After the development of efficient telegraph systems in the 1830s,
their use saw almost explosive growth in the 1840s. Samuel Morse's
first experimental line between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore – the
Baltimore-Washington telegraph line – was demonstrated on May 24, 1844.
By 1850 there were lines covering most of the eastern states, and a
separate network of lines was soon constructed in the booming economy
California was admitted to the United States in 1850, the first state
on the Pacific coast. Major efforts ensued to integrate California with
the other states, including sea, overland mail pioneered by George
Chorpenning, the Pony Express, and passenger services such as
Butterfield Overland Mail. Proposals for the subsidy of a telegraph
line to California were made in Congress throughout the 1850s, and in
1860 the U.S. Post Office was authorized to spend $40,000 per year to
build and maintain an overland line. The year before, the California
State Legislature had authorized a similar subsidy of $6,000 per year.
Construction of the first transcontinental telegraph was the work of
Western Union, which Hiram Sibley and Ezra Cornell had established in
1856 by merging companies operating east of the Mississippi
River. A second significant step was the passing of the Telegraph
Act by the Congress in 1860, which authorized the government to open
bids for the construction of a telegraph line between Missouri and
California and regulated the service to be provided. Eventually, the
only bidder would be Sibley, because all competitors—Theodore Adams,
Benjamin Ficklin and John Harmon—withdrew at the last minute. Later
they joined Sibley in his effort.
Similar to the First Transcontinental Railroad, elimination of the gap
in the telegraph service between Fort Kearny in Nebraska and Fort
Churchill in Nevada was planned to be divided between teams that would
be advancing the construction in opposite directions. The Pacific
Telegraph Company would build west from Nebraska and the Overland
Telegraph Company would build east from Nevada's connection to the
California system. James Gamble, an experienced telegraph builder
in California, was put in charge of the western crew, and Edward
Creighton was responsible for the eastern crew. From Salt Lake City, a
crew in charge of James Street advanced westward, and W.H. Stebbins’s
grew eastward toward Fort Kearny. Creighton’s crew erected its first
pole on 4 July 1861. When the project was completed in October 1861,
they had planted 27,500 poles holding 2,000 miles (3,200 km) of
single-strand iron wire over a terrain that was not always
inviting. California Chief Justice Stephen Field sent one of the
first messages from San Francisco to Abraham Lincoln, using the
occasion to assure the president of California's allegiance to the
Union. Note that the construction took place while Civil War fighting
was taking place to the southeast. The entire cost of the system was
half a million dollars.
Route of the first transcontinental telegraph Operation
Double-click this map for a very large version.
Difficulties did not stop with the completion of the project. Keeping
it in operation faced multiple problems: (a) inclement weather in the
form of lightning bolts, strong winds and heavy snow damaged both poles
and the wire; (b) rubbing on the poles by bison from time to time sent
down sections of the telegraph, eventually contributing to their
demise; (c) the system had to be rerouted through Chicago to avoid
Confederate attempts to cut the line in Missouri to disrupt
communications among Union forces; (d) Native Americans soon started to
do the same further west as part of their hostilities with the Army.
Financially, the First Transcontinental Telegraph was a big success
from the beginning. The charge during the first week of operation was a
dollar a word, which was higher than the 30 cents specified by the
Telegraph Act of 1860.
The telegraph line immediately made the Pony Express obsolete, which officially ceased operations two days later. The
overland telegraph line was operated until 1869, when it was replaced
by a multi-line telegraph that had been constructed alongside the route
of the First Transcontinental Railroad.
or continue to May 10, 2019
150th Celebration of the driving of the golden spike.