Building the Transcontinental Telegraph Lines / Westward Expansion America

When you research western history, one of the most significant events that helped the United States solidify itself was the creation of a transcontinental telegraph system. In fact, the telegraph system was the sole reason the Pony Express had such a short existence. The Pony Express ended at about the same moment that the last telegraph wires were joined together. It wasn’t even a surprise. Everyone well knew that the telegraph system to California would be completed more sooner than later. Pony Express riders would pass work crews stringing the lines.

Building of the Telegraph Lines

Pony Express rider passing telegraph line work crew

Very similar to how the transcontinental railroad would be completed in 1869, the telegraph lines built to transmit the Morse code translation, would be constructed from both ends simultaneously.

At the start of the Pony Express in 1860, lines from the east reached St. Joseph Missouri. From the west they reached Placerville California in the Sierra Nevada foothills. A Pony Express rider carrying a mochila with telegrams heading west from St. Joseph would drop them off in Placerville where they would then be telegraphed to San Francisco. St. Joseph Missouri would be the terminus for telegrams to be sent further east.

As you might expect, building the telegraph lines between Missouri and California was not the easiest job in the world. It all began in earnest with the passage of the Pacific Telegraph Act by Congress in 1860. So why was 1860 a pivotal year for communications?

The Telegraph and the Civil War

The public domain map below shows the route of the first Transcontinental Telegraph line. The lines used to send and translate Morse code to text would change America’s communication systems forever.

The year 1860 marked the beginnings of the American Civil War. California became a state in 1850, at a time when the California Gold Rush was in full swing. The United States was spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific with a lot of frontier in between. The federal government needed some way to communicate rapidly with it’s far flung state of California.

To demonstrate the problem, a letter sent from Washington D.C. to San Francisco California in 1860, prior to the Pony Express, had two options to be delivered. In the 1850’s, the method was by Pacific Mail ship from San Francisco to Panama, then through the Panamanian jungles to another ship on it’s east coast, then on to Washington D.C. or New York. This was a journey of perhaps two months. If the ship happened to be using the Cape Horn route, it would take longer.

he second method came into being in 1858. This was the Butterfield Overland Mail Stage Line which ran from Missouri to California via the southwest. The Butterfield route via El Paso and San Diego was scheduled to take about twenty-five days covering it’s 2,795 mile distance. Not fast, but a marked improvement over the steamer mail service. What was fast was the Pony Express system which made the Missouri to California trek through the middle of the country in ten days. In fact, prior to the telegraph, this was considered lightning speed.

Pony Express Postmark

Several other telegraph bills were passed by Congress, and one of those appropriated $40,000 a year, for ten years, toward the building and maintenance of a telegraph line between the Atlantic and Pacific States.

The mergers and consolidations that would be the history of the later railroads, were similar to what was being set up to construct the transcontinental telegraph. The various California telegraph companies would merge together to build the line from California to Salt Lake City. The Western Union, who was awarded the contract, would build from Salt Lake City eastward. The California companies did formally  meet and agree on their consolidation. The new California telegraph company was named the Overland Telegraph Company with capital of $1,250,000. They would complete a telegraph line from San Francisco to Salt Lake City.

Building the telegraph lines between Omaha Nebraska and California presented a host of problems. Materials were put together in the latter part of 1860. Major problems in supplying the construction crews were overcome but there was a constant shortage of sources of telegraph poles on the Midwest plains and the deserts of the western portions.

The Civil War made heavy demands on both labor and supplies. Add to this the task of completing the line over the high and rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains. Materials for the western section were shipped around the Cape Horn to San Francisco, a similar route as taken by many prospectors heading to the California Gold Rush a decade earlier.

In addition to the geographic difficulties, there was always some threat of Indian attack. The Indians were a bit perplexed as to what exactly was going on. Watching work crews stringing wire from pole to pole raised there curiosity. It was reported that many Indians thought that the wire represented some sort of mystical powers not really understanding the concept of electricity flowing over wires. As a side note, there was an effort made prior to the construction of the line to try to explain to the Indians what was about to occur and why.

Western Union Telegraph Key, circa 1900

Edward Creighton, a Western Union general agent, organized two teams of builders, one to work on the line from the West , the other from the East. On October 18, 1861, the workers of the one subcontractor, Pacific Telegraph Co. reached Salt lake City. This completed the eastern section of the line out of Omaha. The western section was shorter in mileage but the terrain was quite different. The western section of the telegraph was finally completed on October 24, 1861. This date marked the time that the Pony Express system was considered obsolete.

An historic event took place immediately upon completion of the line. Using the key telegraph system in Morse code, a message was telegraphed to President Abraham Lincoln from the president of the Overland telegraph Company which officially read, “I announce to you that the telegraph to California has this day been completed. May it be a bond of perpetuity between the states of the Atlantic and those of the Pacific.” Truly, this was a major milestone in communication and unified the country as never before. The Morse code sound traveled across the country at virtually the speed of light.

Here are links to two other articles you should find interesting regarding the westward expansion in America. The Pony Express Trail in California and the story of the Central Pacific Railroad, a part of the first transcontinental railroad.

On our Western Trips site you’ll enjoy the article on The Great Train Robbery and the Union Pacific Posse.

Visit the Locust Grove Museum

There’s an interesting historic site tied in with the transcontinental telegraph system. Locust Grove is a villa in the Italianate style designed in 1850 for artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse by architect Alexander Jackson Davis. None of the original furnishings survive from the Morse family’s years at Locust Grove. Of special interest however is that the Museum Pavilion is the home of a permanent exhibit that explores Samuel Morse’s two careers, first as an artist and later as the inventor of the telegraph and Morse Code.

William and Martha Young brought a new vision to Locust Grove after acquiring the estate from Morse’s heirs in 1895.  According to the Locust Grove Museum, In 1975 Annette Innis Young, the last member of the Young family to live at Locust Grove, created a not-for-profit foundation to preserve the estate for “the enjoyment, visitation, and enlightenment of the public.”  Her bequest included more than 125 acres of gardens and grounds. The Locust Grove Estate is located at 2683 South Road, Poughkeepsie, NY .

(Western Union telegraph key photo is from author’s private collection. Other images shown are in the public domain)

 

 

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