Western Union Telegraph Company to Mr. Seward

Sir: This company having, after a careful examination of all the facts in the ease, deter mined to suspend work on the construction of the Russian American (Collins’s Overland) telegraph, deem it due alike to our own honor and to the services you have so generously and intelligently rendered us in this international undertaking, frankly and fully to state the causes which have led us to such a decision.

This seems the more demanded of us, since, in the primary arrangements for prosecuting this vast work, this company has, to some extent, appeared to stand in the place of the American, government, in the’ reception of grants, concessions and courtesies from other nations; and which your commendation of the enterprise to national and governmental approbation has largely served to secure.

Of all the initiatory arrangements connected with the Russian telegraph, you are fully informed. The grants of the British and Russian governments were complete and satisfactory. A general and thorough examination of the entire route, chiefly by the inspection of [Page 386] the company’s agents, was made. The aid of governmental surveys the records of explorers, the testimony of the government officers in the regions to be traversed, had established the absence of physical obstacles to its construction, and the work was commenced with everything to indicate success.

Acting upon all the information thus obtained, and satisfied of the public need of connection with Europe, which this route seemed to all minds to most certainly secure, stimulated moreover thereto by the feeling of disappointment created by the failure of the Atlantic cable in 1858, the work was immediately, commenced.

Men of experience and enterprise were despatched, with large bodies of assistants, to different points of the American and Asiatic coast, and, until a recent date, the work was prosecuted with all the vigor which capital and intelligent labor could secure.

The lines of this company having been completed to New Westminster, the capital of British Columbia, that city became the starting-point for the line to Russia. With greater ease than the building of the line from Chicago to San Francisco, 850 miles of line Were erected, and the wires connected to the banks of the Simpson river. Beyond, it only needed a vigorous and intelligent commissariat to overcome the difficulties of transportation, and push the construction of the line to the Behring’s sea and on to the terminal point at the mouth of the Amoor.

Such was our confidence in the success of the undertaking, in the favorable reports made by our own explorers and the topographical engineers of Russia, Great Britain and our own country, that the material for the whole line was purchased and distribution at various convenient points commenced, and such progress made on both continents as would have secured the completion of the entire structure within the present or succeeding year. Indeed, at every forward step made in this great work, difficulties diminished as resolute hands approached them, and were found to be fewer than were contemplated. Not only so, but most important information respecting the navigable character of the northern rivers has been secured.

The Steekern has been found to be navigable for boats of considerable size, for 150 miles from its mouth, and steam vessels can ascend the Kvitchpack and Yokon river for probably 1,000 miles from the Pacific—two facts of great importance, and furnishing unexpected aid in the distribution! of material. On the Asiatic side our explorations have also proved that the Anader river can be navigated at least 250 miles from the sea, and that there is abundance of timber on its upper waters suitable for our purposes. Everything conspired to render the whole scheme more and more practicable as the labor upon it progressed; no want of capital, no physical difficulty, no doubt of our ability to complete the work contemplated, led to our recent determination to suspend operations thereon. The cause of that suspension we now proceed to state.

The successful laying of the Atlantic cable in 1866 developed, in process of time, several important facts, as unexpected to the company who laid it as to the public who took interest in such matters.

1. The ability of a cable of two thousand miles in length, sunk in the ocean, to convey the manipulations of the telegraph successfully, and for any length of time, through it, was a matter of almost universal doubt. Nothing aided more to strengthen that impression than the record kept by the electricians on board the government vessels which bore the respective portions of the cable in 1858 from mid-ocean to the shores of the two continents. Weak, vari able, uncertain, there seemed no exhibition of a power to predicate the supply of commercial communication thereon, at least so far as public knowledge of that interesting voyage was received. And when it reached the shores, and all the world seemed eager to talk through it, it was found that outside of a few feeble utterances, which to this day are erroneously believed by many never to have been made, the cable was simply a success of engineering skill in stretching a dumb bond between the Old World and the New.

Experiments in Europe with subterranean and extended submarine lines were unsatisfactory and discouraging They generally revealed such a detention of the electric fluid, such a want of ability to perform prompt and accumulated service, as to discourage their general use. The current through the cable was known to be of such tenuity that the human eye could not catch the motions of the mechanism, except by the aid of a strong light applied to the motive part, revealing by radiation on the wall the pulsations which the finger could not feel and the eye could not detect. To satisfy European commerce by such means seemed impossible, Even had the cable continued to work, it was reasonable to presume that with so slow a process of transmission there was business enough for the quicker manipulation of a telegraph by land, although it was obliged to shoot its messages over three-fourths of the surface of the globe.

2. The character of our population and commerce gave every assurance that the business between America and Europe would be immense. With several millions of our resident population united by the closest ties, and bound up in affections even stronger than our own with the firesides of the fatherland; with a commercial intercourse so active that the mariner on the Atlantic can seldom scan the stormiest horizon without sight of a friendly sail or the cloud of a passing steamer, it was fair to presume that the intercourse would be vast and pressing. And to the Russian line were added other incentives. No doubt existed of the completion of arrangements by which, on reaching eastern Asia, lines from China and India, [Page 387] with the immense trade of the east, would meet us with their business, and that even Japan might add to its bulk and value.

All these inducements have been destroyed. In every single particular they have proved illusory. Science has so perfected the art of cable-making that the cables now in use, and which were laid so successfully during the past year, are almost as efficient as lines on the land.

They are worked with little cost. In from four to six hours of each day there is transmitted. by one of the Atlantic Telegraph Company’s cables all the business the public offer. The cables improve by use. They are picked up in mid-ocean and repaired with almost as much ease as if in some inland quiet lake, so that cables for many years abandoned as lost are found again, unharmed, and put to use. The concessions, also, in eastern China, so confidently expeeted are withheld. Thus every material inducement to prosecute the construction of the Russian line appears to be at once and forever swept away.

Under such circumstances, what was our duty? Government, for the sake of national pride and governmental uses, might have been justified in pushing the work to completion, even should it cost a large sum annually to sustain it. Russia must, before many years, reach New Archangel, in America, by telegraph, for the simple purposes of her governmental arrangements. But we could not properly employ the capital intrusted to us, except under promise of reasonable return from its investment.

The proof that the basis of revenue had been removed, was only needed to-be complete to make the duty of at once stopping the whole work a stern, peremptory necessity. That proof we have been month after month receiving. So clear and cumulative has that evidence been, that we have been compelled, though with great reluctance, to acknowledge its completeness and power. All doubts concerning the capacity and efficiency of the ocean cables are now dispelled, and the work of construction on the Russian line, after an expenditure of nearly three millions of dollars, has been discontinued.

What now remains to be done? What can this company do, to meet all the possible demands of honor or duty? On this point we desire your friendly co-operation.

The following appears to us to be within our power, and we submit it for your consideration:

Although we deeply regret that we are unable to avail ourselves of the generous and valuable concessions granted to us through P. McD, Collins, esquire, by the Russian gov ernment, yet such must be the value of the lines already built by the Russian government towards America, in connection with these arrangements, that we cannot regard that friendly and enterprising government as having suffered or as likely to suffer loss therefrom. So far from this, we believe that it must soon become necessary to all governments to reach by telegraph their most distant provinces, and this must be peculiarly so to Russia, whose American territory is not only distant but difficult and tedious of approach.

Could that government be induced to prosecute the work now interrupted, to some available point in her North American possessions, we will extend and maintain our lines thither, and thus all the objects sought by the respective governments for intercourse would be secured. Time and the gradual opening of auxiliary sources of business would develop a revenue which would recompense the parties for the outlay and delay. Beyond this we are unable to see our ability to go, under the circumstances already narrated.

These matters are commended to your attention. It has occurred to us that you might, through our minister at the Russian court, so represent these circumstances, so unexpected and embarrassing to us, as to preserve us in the esteem and favor of that intelligent government and lead us to the accomplishment of our mutual designs. By rendering such a service you would place us again under those obligations which your former friendly offices have made so large and manifest, and happily lead to the very results which, in these labors, we have so earnestly and hopefully aimed to secure.

Nor would it be a service to this company alone. Your communication of May 14, 1864, to the Committee on Commerce in the Senate of the United States, has placed this enterprise on higher ground, and associated it with broader interests. You have claimed it as one of the means of communication with foreign countries, necessary to national respect, as well as to healthy commerce. You have regarded the use of the telegraph by government, wherever possible, as essential, in order to inspire respect, confidence, and good will toward us, and so securing to all peace. Entering still deeper into the sources of national happiness, your position at the government centre of the nation has enabled you to see that with the planting of the American flag on the Pacific coast it is due to the rising States resting thereon, to afford them all the means of equal civilization enjoyed on the shores of the Atlantic. The outlook of the one is Asia; of the other, Europe. Foreign commerce is as necessary for the one as the other.

These have ever proved the harbingers of enlightenment, prosperity, and power. As a purely national measure, we are anxious to adopt, even under our altered circumstances, every consistent means to give the Pacific coast all the elements of vigor and prosperity which on the Atlantic we enjoy.

And when, in expressing your estimate of the value of the telegraph, as affecting our relations with foreign nations, you stated your conviction that “no one measure of national policy would more effectually tend to secure the preservation of peace than the construction [Page 388] of this intercontinental telegraph,” you expressed the strongest arguments we can employ in asking you again to give the weight of your official position toward accomplishing the work we entered upon with so much enthusiasm, and have interrupted with so much regret.

We have the honor to be, with great respect, your obedient servants,


O. H. PALMER, Secretary.

Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.