Story last updated at 1/30/2013 - 2:11 pm
The 7.5 earthquake on Jan. 5 of this year caused quite a commotion, with people waking in moving beds and sounds of things falling, rooms seeming to sway. Although Craig was the nearest to the quake off-shore, in Southeast it was Wrangell that took the brunt of the damage. People who subscribe to GCI's services lost their internet, telephone and television. The fiber optic cables, that made those services possible, had broken. Rumors flew around town. GCI funded free videos at City Market. What about all those football fans and the playoff games? Bars opened to provide coverage. Friends joined friends with alternate TV providers for the collegiate playoffs.
Telephone and internet came up in a day or so. However, it took time for GCI to locate the two breaks that were on the ocean bottom.
All of this brought to mind the troubles with the early underwater telegraph lines that broke many more times, cutting off important communication with not only Southeast Alaska, but Valdez and the Interior. How did the GCI experience differ from earlier communication cables in Alaska?
Submarine cables are not new. The first telegraph cable was laid in 1850 between Dover, England, and Calais, France, under the English Channel. It wasn't until the early 1900s before Alaska first could communicate by cable.
Congress established the Washington-Alaska Military Cable, the acronym WAMCATS, in May 1903 as a branch of the United State Army Signal Corps. The "Burnside", a prize of the Spanish-American War, was purchased because it had the capacity to carry and lay cable in the sea.
From her, the first steel cable was laid that year from Seattle to Valdez. From there, long, overland lines were placed to the Interior.
The decision for the government to lay the ocean cable was in the interest of war, rather than commerce. It linked Alaska Army garrisons with the continental United States. This cable filled the void in rapid communications in Alaska. If there was no war, telegraph offices could send telegraphs for commercial purposes at 10 cents per word.
By 1927 the submarine cable was 2,524 miles long. It extended from Seattle to Sitka, Sitka to Valdez, Valdez to Seward. There were branch lines from Sitka to Juneau, from Juneau to Haines, Haines to Skagway, Cape Fanshaw in Frederick Sound to Wrangell, Wrangell to the copper smelter at Hadley and from Hadley to Ketchikan. In comparison, 86 years later in 1913, GCI has many more thousands of miles including its branch lines.
The biggest difference between "Now and Then" is undoubtedly the cable itself. Wrangellite Barb Rugo told me her dad was involved in early steel cable production. He said that the first cables could only transmit one or two messages at a time. Today, fiber optic cable has the capacity to carry an enormous amount of data.
For fiber-optic cables, many glass fibers smaller than the size of a hair are placed in a fiber cell the size of a small pencil. The final cable, with insulation and steel-strength binding, is between two to three inches in width.
In comparison, the old cable was covered on the outside with steel. Inside it had a gutta percha core, in which the communications lines were embedded. Gutta perca is manufactured from a Malayan gum tree. When the sap is purified and coagulated, it is soft and plastic when warm. It does not conduct electricity so it was perfect to coat the copper telegraph wire. This gum was replaced with the advent of plastic in the 1930s.
This steel cable was thin in diameter, carrying only 10 wires. Perhaps that is why it broke more easily. None of the government reports mention earthquakes as a possible cause. The Alaskan governor in his annual report for 1910 stated that the ocean cable "is becoming badly worn in several places. This is natural deterioration ..." In 1911, there were 50 reports of broken cables. The next year frequent "interruptions" were reported. In 1927, the cable service was interrupted "188 days, 8 hours and 21 minutes," according to that year's governor's report.
How was the WAMCAT line repaired? The "Burnside" and, after 1913 the "Dellwood" cable ship, sailed from Seattle to where the break was suspected to be. Sometimes this was easy: a ship had anchored and broken the cable. The "Dellwood" had a sonic depth finder, a model that had been developed during World War I. It told the depths when the cable left the reel. The captain, when the cable was laid, undoubtedly kept track of the depths and compass settings. Once the break was located, a large grappling hook was used to pull up the cable. Repair men spliced in new sections.
For the GCI break near Wrangell, the Ketchikan paper reported that the fiber optic cable had broken in two places. The southern portion of the cable was used mostly when needed. The Alaska cable, installed in 2008, forms rings, like such cables do worldwide today. If there is a break in the ring, the data would be re-routed in the other direction around the ring. This time Wrangell was not lucky. Wrangell was left between the southern and northern breaks.
The 460-foot "Wave Venture" came to Wrangell on Jan. 10 and most of us watched her maneuvering in Zimovia Strait in front of town and near Heritage Harbor. How did she find the broken spots under the water? She carried sophisticated computer equipment that could trace the cable to find interruptions. Sometimes the vessel can use a submersible repair unit. Other times the cable is brought aboard, with the broken ends buoyed, and spliced, tested and laid on the seafloor once again.
"Dellwood" and the "Wave Venture" used the same method of bringing a cable aboard. They each used a grappling hook. The latter ship's grapple was six-to-eight feet wide with six hooks. The "Dellwood" crews only did splicing repairs aboard the ship.
In 1936, the name "Washington-Alaska Military Cable" became Alaska Communication System or as most of us shortened it, ACS.
What became of all those cables of yore? Harvey Gilliland, Petersburg, tells me that there are remains of these cables lying on the bottom of the ocean today. Most of us are unaware of them. I looked at the marine charts aboard the "Twinkle" and found there are areas, near towns and ports, marked with dashes and "cable abandoned." Don't anchor there or you may never see your fouled anchor again!
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.