The White Alice Communications system (WACS) in Alaska is significant in the areas of communications and the military. Although less than 50 years old (the original two installations, Boswell Bay and Neklasson Lake, opened in 1956), the WACS is historically significant because it was perceived as vital to national defense. It is an example of a technology that evolved so rapidly that its development, achievement peak, and obsolescence occurred within 10 years. Militarily, the system is a significant example of the extent to which the nation would go to avoid another Pearl Harbor. During the Cold War Era, the United States kept a high state of military preparedness and the civilian population was psychologically keyed to a state of war. The WACS reflects this period in American history.

Prior to the installation of the WACS, communications were so primitive that only one telephone call could travel between Fairbanks and Nome at a time. Telecommunications functioned strictly by line-of-sight and there was no way to make long distance "hops" for rapid transmission of information. Simultaneous, multi-voice channels were only dreamt of. WACS changed all that. A new technology, involving the beaming of radio signals from a parabolic transmitting antenna, up to the sky, and back down to a receiving antenna, enabled remote areas of Alaska to be in contact with each other. The idea of bouncing radio signals into the atmosphere, in this case, the troposphere, and receiving that same signal 200 miles away, was truly revolutionary in its day. In fact, it would have reminded some Alaskans of Jules Verne or Buck Rogers. As revolutionary as the WACS was, it was eclipsed by another technology less than a generation later. In the mld-1960’s, after WACS was in place, to telephone the "lower ‘48", the Anchorage resident could only place the call at one place located downtown. Until the mid-1970’s, television broadcasts were flown up daily from Seattle. If Seattle was fogged in, yesterday’s six o’clock news was rebroadcast. Satellite technology has changed all that. Satellite telecommunications also rendered White Alice obsolete. The remaining tropo stations which dot the landscape are being demolished. The smaller microwave stations are still in use, although they are no longer state-of-the-art.

The history of communications in Alaska is synonymous with the role of the military. Beginning with WAMCATS (see below) at the turn of the century, a project which intimately involved then Lieutenant Billy Mitchell, the task of long-distance communications fell to the War Department. During the Gold Rush, when garrisons were built to keep law and order, telegraph lines spanned the state and relayed important information back to Washington, D.C. The military provided Alaska’s only communications links to the lower ‘48 until the advent of satellite technology. This means, of course, that the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army were responsible for the inception, construction, operations and maintenance of the WACS. The Cold War Era and the Nation’s concern for national defense were the impetus for the WACS and the related systems discussed below. Projects such as White Alice were always designed for a military mission, although they increasingly served the private sector as well. Finally, with the passage of the "Alaska Communications Disposal Act," in 1967, the military began to divest itself of this responsibility. Today, long-distance telecommunications is accomplished by private corporations.

What is striking about the history of communications in Alaska is that the same challenges have faced each major project from the earliest plans up until the satellite era, beginning in the 1960’s: extremes in weather; unexplored, vast and inhospitable stretches of terrain, and extreme isolation. As long ago as the 1850’s, telegraph lines were proposed for Russian Alaska to facilitate communications between North American and Eurasia. The Western Union Telegraph Expedition (WUTE) began construction in a line in about 1866, but it was never completed. Remnants can be seen on the Seward Peninsula. The first functioning telegraph was the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS), completed by 1904.

It was the Gold Rush with its influx of prospectors and the founding of garrisons to preserve the peace in early population centers that created the need for WAMCATS. Although the system was military, the act of Congress authorizing its construction specifically stated that commercial service would be provided when possible. WAMCATS overland routes consisted of single poles supporting a wire, where possible, or a tripod in muskeg and swamp. The lines connected Fort Egbert (Eagle) to Fort Liscum (Valdez) and Fort Gibbon (Tanana) to St. Michael. Later, a submarine cable was laid from Skagway to Seattle, a distance of 1710 miles. The world’s longest wireless section, 107 miles, jumped the distance between Port Safety (near Nome) and St. Michael (Jenne and Mitchell 1982). This is also believed to be the first wireless telegraph system in the world which handled commercial messages and the first point-to-point wireless channel on the American continent for commercial operations.

WAMCATS lines lasted longer than the five years expected, but as sections gave out, wireless communication replaced open wire sections. In 1936, Congress recognized WAMCATS as the Alaska Communications System (ACS). ACS sites became the locations for the increasingly popular radio telephone. By 1934, Marshal, St. Michael, Juneau, Ketchikan, Fairbanks, Nome and Bethel had radio telephones. The system was maintained by the military (the War Department), although the location of some radio-phones in the local store facilitated transfer to commercial ownership in some instances. By the late 1930’s, WAMCATS lines were failing in many places. Disturbances brought about by the Northern Lights inhibited high frequency (HF) radio communications. Medium frequency (MF) transmission was not affected by these disturbances, thus, medium frequency was modernized and expanded, while older high frequency systems were not.

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