Friday, September 26, 2014

Connecting East to West - The Transcontinental Telegraph

Hi, Winnie Griggs here.  Today I want to share a little bit of history I uncovered in one of the many rabbit trails I find myself following when doing research. I had, of course, heard of the Transcontinental Railroad and the ceremonial driving of the golden spike.  But I hadn't given much thought to when and where our communication lines, namely the telegraph, were first linked coast to coast.

On October 24th, 1861, Western Union Telegraph Co. linked the eastern and western networks of telegraph systems at Salt Lake City, Utah.  For the first time in our nation’s history, nearly instantaneous communication between Washington D.C and San Francisco, CA was possible.  The first transcontinental telegraph was actually sent by the chief justice of California, Stephen Field, and was sent to President Abraham Lincoln.  In the historic missive, Field predicted that the newly established communication venue would help ensure that the western states would remain loyal to the Union during the Civil War.

A little of the story behind this historic event:  An efficient telegraph system was first developed in the 1830s and in the ensuing years spread with phenomenal speed.  By 1850 lines covered most of the eastern part of the country as well as the fast growing territory of California.  When California achieved statehood in 1850 it became the first state not contiguous with the rest of the country.  Almost immediately there was a major push to connect this new state with the rest of the country via communication and travel services.  In 1860, Congress passed the Pacific Telegraph Act and awarded a contract to Hiram Sibley, president of the Western Union Company.  Mr. Sibley took the contract and formed a consortium between his company and telegraph companies in California to undertake the commission.  

The task involved building lines to connect the system at the western-most edge of Missouri and the one at Carson City, Nevada.  Sibley formed the Pacific Telegraph Co. to construct the eastern leg and the California telegraph companies consolidated into the Overland Telegraph Company to build the western leg.  The two lines would eventually meet at Salt Lake City, Utah.

Most of 1860 was spent collecting materials for the project, and construction began in earnest in 1861.  Right from the start there were significant problems along the way with provisioning the construction teams.  Glass insulators and wire had to be shipped to San Francisco by sea and then transported to the construction sites in the west by wagon - this included a trek over the Sierra Nevada.   Finding sources for telegraph poles was also a challenge in the mostly treeless plains areas as well as the deserts of the Great Basin.

The Route Of The First Transcontinental Telegraph
 The line from Omaha in the east made it to Salt Lake city first, arriving on October 18, 1861.  The Transcontinental connection was completed six days later when the line from Carson city joined it on October 24, 1861.

An almost immediate result of this momentous accomplishment was that it made the Pony Express obsolete.  On October 26th, a scant two days after the lines were joined, this adventurous, dedicated relay mail service, which had previously provided the fastest means of communication between the western and eastern United States, officially closed.

So what do you think - what did you find most surprising about this story?

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  1. Interesting article about the telegraph system. I was surprised to learn how long it took to gather supplies for the project.

  2. I was surprised at how quickly it made the Pony Express obsolete..
    dkstevensne (at) outlook .com

  3. I was also surprised by how fast the Pony Express shut down, and also that they had to ship some of the supplies by sea. It seems (to me) like the project was completed in good time, considering how long road construction projects take where I live.

  4. It's amazing to think that they strung wire across the entire country! I wonder what was involved with the maintenance of the lines...

  5. Thank you for sharing this interesting bit of history, Winnie. I can't imagine all of the materials and man-power needed!

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  6. Great post, Winnie! Thank you for sharing!

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