Miracle of Communication: Transcontinental Telegraph Completed
In the spring and summer of 1861 the United States plunged into its bloody Civil War that was to last four long, difficult years and inflict more than a million casualties. The country’s manpower and industrial might were fully mobilized to prosecute the war effort, for the Union in the North and the Confederacy in the South. The urgent necessity and demands of the Civil War dominated all facets of American life.
With the nation thus occupied and its attention fully focused, you would think there was little money, labor or resources to accomplish anything other than military objectives—but there was. At the same time the battles began, a group of dedicated, far-seeing men constructed something amazing: the first transcontinental telegraph, bringing the miracle of nearly-instantaneous communication between the East and West Coast.
Samuel Morse demonstrated a working telegraph between the cities of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland, in 1844—and lines soon sprang up between cities all along the East Coast. In 1850 California was admitted into the Union and, with its economy spurred on by the Gold Rush, telegraph lines were built to connect its cities. However, the eastern telegraph system extended westward only as far as Omaha, Nebraska—and the western system extended eastward only to Carson City, Nevada. The huge gap between these two points prevented news from travelling quickly between the coasts and hindered commerce, delaying the nation’s development.
Realizing a transcontinental telegraph would benefit the entire country, government stepped forward with offers of financial support. Congress passed the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860, authorizing the U.S. Post Office to spend $40,000 annually, for ten years, to build and maintain such a telegraph line. The state legislature in California approved an additional subsidy of $6,000 annually for the same purpose. With this financial support, telegraph companies stepped forward to begin the great enterprise.
In the East, Western Union Telegraph Company won the contract to build the line from Omaha westward to Salt Lake City, Utah. The California telegraph companies consolidated to form the Overland Telegraph Company to build the line eastward from Carson City to Salt Lake City. Purchases of wire and insulators, and contracts to supply telegraph poles, were made in late 1860 and early 1861, and construction began that summer.
What a feat of engineering they had to accomplish! The task facing the Overland Telegraph Company was especially daunting. It had to construct a line of telegraph poles stretching across 600 miles of desert—where there obviously were no trees, and no easy way to get supplies. Much of the wire and insulators were shipped around South America to California, then carried by wagons up over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Contractors fanned out to scour mountain tops and gullies for suitable trees—the Mormons proved especially helpful with this task.
The Omaha-westward construction was completed first, reaching Salt Lake City on October 18. Six days later the Carson City-eastward construction was completed, reaching Salt Lake City on Oct. 24, 1861. The communication miracle had been accomplished.
The most immediate consequence was the end of the Pony Express, which for 18 months had been filling in that communication gap. Two days after the transcontinental telegraph was completed, the Pony Express went out of business. The Western Union Telegraph Company eventually took over management of the entire telegraph line, maintaining communication between America’s two coasts.
The following newspaper article announces the completion of the transcontinental telegraph, and relays many of the very first messages that were sent winging along this communication marvel. This article was published by the Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts) on Nov. 1, 1861:
Completion of the Pacific Telegraph—The First Message
St. Joseph, Mo., Oct. 25.—The Pacific Telegraph was completed to San Francisco yesterday, and was in fine working order last evening. The first through message transmitted over the line was from Stephen J. Field, Chief Justice of California, in the absence of the Governor, to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States. In consequence of the line being closed east of here before we received notice of the line working last night, we were obliged to hold the message, with others, overnight. The enterprise is a complete success. Press dispatches and private business forwarded from here up to 12 o’clock last night, were laid before the public in California this morning.
Cleveland, Ohio, Oct. 25.—The following message from H. W. Carpentier, President of the California State Telegraph Company, was received today:
San Francisco, Oct. 25.
To J. H. Wade, President of the Pacific Telegraph Company:
We greet you across the Continent. You beat us by a day or two [actually, they reached Salt Lake City six days earlier—ed.], but we forgive you, and for it receive our congratulations.
H. W. Carpentier
New York, Oct. 25.—The overland telegraph to California is completed. The following dispatch was received this afternoon:
San Francisco, Oct. 25.
To the Mayor of New York:
San Francisco to New York sends greeting, and congratulates her on the completion of the enterprise which connects the Pacific with the Atlantic. May the prosperity of both cities be increased thereby, and the projectors of this important work meet with honor and reward.
H. F. Teschemaker
Mayor of San Francisco
San Francisco, Oct. 25.—An announcement has just been made of the completion of the last link of the Overland Telegraph. The Pacific to the Atlantic sends greeting, and may both oceans be dry before a foot of all the land that lies between them shall belong to any other than our united country.
The completion of the last link of the American Telegraph to this city connects Cape Race with the Golden Horn, traversing nearly 5000 miles with one continuous wire, and bringing those two points within two hours’ telegraphic time of each other.
The next westward extension of the line will be via Behring’s Straits to the north of the Amoor River, to which point the Russian government is already constructing a line, commencing at Moscow.
One very important feature in this project is the fact that when the line to the Amoor is finished from both sides, the whole world will be in telegraphic connection with but forty miles of submarine cable across Behring’s Straits.
Pending the completion of the extension to the Amoor, it is proposed to establish at this port a line of mail steamers to China and Japan, bringing the Chinese mails and news to this city in twenty days. From hence the news will be telegraphed to New York or Cape Race, so as to reach Europe in advance of the dispatches sent via the Red Sea route.
T. Starr King’s Greeting from California.—Rev. T. Starr King sends the following note of greeting from distant California:
San Francisco, Oct. 24th—8 P.M.
All hail! A new bond of Union between Pacific and Atlantic! The lightning now goeth out of the West and shineth even to the East! Heaven preserve the Republic; and bless old Boston from hub to rim!
T. Starr King
New York, Oct. 26.—The following is the reply of the Mayor of New York to the dispatch of the Mayor of San Francisco:
“New York returns her greetings to San Francisco. Let the union thus so happily consummated between them ever remain unimpaired. The Union forever, whether between the East and the West or the North and South. Let it be continued and preserved.”
Greetings to the President from California.—Washington, Oct. 27th—Since Friday, when the Pacific and Atlantic Telegraph was opened, the President has received a number of dispatches over the line. These embrace the announcement from the President of the Telegraph Company that the line is completed, and express a hope that it may be a bond of perpetuity between the States of the Atlantic and those of the Pacific.
Governor Downey of California expresses in the name of the people of that State their congratulations at the completion of the noble enterprise that places them in immediate communication with the Capital and with their fellow-citizens in the East and expressing the hope that the golden links of the Constitution may ever unite us a happy and free people.
The President and Secretary of the Pioneers, the oldest organization on the Pacific coast, send greetings to the President of the United States as a society loyal, and as a State loyal They pray God to save one and indivisible our glorious Union.
Leland Stanford sends the following:
“Today California is but a second’s distance from the National Capital. Her patriotism, with the electric current, throbs responsive with that of her sister States, and holds civil liberty and union above all price.”
The Grand Division of the Sons of Temperance sends the following:
“To the President of the United States, Greeting: Liberty, Union, and Temperance, one and inseparable forever. By order, (Signed,) Joan Wade, P.G.W.P.”
The Mayor of Stockton transmits the following:
“Stockton sends greeting to your Excellency, with the assurance that she is true to the Constitution and the laws, and for the thorough crushing out of rebellion.”
Gov. Nye, on behalf of the Territory of Nevada, says:
“Mountain-bound Nevada avails herself of the earliest opportunity to send upon the wings of lightning, to her National home, assurances of her filial attachment to the Union as formed by our fathers, and her earnest sympathy with those who are striving to maintain it.”
The following is dated Capitol, Carson City, Nevada Territory, through her first Legislative Assembly:
“To the President and people of the United States, Greeting: Nevada for the Union, ever true and loyal. The last born of the nation will be the last to desert the flag. Our aid to the extent of our ability can be relied upon to crush the rebellion. (Signed,) J. L. Van Bakelon, President.”