandoned. Today’s race to link the continents with faster and more efficient fiber-optic communication could bring more reliable Internet to our communities. We hope this program succeeds and look forward to a time when our communities’ Internet access is as efficient and fast as the rest of the United States.