Book Review: "Continental Dash" by Rosemary Neering
Published by Horsdal & Shubart Pub Ltd
Publication date: June 1989
ISBN: 0920663079
Review by Gregory S. Raven, August 1997

This book covers in detail a little-known project to create a telegraphic link between North America with Europe. This was a huge project that would span British Columbia, Russian-America (Alaska), and Siberia. The "Western Union Extension Company" would connect with existing telegraph lines recently completed in Russia and the United States.

The project was initialized upon the failure of Cyrus Field's undersea cable in 1858. The man responsible for the concept was Perry McDonough Collins. Collins was a visionary who believed strongly in the concept of manifest destiny, and that United States influence should not stop at the Pacific Ocean but continue across the Pacific to Asia. He travelled extensively in Russia, and he became very familiar with the Russian Government and acted somewhat as an ambassador between Russia and the United States. It should be noted that relations between Russia and the United States were very friendly at the time.

Collins was able to convince Western Union President Hiram Sibley of the feasibility of constructing the line. The line would use the recently completed transcontinental telegraph, and then branching north from Salt Lake City it would build through British Columbia, across Russian-America, under the Bering Strait via an undersea cable, south through Siberia, and then along the Amur River to Irkutsk which had already been connected by telegraph to the rest of Russia. The total length of the extension project was 5000 miles. The undersea cable between North America and Europe was comparatively short at 2000 miles.

The book goes on to describe the organization of the project. A significant problem was the fact that most of the route was unexplored. Thus the initial deployments were to map and study the terrain to find the best route for the line. Several teams were dispatched around the North Pacific rim. The team dispatched to British Columbia actually built a working line several hundred miles into the territory. A team dispatched to Russian-America was not quite as fortunate, having been sent with insufficient supplies.

Two teams surveying the route on the Siberian section of the route encountered horrendous difficulties. Constant 50 below zero temperatures and lack of food made them realize the extreme difficulty of their task. Finally, their team leader Robert Kennicot apparently committed suicide after becoming distraught over the difficulties and lack of progress on the line.

The book describes in exhaustive detail the hardships encountered by the several teams scattered around the North Pacific rim. Obviously the men who took part in this project were incredibly tough by today's standards, and they believed anything was possible. It is remarkable that there were only 2 casualties during the several year course of this project, considering the adverse conditions encountered by the participants.

In 1866 the Atlantic was successfully spanned by telegraphic cable. This put an end to the Western Union Extension Company. Most of the participants were glad to hear the news, and were quick to return back to the States. Amazingly, a small group of the team in Siberia decided to return home via Siberia and Europe.

The book is a fascinating account of the doomed telegraph project. The book is well researched and includes incredible details on the expedition's travels which was made possible by the detailed logs kept by the team members. Fans of the telegraph and anyone who enjoys a great adventure story about the frozen north will like this book.

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