Living History: In the 1800s, the telegraph connects America
Faster than lightning and foreshadowing the Internet, on Oct. 24, 1861, when the "wire rope express" from America's Pacific and Atlantic coasts connected midway in Salt Lake City, the transcontinental telegraph line electrically united the nation during a time of secession, Civil War and change.
That day, amid key clacks and sounders, California Chief Justice Stephen J. Field dispatched the first transcontinental message to President Abraham Lincoln, declaring the state's loyalty to the Union and its people's "determination to stand by its government on this its day of trial."
Brigham Young, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sent the first message from the Main Street station in Salt Lake City "Utah has not seceded but is firm for the Constitution and laws of our once happy country."
Almost instantly, overland telegraphy became part of the American experience. And just as quickly, it eliminated the perilous 1,840-mile Pony Express service that sped westward from St. Joseph, Mo., to California within 10 days and at great cost to young riders.
Telegraphy dates to 13th-century England and Roger Bacon's experiments with magnetism. In America, transmission of electric impulses became practical in 1840 when Samuel Morse patented a single-wire telegraph system using the "dits" and "dahs" of his telegraphic alphabet, the Morse Code. In 1844, he sent his first electric telegraph message "What hath God wrought?" from Washington to Baltimore. By 1850, urban telegraph lines linked with neighboring states, including Nebraska and within California.
In 1860, Western Union Telegraph Co. and its consolidated associates sought and won a 10-year federal contract with an annual subsidy of $40,000 for building and maintaining the telegraph system. The Pacific Telegraph Co., under Edward Creighton's supervision, would expand the line west from Omaha, Neb. The Overland Telegraph Co., led by James Gamble, would head eastward from Carson City, Nev. Both men placed bets on who would arrive first in Salt Lake City.
The work, begun in late May 1861, was laborious and the obstacles many. Civil War requisites hampered the acquisition of workmen and supplies. Although Creighton's crew covered more miles, the Western terrain proved formidable.
Wire and glass insulators, ordered from the East and shipped by sea around Cape Horn, had to be freighted by wagon train across the Sierra Nevada.
"The train was very long, the road narrow, and many of the wagons too heavily laden for mountain roads," Gamble recollected in the 1881 issue of The California Magazine. "It made slow progress and frequently blocked up the road, delaying incoming trains as long as a day at a time."
Departing on May 27, 1861, the 12-day estimated journey across the mountain took nearly a month.
Locating telegraph poles was a constant challenge. Both telegraph companies relied on local contractors knowledgeable about their region's resources.
Thousands of poles were hauled in, distributed and erected along the 600-mile route from Carson City to Salt Lake City.
"As there was not a stick of lumber in sight, it seemed at first a mystery how they were to be procured," Gamble wrote.
He was relieved when Young contracted to supply "200 miles of poles for the eastern section of the line from Salt Lake west."
But Young's contract with suppliers failed. Gamble wrote that the leader "denounced the contractors who agreed to furnish the poles from the pulpit, saying [such] work should and must be carried out. The work was entrusted to other parties."
By October, 60 miles remained to be completed between Ruby Valley and Schell Creek. Allaying fears of late winter logging and impending storms, Gamble joined the work crew and ascended a mountain near Egan Canyon. Reaching the timber by sundown, they set up camp under a heavy sky.
"Rouse out! Rouse out!" he shouted awakening to 6 inches of snow. Keeping to schedule, the snow melted. The crew returned, timber in tow.
The line was completed and boy, oh boy, how that wire hummed.
Eileen Hallet Stone, oral historian, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sources: Online print of James Gamble's "Wiring a Continent" in 1881 issue of The Californians and The First Telegraph Line across the Continent, published by Nebraska State Historical Society Books.