Flight has solved many problems in the North, where transport by road and rail often remains impossible due to frigid temperatures and the shifting ground; which happens when terrain goes through extreme freeze and thaw cycles. Flying in the Far North can present as many problems as it solves, such as navigating in a place where the ground is the same colour as the sky. Inevitably, where aircraft were needed, so too were telegraphers. It was once the highly skilled Brass Pounders, as they were colloquially known, who controlled the northern skies.
Russ Travers was the telegrapher in charge of the control tower at Swift Current, Saskatchewan in 1939 when Canada answered the call to go to war. In 1941, he, like many other telegraphers, pilots and mechanics, took the road north to shore up the air infrastructure on our Arctic borders. When Travers arrived in Whitehorse, it was still a dust town with a population of 600, where city lots could be purchased for $15 apiece. Russ notes that these lots had, “… been unsold for 40 years and I was no sucker, so I declined.” Few could have anticipated the boom that was about to strike. Within a year, “… they went for $500 each and the year after that they could not be bought at any price.” With the development of refineries in the area and the new Alaska Highway, the population of Whitehorse had soared to 30,000 by 1943, and they were there to stay.
Telegraphy was a specialised skill, which put the Brass Pounder in high demand. In Whitehorse, there were four operator positions that had to be staffed around the clock. With no landline in place until 1944, “Every word was handled by two operators – one sending and one receiving.” Every aircraft that flew needed a flight plan, as well as en route position reports and an arrival message. All of it was transmitted by code, which only the Brass Pounders themselves could decipher. From minute to minute, dozens of people’s lives depended on those swiftly clicking fingers in the telegraph booth.
With the introduction of radio to the far reaches of the Canadian North, the telegrapher became an extinct breed. Anyone with a clear voice and a background in electronics could be a radio operator, and many of the old telegraphers, their swift fingers no longer needed, had to find new careers as technicians or managers. However, in their heyday, no one could replace the Brass Pounder at his post. Russ Travers fondly reflects on their proud tradition, “They practiced an arcane skill and while it lasted they were royalty.”