Telegraph Systems

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The study of the emergence of the telegraph industry in the United States is of interest not only for the insight it gives into the development of a particular industry, but also for the understanding it provides of the general pattern of industrial development during the 19th century. The initial stage in the evolution of that pattern may well be termed the era of methodless enthusiasm. In the telegraph field, private industry came to a somewhat retarded realization of the significance of the Morse invention between 1846 and 1850, and the country was hastily webbed with a crude network of wires. [...] Gradually the era of methodless enthusiasm gave way to an era of consolidation. By degrees, cooperation supplanted ruinous competition. [...] Because of the relative ease and low cost of constructing lines, the telegraph industry was the first in which a single company succeeded in establishing a monopolistic position, but the pattern was to become a familiar one. Steel, petroleum, rubber, utilities, railroads, manufacturing, and other industries were to go through a similar evolution in the years which lay ahead. [...] The research upon which this volume is based was begun nearly ten years ago when the author [...] examined the voluminous O'Reilly collection at the New York Historical Society Library. Further exploration led to the discovery of an extensive body of excellent source material, both printed and manuscript, dealing with the early history of the telegraph industry: the F. O. J. Smith collection at the Maine Historical Society Library in Portland; the Cornell papers in the custody of the Cornell University Library; the Alfred Vail papers in the Smithsonian Institution; the Samual F. B. Morse and John D. Caton collections in the Library of Congress; to name but the most outstanding. [...]

The following information is excerpted from this book.

From Palette to Portrule

[...] In 1835, Morse had the good fortune to secure an appointment as professor of the Literature of the Arts of Design in the new University of the City of New York (later known as New York University), and took up his lodgings at the University building on Washington Square. Utilizing these quarters, not only as a studio and living apartment, but also as a workshop, he succeeded before the close of 1836 in completing his first crude telegraph apparatus, and in devising a numerical code to represent the letters of the alphabet. [...]

The outstanding feature of Morse's crude telegraph system was its simplicity.

Morse now took into his confidence his colleague Professor Leonard D. Gale, who was a teacher of chemistry in the University. Together they labored for many months improving the apparatus and experimenting with it. [...] With the completion of the improved electromagnet and certain other minor changes, messages formerly sent forty or fifty feet were now transmitted first through two hundred feet of wire, then through one thousand feet, and finally through ten miles of wire arranged on reels in Professor Gale's lecture room at New York University.

On September 2, 1837, a group of professors and friends were invited by Morse to see the improved telegraph in operation. This exhibition, although made with crudely constructed instruments, suggested the practicability of the invention, and resulted in the enlistment of another able partner to aid in the further perfection and promotion of his telegraph. That man was Alfred Vail, son of Judge Stephen Vail, proprietor of the prosperous iron and brass works at Speedwell, New Jersey. [...]

According to the agreement entered into on September 23 of that year [1837], Vail agreed to construct and put into successful operation, at his own expense, the telegraph instruments to be used for the demonstration before a Congressional committee the following January. [...] As compensation for Vail's services, Morse agreed to transfer to him a quarter part of his interests and rights in the new invention in the United States, and a provisional half interest in Europe should Vail go to the expense of obtaining patents in any foreign countries. [...]

Late in September 1837, Morse, having filed a caveat for his invention in the United States Patent Office, formally admitted Professor Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail to partnership. The sturdy, improved [telegraph] instruments which had been constructed at the Vail shop were now taken to New York. [...]

The general subject of telegraphy had been brought to the attention of Congress just at this time, by a petition from interested parties urging the construction of a visual semaphoric telegraph line from New York to New Orleans. [...] The House, before taking any action called upon the Secretary of the Treasury to report "upon the propriety of establishing a system of telegraphs for the United States". Accordingly, the Secretary had sent a circular letter to such people as he thought might aid him in preparing his report. [...]

Among those receiving the Secretary's letter was Professor Morse, who wrote an enthusiastic reply in which he described the operation of his telegraph. [...] The construction of a telegraph line such as he had in mind would be neither expensive nor difficult. The wire conductor could be made fast to poles, or placed in iron tubes embedded in the ground. Enclosed in lead tubes, it could even be laid across the bed of a river. [...]

Encouraged by the apparent interest of Congress in telegraphs, Morse took his apparatus to Washington in February 1838, where he gave demonstrations and explanations of its operation to interested Congressmen. The Morse telegraph so impressed the House Committee on Commerce -- especially its chairman, F. O. J. Smith of Maine -- that an enthusiastic recommendation was made for an appropriation of $30,000 to permit the construction of an experimental telegraph line to test the practicability of Morse's invention. A bill was reported for that purpose, but the panic of 1837, the skepticism of Congress, and the pressure of other business intervened, and no money was appropriated. Morse's visit to Washington was not entirely in vain, however, for it resulted in his securing still another partner-- Congressman [Francis Ormond Jonathan] Smith of Maine. [...]

Coming from the quiet background of the parsonage, unschooled in the methods of the market place, and eager for financial assistance, Morse [...] saw in Smith the business acumen so lacking himself and his scientific partners Gale and Vail. Smith was accordingly taken into the partnership in March 1838. In addition to acting as counsel for the partners, and attempting to promote their telegraph interests in the United States, Smith agreed to furnish Morse with the necessary funds for a trip to Europe to secure patents for his invention. [...]

[After failures to establish contracts in several countries,] Morse prepared to return once more to his native land, where he hoped his invention might receive a more favorable response.

At the time of his return to the United States in March 1839, Morse found the little progress had been made in telegraph affairs during his absence. His patent had not yet been issued, nor had Congress taken further action on the telegraph appropriation. The public was incapable of comprehending the significance of his invention. [...]

[Eventually, after much debate,] the telegraph bill passed by a narrow margin of 89 to 83. Seventy congressmen failed to vote at all. Not a few of them had left their seats "to avoid the responsibility of spending the public money for a machine they could not understand". [...]

The Journal of the Senate shows that the bill was passed on the morning of March 3, and it was signed by President Tyler some hours before the session ended. [...]

The Telegraph On Trial

[...] After some deliberation, Morse had determined to lay the experimental line between Baltimore and Washington. Tentative permission had been obtained from the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to use its right-of-way, provided it could be done "without injury to the road and without embarrassment to the operations of the company". [...]

By means of his ingenious trenching machine, [Ezra] Cornell was soon laying half a mile to a mile of cable a day. [...] By December [1843], the cable had been laid from the railroad station in Baltimore to Relay, Maryland, about eight or nine miles distant. Tests had by this time confirmed the growing suspicion that the faulty insulation of the wires in the cable was serious enough to require that work be halted. [...]

Morse refused to give up. After much thought and consultation, he decided to place the wires upon poles erected at regular intervals. In the meantime, Ezra Cornell had been appointed Morse's mechanical assistant at a yearly salary of $1000. A basement room in the Patent Office was put at his disposal, and he spent the winter months removing the wires from the cables.

With the coming of spring, outdoor work was resumed, but this time the wires were strung on poles. One of the most serious problems which confronted the builders was that of insulating the wires where they were fastened to the poles, so that undue leakage would not again bring failure. Both Vail and Cornell submitted plans. Finally, upon the advice of Professor Joseph Henry, Morse decided in favor of Cornell's insulator, composed of two glass plates between which the wire was placed after being well wrapped with cloth saturated with gum shellac. These insulators were shortly replaced by the more satisfactory bureau-knob pattern, also of Cornell's devising.

By the middle of April [1844], six miles of the line extended from Washington to Bladensburg; and by May 1, to within fifteen miles of Baltimore. On that day, the Whig National Convention met at that city and nominated Henry Clay for the presidency by acclamation. News of the nomination was rushed via the railroad to the end of the telegraph line, where it was transmitted to the telegraph office that had been set up temporarily in the basement of the Capitol. Telegraphic news of Clay's nomination had been in circulation throughout Congress for a full hour and a half before the train from Baltimore arrived with confirmation of it. When news of the nomination of Theodore Frelinghuysen as vice-president arrived in the same manner, even the skeptics had to admit the success of the telegraph.

The line was now pushed steadily forward, so that early in May the railroad depot on Pratt Street, Baltimore was joined with the Supreme Court chamber in Washington which was to serve as telegraph office for the official opening of the line. On the twenty-fourth of May 1844, in the Supreme Court chamber at Washington, before many of the most distinguished officers of the government and a number of his friends, Morse quietly seated himself at the telegraph key. Along the forty-odd miles of wire that separated him from his partner, Vail, in Baltimore, sped that famous message: "What hath God wrought!" [...]

The public, in good American fashion, flocked to see the latest wonder of the age. Hundreds begged and pleaded to be allowed merely to look at the instrument. [...] While hundreds of people were eager to see the wonderful new invention in operation, relatively few cared to make use of its services. To test the accuracy of the instruments, as well as to occupy their time, the operators in Washington and Baltimore promoted chess games by telegraph between outstanding players in the respective cities. [...]

One of the most important discoveries later to be associated with the development of a great nation-wide telegraph system was the relay. In 1837, Morse had shown Gale how a current that had become feeble as a result of having traveled through many miles of wire could be reinforced or renewed by means of an ingenious device which came to be called a relay, or repeater. [...]

At the same time [in June 1844], Morse addressed a memorial to Congress, pointing out that the telegraph, with its great potentialities for good or evil, should be controlled by the government rather than by private individuals or associations. [...] The session of Congress closed without any action having been taken upon [the offer of purchasing Morse's patents]. [...]

In December 1844, Morse, urged on by Alfred Vail, appealed again to Congress to accept control of this mighty new instrument of communication before it was too late. [...] The press in general agreed with Morse that the telegraph should not be left to the exploitation of individuals. [...] But the aid of Congress was sought in vain. [...] The golden opportunity for the development of the telegraph as a government monopoly passed, and as Morse had warned, he and the other proprietors of the patent necessarily turned to private capital in earnest. [...]

Thrust to the South

[...] By the autumn of 1845, telegraph builders were constructing lines on virtually all of the important routes. [...]

On May 15, 1845, carefully drawn and specific Articles of Association were adopted, and the Magnetic Telegraph Company, the first telegraph company in the United States, came into being. [...]

The Hudson [River] was the great stumbling block of the enterprise. No practical means could be found to cross the river to New York City. Balloons, pigeons, submarine cables, water circuits, masts of wood and iron, piers in the bed of the river, anchored ships, and other means, were tried with little success. [...]

Efforts to span the Hudson did not cease with the extension of the line to Jersey City. From time to time, attempts were made to cross the river by means of high masts at Fort Lee, and at a more propitious location upstream, five miles below West Point; but the masts proved very impermanent, and they were therefore no solution to the problem. Nearly a decade was to pass before the use of a cable insulated with gutta percha was to provide a permanent means for leading the current through bodies of water.

From the first day of its operation, a host of troubles descended upon the pioneer telegraph company. The glass insulators, as they glistened in the sun, made tempting targets for boys and marksmen, and they were destroyed by the dozen. The soft copper wire was highly susceptible to climatic changes; drawn taut by freezing temperatures, it broke in many places. To overcome this difficulty, copper wire was replaced by iron. Although not so good a conductor, it was stronger, less subject to expansion and contraction under varying weather conditions, and therefore much superior for meeting the needs of early telegraphy. [...]

Invasion of the North

The New York and Boston line was ill-fated from the beginning. [...] After two abortive attempts to solicit funds for the construction of the line [...], Smith determined to complete the enterprise even if it meant turning to his personal resources. At his instigation, therefore, Articles of Association for the New York & Boston Magnetic Telegraph Association were drawn up on October 22, 1845. The line was to follow the Harlem Railroad to the outskirts of New York City, where it was to turn eastward along the turnpike through Stamford, Norwalk, and Bridgeport to New Haven, from which point it was to follow the rights of way of the Hartford & New Haven, the Worcester, and the Western railroads to Boston. [...] At the agreed rate of $160 a mile for a line of two wires, it was estimated that construction costs would total $40,000. [...]

Actual construction of the line proceeded no more smoothly than the collection of funds. Smith's building program was slipshod and careless; activity on all sections of the line was characterized by poor coordination and confusion born of ignorance. [...] Smith's short-sighted labor policy resulted in further delay. [...]

Even more serious were Smith's pretentions to scientific achievement. He freely stated that too much stress was being put on the manner of insulation. At one time, he regarded it as an entirely unnecessary device. Amos Kendall, on the other hand, so magnified the necessity of perfect insulation that he had every alternate pole cut down along a large section of the Magnetic line to reduce the number of points of contact with the ground. Although Smith somewhat modified his theories before the actual construction of the New York and Boston line was begun, his attempts at insulation were peculiar, to say the least. In a letter to O'Reilly, he described his plan. "I put my wires up in both a more useful and, in milder latitudes, cheaper form," he explained. "I use no glass cap, nor crossbar, but only blocks saturated thoroughly with tar and resin, and also a tin cover and saturated cloth."

As work on the New York-Boston line progressed and tests were made, it became apparent that there was a major construction difficulty. Short circuits, improper connections, and a host of other causes were assigned as reasons for the failure of the line, but the chief difficulty was the faulty insulation. [...] Finally, even Smith was forced to the reluctant conclusion that the line would have to be entirely reinsulated before it could be made to work satisfactorily. By the end of April [1846], wires were coming down and wooden blocks were being replaced by glass knob insulators. [...]

Early in June, the line reached New York City. In preparation for the grand opening, Smith personally connected the instruments in every station on the route. As a result of improper connections, New York could not contact her nearest neighbor New Haven, let alone more-remote Boston. Finally on June 27 the line was able to open its doors to the public. [...]

With the actual opening of the line on the twenty-seventh of June, it was hoped that much of the public's distrust of it would disappear. Unfortunately, the line was cheaply and carelessly built, and its operation was uncertain and unsatisfactory from the start. The copper wires had been put up slackly to avoid breaks, and as a result they were constantly becoming crossed. The maintenance of the lines was a nightmare for the inexperienced linesmen. [...] So frequent were the interruptions that Smith, reporting on the first four months of business, was obliged to admit that the line had been disabled more than half of the time. [...]

Hand in hand with the efforts of Kendall and Smith along the seaboard were those of a group of stage and express men in New York State. They were actively engaged in establishing a ine of telegraph from New York City through Albany, Utica, Syracuse, and Rochester to Buffalo, in accordance with the agreement which had been made between John Butterfield and Amos Kendall on May 30, 1845. Articles of Association for the proposed New York, Albany, & Buffalo Telegraph Company had been adopted in Utica the following September 25. They provided for a ine of two copper wires, insulated with glass knobs, and having no less than twenty-five poles to the mile. At the contract figure of $200 a mile, the construction cost over the 500-mile route would aggregate about $100,000. [...]

The New York-Albany link was delayed because of difficulty in procuring sufficient wire, and as a result of having to build the line along the route of the public highway. [...] In spite of obstacles, this last link in the telegraph line which was to bind New York with Buffalo was nearing completion by the end of August [1846]. But some of the work had not bene done to suit the exacting Faxton, and he refused to accept the line until all the defects had been remedied. Posts had been badly set, some of the glass caps were broken, the wire in some places was loosely strung, trees and bushes along the route needed trimming, and there was a deficiency in the number of posts per mile. Cornell fumed but proceeded to remedy the defects. [...] Faxton's nice attention to detail and determination to make the enterprise successful soon won for his company the reputation of being the most dependable and profitable of the pioneer lines. [...]

The New York, Albany, & Buffalo line, while undoubtedly the best which had been erected up to this time, had its full share of troubles. In spite of the fact that Faxton had secured the passage of a law by the New York State Legislature to protect telegraph property from vandalism as early as May 13, 1845, considerable destruction occured. The glass-knob insulators made fine targets, and their destruction and the breaking of wires was so annoying that the company decided to supplement the provisions of the state law by offering a reward of $100 for the apprehension of violators. [...]

In the autumn of 1846, a group of Toronto businessmen, visualizing the possibilities of a Canadian telegraph system, organized the Toronto, Hamilton, Niagara, & St. Catherine's Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company. The American contractors Livingston and Wells were engaged to build the line, and it was opened for business on December 19. By the close of the year 1846, the telegraph was no longer regarded as a mere novelty; it had become a recognized mode of communication not only in the United States but also in Canada.

To Mississippi and the Lakes


O'Reilly's Telegraph Empire - May, 1850

In brief, O'Reilly proposed two great trunk lines to the West; one along the shore of Lake Erie from Buffalo to Detroit and ultimately to Chicago; the other from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and on to St. Louis, largely following the course of the Ohio River. [...] To provide effective communication between the chief centers on the lakes and those along the Ohio River, three north-south junction lines were proposed -- one between St. Louis and Chicago, another between Dayton and Toledo, and a third between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. [...]

The advent of O'Reilly and his crew caused a sensation along the entire route. To the incredulous and astonished farmers, who regarded railroads an encroachment upon their much loved wagons, the sending of messages through the air "smacked of brimstone and collusion with the world below". When it became known that the lightning itself was to be the agent of transmission, the most extravagant ideas were entertained. "We were looked upon as denizens of another world, come to break the quiet and honest industry and sobriety of Pennsylvania," Reid has recorded their reception.

In spite of public hostility, the line progressed. It was a primitive affair. Small, unbarked chestnut poles were planted at intervals of two hundred feet along the tracks of the Harrisburg & Lancaster Railroad. A turned black walnut cross-arm resembling a chair rung was inserted through the top of each pole to bear the two wires which were wrapped around either end. "As to insulation," Reid confessed, "it was a long word few of us understood." Alfred Vail's pamphlet on the telegraph was hastily scanned for information. It was suggested that cotton cloth be dipped into beeswax and wrapped around the wire where it came into contact with the cross-arm for the best result. The instructions were plain enough; an earnest crew set to work. David Brooks was delegated to purchase the beeswax and contract for cotton cloth. He also superintended the melting process, and thereby "absorbed his first lesson in insulation". [...]

In accordance with prevailing scientific opinion, the wires were of unannealed copper. Since the idea was general that a curving wire might affect the destination of messages, the wires were drawn taut. "The line looked very trim and handsome," Reid has recorded, "as in the evening of a fine October day we looked at our first day's work. We noticed that some enterprising bees... came to our waxed rags, no doubt to replevin on their lost stores." But their opportunity was brief, [for] a heavy rain and a sharp frost soon left the cotton insulation fluttering in the air, and beeswax and cotton soon disappeared. [...]

Breaks were such a common occurrence that Brooks went to the Lancaster office every morning at 4:30 A.M. to test for current. Frequently finding none, he shouldered a bundle of copper wire and started out in the gray of dawn to find the difficulty. When it was in operation, the early morning train, puffing its labored way through the Conewago Hills to Harrisburg at the rate of seven or eight miles an hour, made an admirable conveyance from which the telegraph operator might examine his ailing line. Under such adverse conditions, successful operation of the line was impossible. After three months of futile effort, business was suspended and the copper wire was taken down and sold to pay the operators' debts.

Telegraph Map of the United States, Dec. 1846

By the close of 1846, telegraphic outlines of empire had taken shape, and the initial pioneering phase in the development of the new industry may be said to have terminated. In a brief year and a half, the foundations had been laid for a vast telegraph network radiating from New York. Extending southward through Philadelphia to Baltimore and Washington was to be found the line of the Magnetic Telegraph Company; and arrangements had been made by the closely allied Washington & New Orleans Telegraph to extend a line on down the coast through Richmond, Charleston, Savannah, and Mobile to New Orleans. Reaching northward through New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield to Boston was the line of the New York & Boston Magnetic Telegraph Association; and plans were already completed for the construction of a line to link Boston with Portland, Maine. Following the course of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers was the excellent New York, Albany, & Buffalo line; and steps had been taken to bring the principal cities of Canada into telegraphic contact with those of the United States at Buffalo. Pushing westward from Buffalo were the rival Lake Erie and the Erie & Michigan lines, which upon completion would bring a vast flow of business pouring into Buffalo from Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland. Still another valuable western artery was O'Reilly's Atlantic & Ohio line -- section one of the Atlantic, Lake, & Mississippi Telegraph system -- which joined Philadelphia with Harrisburg and Pittsburgh; and O'Reilly was actively engaged in promoting his second section, the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, & Louisville line, which he confidently predicted would be in operation within six months.

Turning from the building to the operation of the lines, it may be said that while such technical problems as insulation, conductors, and cables, had been a cause of concern to pioneer promoters, the most serious threat to the future success of the new industry was the internal dissension and jealousy within the Morse telegraphic family. [...] This situation served as a stimulus to the introduction of rival House and Bain telegraphs in the years just ahead. [...]

Although the Morse interests were thus confronted by grave dangers, and no company had been able to pay a dividend up to this time, the principle of electrical communication was now generally accepted. There could no longer be any doubt that the telegraph had come to stay.

The Divisional Contracts of June 1847

[...] The road and canal building mania of the 1830s and 1840s was supplanted by a feverish cycle of railroad construction, which was shortly competing with the telegraph for funds. Whereas in 1845-1846 the new means of communication was going through a struggling probation, in the years 1847-1852 it was accorded full public approval. With boundless enthusiasm, but little knowledge of telegraph construction, dozens of promoters now entered the communications field to exploit the eagerness of all sections of the country for the telegraph. In common with other empire builders of the age, these impetuous promoters had little time to look ahead and plan. Throughout the country, people were clamoring for telegraph lines. A random network of unsound lines, therefore, shortly bore evidence of the zeal with which the telegraph promoters sought to satisfy the public demand.

So unbridled a construction program as that which occupied the telegraph industry during the next few years, could have but one conclusion-- a bitter struggle for survival among the numerous small companies. Rival lines contended fiercely for business over every important route. Both the House printing telegraph and a newcomer, the Bain chemical telegraph, contested the right of the Morse patentees to monopolize the telegraph business. A host of pirates, respecting no patent and using all, hastily erected lines. Dozens of lawsuits were commenced. Telegraph fortunes rose to dizzying heights only to collapse, [...] [in] this mad era of methodless enthusiasm. [...]

Battle for the Lakes

[...] [John J.] Speed's closing of a contract with Jeptha H. Wade in the summer of 1847 for the construction of that section of the Erie & Michigan line lying between Detroit and Jackson, Michigan, introducing into telegraph history a man destined to leave his mark on the development of the industry. Up to this point in his life Wade, now in his mid-thirties, had failed to find himself. Born of humble parentage in Seneca County, New York, on August 11, 1811, Jeptha had early gone to work in a brickyard. Numerous activities as removed from one another as carpentry and portrait painting followed in rapid succession; yet they all had a common denominator-- in each occupation, Wade worked with his hands. The years of adolescence and young manhood were largely given over to developing his mechanical skill while neglecting a latent ability to deal with people. [...]

[When Wade was seeking new employment in 1847,] it was at this point that he met Speed, discussed the Erie & Michigan project with him, and agreed to build a line of telegraph along the Michigan Central Railroad from Detroit to Jackson, Michigan. With such tools as seemed necessary, a tent to accomodate his men, a cook, a hand car, and a horse, Wade made his telegraph début. He was not long in winning the confidence of his men and the respect of his business associates. It was soon generally conceded that any work under Wade's direction would be well done. Realizing the possibilities of the telegraph, he had set to work to acquaint himself with all the information then available on the subject. Nor did he limit himself to a purely academic interest. In a year's time, he could not only operate but make any of the instruments used in the business. [...]

Ezra Cornell's young son, Alonzo B. Cornell, a lad of sixteen employed as an operator in the Buffalo office, relates the story of the dismal failure of the Erie & Michigan line to give public satisfaction. Fallen wires, broken insulators, ignorant operators, improper insulation, and public complaints made young Cornell's life miserable. Writing to his father on July 15, 1848, he was fairly optimistic: "We are fast gaining the confidence of the Buffalo public over our enemies, and I think although our line is so very bad, we do business much more prompt."

Several weeks later, the line was not working. Young Cornell explained that on the line near Buffalo, four-fifths of the glass insulators had been broken, and that leaves touching the wires grounded them in wet weather. "If we could do it right, our business would double immediately," asserted the young telegrapher. [...]

Race to the Crescent City


Race to the Crescent City, 1848 - Lines Building to New Orleans

[...] North Carolina led the way by passing a special act of incorporation on January 18, 1847, giving the telegraph company [of Washington & New Orleans] power "to set up fixtures along any of the roads or railroads ... belonging to the state". Two months later, the State of Virginia went even further. Its General Assembly declared that the railroads, since they provided right-of-way for the wires, should have the first privilege of subscribing the necessary capital for their construction. If the railroads failed to respond, the citizens of Virginia were to have the next opportunity. In the event both failed, the State Board of Public Works was to take up the subscription. Within a year, legislation designed to encourage the new enterprise had been passed by South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana.

In so far as possible, the telegraph was to go south along railroad rights of way. With the exception of the distance from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Columbia, South Carolina, a continuous line of track extended from Fredericksburg, Virginia, to Atlanta, Georgia, by 1847. The telegraph constructors followed the rails from Fredericksburg through Richmond and Petersburg to Raleigh; from here, the route passed across country through Fayetteville, Cheraw, and Camden to Columbia, at which point it once more picked up the railroad to Charleston, and thence to Augusta, Georgia. From Augusta, the main line was to follow the railroad to Macon, while a branch line was planned to Savannah. Leaving the railroad at Macon, the telegraph was to proceed westward along the stage road to Montgomery, Alabama, thence down the Alabama River to Mobile, and then on to New Orleans.

Construction moved rapidly forward. The route was divided into sections, and work was carried forward on all of them simultaneously. [...] The final link in the telegraphic chain connecting the seaboard cities with New Orleans was [...] completed [in] [...] the middle of July [1848]. [...]

The long-awaited line failed to live up to expectations. It was a source of grief both to its subscribers and to the public. Bad insulation, poor wire, crude transmission -- all the difficulties experienced by the shorter lines -- were multiplied a hundredfold on the great 1,500-mile route. Contractor [J. J.] Haley may have built the line in good faith, but his primary interest in the project had been the construction profits. Judged even by the low standards of the day, the Washington & New Orleans line was inferior. [...]

The whole line was finished [by the People's Telegraph Company] in January 1849, but with the Kentucky section still in the hands of the marshal [due to Morse patent litigations], it could not operate over full extent of the route. Even had this section been free, it is questionable whether the line could have been made to work throughout its length. Its construction had been too hasty, and it was too cheaply done to insure any degree of efficient service. Over great sections of Mississippi there were no poles at all; the wire was borne by brackets nailed to trees. Insulation, likewise, left much to be desired. Instead of being made of glass, the insulators were of glazed earthenware, imperfectly vitrified. The wire soon sawed its way through the thin outer crust of the insulators, leaving the soft pottery cores exposed to the rain which readily soaked into them. Having little chance for evaporation, even in the warmest weather, the insulators became receptacles of moisture, and virtually worthless. [...]

The War in the East: Patentees vs. Pirates


War in the East, May 1850 - House and Bain Lines in Competition with Morse Lines

[...] In February 1848, [F. O. J.] Smith had entered into an agreement with his associates, Cornell and Speed, to build the New York & Erie line. Operations were to begin at once. Cornell and Speed were to raise subscriptions and construct the new line so as to intersect the Erie & Michigan at Dunkirk. The New York & Erie line, as projected, would largely parallel Faxton's New York, Albany, & Buffalo. Passing across the southern part of New York State via Fredonia, Pike, Nunda, Dansville, and Ithaca, to Binghamton, it was to make its way through Montrose and Honesdale in Pennsylvania; and then back across the New York State boundary to Middletown, Goshen, Newburgh, and West Point. There, it was to cross the Hudson and continue to New York City via Peekskill, Ossining, and White Plains. Construction was to be at a rate of $250 per mile for the first wire, with an additional $100 a mile for all subsequent wires. Of this amount, only $50 in cash was to be paid for the patent right. According to the building contract, the line was to be erected with wire of the best quality, well insulated, and with forty poles to the mile. Since the average line had but twenty-five or thirty poles to the mile, it suggested that the line was to be used as something more than a feeder of the Erie & Michigan system. [...]

In all of Cornell's struggles, nothing could compare with the obstacles which continually beset his path in his attempts to establish the New York & Erie on a profitable basis. One of the chief sources of difficulty was faulty insulation. Although it was Cornell who had introduced the glass insulator -- the most practical and widely used type of the day -- he had equipped the New York & Erie line with an insulator which he had just invented-- an insulator filled with brimstone and capped with iron. It was one of the most unsatisfactory modes of insulation ever employed, and the New York & Erie line did not work properly until the iron caps had been discarded. [...]

A House Divided

The methodless enthusiasm which marked the birth of the telegraph industry in the United States reached its peak in the early 1850s. Within the Morse family itself were to be found three rival groups, all claiming the exclusive right to use the Morse instruments on the main arteries of the nation. Four Bain and three House companies operating over main routes -- to say nothing of the many organizations operating on subsidiary lines -- further complicated the situation. All the ills of multiple management and duplicating service were apparent. Inability to fix responsibility for errors in transmission, and high costs when messages passed over the wires of more than one company, made the public reluctant to use the telegraph for long-distance communication. Contradictory rules of operation, poorly constructed lines, and inexperienced and inefficient operators, contributed to the general dissatisfaction with the service. Under the circumstances, telegraph companies were impoverished. Of the twenty-three leading organizations at the opening of the decade, only a few were making substantial profits; a number were barely managing to pay expenses; the majority were sinking deeper into debt each month.

Public confidence was still further alienated by the internal dissension within the telegraph fraternity. Quarrels, lawsuits, and shifting loyalties characterized the relations of its members. Selfish motives often caused promoters to lose sight entirely of the general welfare, and too frequently the public interest was sacrificed to the ambition of one rival to triumph over another. Although there had been some attempt at the concealment of early differences, by the 1850s there could no longer be any doubt that the telegraph industry was, indeed, a house divided against itself. [...]

While the leading telegraph companies were groping toward closer cooperation and consolidation, there was born in Rochester, New York, an insignificant little company which was to play a great role in the future of the telegraph industry-- the New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company. As early as 1847, Hugh Downing, Samuel L. Selden, and several of their associates had become interested in the promotion of the House printing telegraph throughout the United States. [...]

Selden and [Freeman M.] Edson, eager to exploit the vast field thus opened to them [by their securing exclusive nationwide patent rights from Royal E. House], set out to organize a company to operate in the territory west of Buffalo. [...] The New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company was organized on April 1, 1851, to construct a line of telegraph from Buffalo to St. Louis. Considering the chaotic conditions which existed in the industry at this time, it is not surprising that Selden, [Hiram] Sibley, and their associates found it difficult to secure the necessary money to carry out their project, and the immediate results were disappointing. In fact, during the first few years of its existence, in spite of the best efforts of its promoters, the New York & Mississippi Valley appeared to be just another telegraph company.

A general survey of the telegrpah scene at the close of 1852 presents an immediate picture of hopeless confusion, but a closer examination shows a clear and unmistakable trend toward consolidation. [...]

The Railroad and the Telegraph

The introduction of the railroad into the United States parallels so closely the advent of the telegraph that the story of the one cannot be told properly without touching upon that of the other. Four years before Morse even conceived the idea for his telegraph, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had begun the construction of a dubious little railway line into the West. Sixteen years later, in the spring of 1844, the telegraph had made its official début, significantly enough, on the Baltimore & Ohio right of way. Telegraph leaders had become aware almost at once of the advantages to be derived from constructing their lines along the railroads, but the restrictions with which the Baltimore & Ohio hedged its first telegraph agreement gave evidence that the railroad, far from seeing any value in the telegraph, barely suffered it to build along the railroad right of way. In fact, many less liberal railroads refused to be bothered with electric wires along their roadbeds. Some years were to pass before the natural affinity of wire and rail came to be recognized by the conservative railway managements.

In both railroad and telegraph construction, the initial period, which drew to a close about 1850, had been one of methodless enthusiasm. Wires had been strung and rails laid with feverish haste, as promoters eagerly sought to be the first to break into virgin territory. [...]

Although progress had been made by both the telegraph and the railroad during the 1840s, and the great future which lay ahead began to be foreshadowed, neither enterprise could be termed an assured success as the decade drew to a close. The telegraph had certainly not won the public confidence, and the railroad was hardly capable of competition with the canals. It was during the next decade -- 1850 to 1860 -- when sober consolidation began to bring order out of enthusiastic chaos, that the railroad and the telegraph came to be recognized as the indispensable "Siamese twins of commerce". As great railway trunk lines and extended telegraphic systems began to absorb the haphazard pioneer lines which sprawled over the countryside, and order and efficiency began to appear, the attitude of the public became one of approbation and support.

Because of the comparative ease and lower cost of construction, telegraphic development rapidly eclipsed railroad growth during the period. "Lightning lines" reached out to embrace every town and city connected by rail, and then pushed on beyond the railroad frontiers. In most parts of the West, the "iron cord" preceded the "iron horse". Hiram Sibley succeeded in pushing a "lightning line" all the way to the Pacific, eight years in advance of the railroad. The telegraph as well as the railroad is entitled to a share of the credit for the prodigious development of the West.

That the telegraph was the natural complement of the railroad had been quickly recognized in Europe, where wires were commonly strung along the railroad rights of way, C. A. Saunders, secretary of the British Great Western Railway Company, testified that Cooke and Wheatstone's telegraph had been brought into actual operation upon the Great Western Railway as early as 1839 and its capabilities severly tested. Shortly thereafter, the Yarmouth & Norwich Railway issued a circular explaining at length Cooke's new system of train dispatching by telegraph which the road had adopted in 1844. Through the use of this system, the railway officials claimed that they had been free from accidents arising from trains meeting or overtaking one another, even though the Yarmouth & Norwich was a single-track line. [...]

On the single-track lines of the day, trains were operated on what was known as a "time interval system". Under this arrangement, trains were designated as "superior" and "inferior" according to their class and the direction in which they moved. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, for example, gave the right of way over other trains of its class to the train going east, while the Erie Railroad gave priority to the train going west. (Both passenger and freight trains were classified -- first class, second, etc -- and a first class passenger train would always have priority over a second clas train, regardless of direction.) Inferior trains were required to wait one hour at designated passing points for late superior trains. At the expiration of that time, if the superior train had not arrived, the inferior would start a flagman on foot to the next station, the train following slowly ten minutes later. This procedure was continued until the trains met. If the meeting occurred between stations, the train nearest a siding or the train of lesser importance would back up. Sometimes a battle of fisticuffs between the respective crews settled the controversy. During its early days, the Boston & Worchester Railroad maintained a relay of horses at five mile intervals along the route, to report the location of retarded trains. By this means, the company was able to diminish the possibility of accidents or excessive delay.

Despite the evident need for some system of determining the location of trains along the route, railroaders were reluctant to trust the telegraph for the movement of their trains; nor were they to be blamed entirely. Pioneer telegraphy in the United States left much to be desired in the way of dependability. J. H. Wade recalled his efforts to induce J. W. Brooks, president of the Michigan Central Railroad, to permit him to build along that road's right of way. Brooks at first ridiculed the idea. "Why," exclaimed he, "I had rather have one hand car for keeping my road in repair and handling my trains, than all the telegraph lines you can build."

Wade admitted that after a reluctant consent had been obtained and the line built, it "worked with about the same regularity as most of the early lines-- which wasn't very regular". Sometimes it aided materially, and other times, when it was needed most, it was out of order. It took several years to perfect the telegraph lines to the point where they were worthy of the full confidence of the railroad officials. [...]

When Andrew Carnegie went to work for the [Pennsylvania Rail] road as a clerk and telegraph operator in 1853, he found that no one but the superintendent was permitted to give a train order on any part of the Pennsylvania. It was considered a dangerous expedient to give telegraphic orders, for the whole system of railway management was still in its infancy, and men had not yet been trained for it.

Gradually, the advocates of a railroad-telegraph alliance began to overcome the opposition of conservative railway managements. In a circular letter dated July 1852, Henry O'Reilly tried to show the many benefits which a railroad might enjoy through the use of telegraphic facilities. "The necessity for increased safety in conjunction with the increased speed in Railroad traveling, as well as the general convenience of transacting business among employees along railroad routes, should turn Public Attention promptly and stronly upon the vast importance of Telegraphic facilities in connection with Railroad operations," explained O'Reilly. A "well-arranged telegraph for railroad purposes would, each and every year, render sufficient benefits to counter-balance the whole cost of construction".

By the mid-fifties, the enlightenment campaign of O'Reilly, Minot, and others began to bear fruit. Indifference and hostility slowly gave way, and one railroad after another turned to the telegraph for aid. Noting the trend, the Racine (Wisconsin) Advocate in 1854 declared, "The electro-magnetic telegraph is beginning to be applied ... to facilitating the operations of railways; securing greater safety by obviating the danger of collisions, accidents, and so forth."

Notwithstanding the favorable publicity and a growing interest in the telegraph, a reporter for the London Quarterly Review in [June] 1854 declared, "The telegraph is rarely seen in America running beside the railway, for what reason we do not know; the consequence, however, is that locomotion in the United States is vastly more dangerous than in England." [...]

By 1855, the advantages of a railway telegraph system were becoming too obvious to be ignored by the railroads any longer. In his report to the Erie directors for that year [ending September 30, 1855], D. C. McCallum, successor to Charles Minot as superintendent of that road, made an arresting statement. To persuade some of the more prosaic members of his board who regarded the telegraph as an unnecessary expense and a foible of the administration, McCollum declared: "A single track railroad may be rendered more safe and efficient by a proper use of the telegraph than a double track railroad without its aid. ... It would occupy too much space," he went on, "to allude to all the practical purposes to which the telegraph is applied in working the road; and it may suffice to say that without it, the business could not be conducted with anything like the same degree of economy, safety, regularity, or dispatch."

McCollum's report spread far beyond the narrow confines of the Erie management. His words were carefully weighed in railroad circles, and leading companies began to see the telegraph in a new light. During the next decade and a half, the use of the telegraph became almost universal, and some of the most perplexing problems of railway operation were solved.

By the close of the nineteenth century, "every railroad in every country and clime" made manifold use of the telegraph. Its weather reports aided officials in guarding against danger from approaching storms. By giving prompt warning of damage by wind or flood, it prevented disaster in many ways. It moved trains promptly and safely, and practically doubled the capacity of every single-track road. It brought the most distant stations and diverse patrons of the company into close relationship with the management, and united the officers and employees of a great railroad system into one compact and well-organized army. It transmitted observatory standard time automatically to every station at the same instant. It gave steady employment to thousands of persons. All this, and much more, was done by the railway telegraph at a cost of less than 3 percent of the total expense of the operation and maintenance of the railway. The railway telegraph had, indeed, come into its own; it had become an absolute necessity for the safe and efficient operation of the railroad.

The partnership of wire and rail was by no means a one-sided affair. If the telegraph was essential to the efficient operation of the railroad, the reverse was just as true. Telegraph leaders found that lines constructed along railroad rights of way were in such a strong position that rivals could not compete successfully with them. The tremendous advantages to be derived from such an alliance are readily apparent from an examination of several typical contracts. In general, the terms of these early contracts stipulated that:

  1. The telegraph company was to furnish the railroad company with a single wire of proper size and quality, and provide Morse instruments at certain specified stations on the line of their road.

  2. The telegraph company was to maintain the main battery for working the wire day and night.

  3. The telegraph company was to keep the wire erected for the railroad company in order, except as otherwise provided.

  4. All receipts for messages at offices opened on the line of the railroad, by either party, were to belong to the telegraph company.

  5. The railroad company was not to send any message free except for its own agents on its own business.

  6. At all stations in addition to those named, the railroad company was to supply all machinery and local battery.

  7. The railroad company was to instruct its men to watch the wire, straighten poles, re-set them when down, mend wires, and report to the telegraph company.

  8. The railroad company was to convey and distribute wire and insulators and all other material free, and also furnish a hand-car for stringing wire.

  9. The two companies were to reciprocate in the use of wires when those of either were out of order, but the railroad wires were never to be interrupted when sending railroad business.

  10. The railroad company was to transport all instruments, material for repairs, all operator, officers, and agents of the telegraph company free of charge when on the business of the company, and to furnish and distribute the poles when the line had to be renewed, the telegraph company setting and insulating the line.

  11. The railroad company was to pay for stringing the railroad wire and insulating it, and for the necessary instruments, at the rate of thirty dollars per mile.

  12. The railroad company was not to allow any other tleegraph company to build a telegraph line upon its property.

  13. Railroad telegraph operators might accept public business at the ordinary tariffs, but should account to the telegraph company for all receipts. No messages, however, were to be accepted or sent so as to interfere with the railroad business.

By means of contracts similar in character to the summary form given above, the railroads obtained the use of telegraph lines which were essential to the efficient operation of their roads, while the telegraph companies were assured of protected routes on terms that amounted to a monopoly. Under this arrangement, every railroad depot, at a very small cost to the telegraph company, might be used as a telegraph office merely by installing a set of Morse instruments in a convenient corner. The station agent, having learned to operate a Morse key, became the joint employee of the railroad and telegraph company. [...] His was an important function in hundreds of small towns throughout the United States. Obviously, telegraph lines built along the public highways could not compete with those operating in conjunction with the railroads, and the telegraph companies enjoying railroad contracts were able to force their rivals from the field.

Sibley, Wade, Stager, Caton, and numerous other wide-awake telegraph leaders, had early become aware of the tremendous power that a series of favorable railroad contracts could give them. [...] [In 1854,] as an agent of the Western Union Telegraph Company, Wade, along with Anson Stager, entered the field of railroad relationships with striking success. [...] It was these railroad contracts, entered into during the 1850s and 1860s, which in later years made the position of Western Union almost unassailable. [...]

In spite of rivalries, difficulties, and misunderstandings, the relations between wire and rail were gradually adjusted, and the working alliance between them was extended until the railroad and telegraph systems of the continent had become inextricably bound up with one another. From this fusion, there emerged strong and aggressive communication and transportation systems which transformed the life of the nation.

Rise of the Associated Press


The Struggle for Foreign News Supremacy, March 1850


End of an Era

The telegraph, virtually unknown in 1832, had been so inextricably woven into the warp and woof of the national fabric two decades ater that the Superintendent of the Census, in his report for 1852, saw fit to devote twelve pages to the new industry. [...] With 23,283 miles of wire in operation and 10,000 more under construction, the telegraph was fast becoming the nervous system of the nation. Between 450 and 500 towns and villages had already been brought into communication with one another by this growing telegraph net, and new additions were being made almost daily.

While there had been no fewer than sixty-three [patent] claimants for different varieties of telegraph between 1820 and 1850, the Morse system [...] had rapidly eclipsed other less practical contenders. Of the total miles of wire in operation in 1852, more than 18,000 used the Morse machines, while House and Bain, the only other claimants worthy of mention, totaled but 2,400 and 2,012 miles respectively.

Telegraph Stations in the United States, the Canadas, & Nova Scotia - Compiled from Reliable Sources by Cha. B. Barr, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Telegraph Stations in the United States, the Canadas, & Nova Scotia

Compiled from Reliable Sources by Charles B. Barr, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Entered according to Act of Congress in the year 1853 by Charles B. Barr in the Clerk's Office of the Western District Court of Pennsylvania

[The Map Division of the Library of Congress has a zoomable high-quality image of this map online. A reprint of this map can also be purchased from the U.S. Historical Archive.]


The first American Telegraph Line was Morse's between Baltimore & Washington. The line was established in May 1844 when an appropriation was made by Congress to test the practicable operation of the invention. There is now upwards of 17,500 miles working under the Morse patent. The aggregate number of main and branch lines in the United States at present will number about one hundred. There is now completed and in operation 27,000 miles, and 40,000 more in process of construction. The route selected for a telegraphic communication to the Pacific by the Committee on Post Offices & Post Roads appointed by Congress in the session of 1854 is that surveyed by Capt. W. W. Chapman, U.S. Army. It commences at the city of Natchez, Miss. and extending through Texas in latitude 32°, crossing at the head of the Gulf of California to San Diego, thence along the road to Monterey and San Francisco; distance 2,400 miles. The systems of Morse and House are those now used in this country. The extent of telegraphic communication completed and in operation throughout the world at the beginning of the present year may be estimated at 40,000 miles. Of this amount, there are 4,000 miles in Great Britain and 27,000 in America. Russia has commenced her system of Telegraphs between St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Cracow, and the ports of the Baltic & Black Seas. About 4,000 miles are shortly to be constructed in India.

Lines of telegraph now in operation between Vera Cruz and the City of Mexico, Morse Patent, with stations at all the intermediate cities and towns. A line is contemplated to extend from the City of Mexico to Acapulco on the Pacific, 300 miles. There is now in process of construction on the Island of Cuba 1,200 miles Telegraphic Lines, House Patent, gathering 51 stations. Total cost estimated at $406,700.

[...] On January 1, 1846, the total wire mileage in the United States had amounted to little more than the 40 miles which stretched between Baltimore and Washington. Two years later, it had risen to more than 2,000 miles; the following two years witnessed a 600 percent jump to 12,000 miles; and that total had almost doubled, to 23,283 miles, by 1852.

In the brief span of six years, indifference had given way to enthusiasm. [...] By 1852, eleven lines of telegraph were to be found radiating in all directions from the great commercial city of New York. Even the comparatively remote State of Ohio could boast of 3,210 miles of wire, controlled by fourteen companies which were eager to serve the needs of the public. [...]

Organization within the industry, however, had not kept pace with this remarkable expansion program. Rate-making was an enigma. There appeared to be no common basis for determining rate structures on the part of the different companies. The cost of building telegraph lines had varied greatly, depending upon the nature of the country through which they passed, the number of streams to be crossed, the price of labor, the quality of the materials used, and the care with which they were constructed. Some flimsy, rapidly built lines had been erected for as little as $50 or $100 a mile, while other well-constructed lines had cost $200 a mile or more. Under the circumstances, the officers of the different companies established their rates more or less blindly, and would have been hard pressed to explain how they were computed.

The usual charge for transmission was twenty-five cents for ten words or less, sent one hundred miles, but charges for longer distances varied considerably on the different lines. [...]

These tariffs were subject to change without notice, and competition over a route sometimes resulted in a bitter rate war and fluctuating tariffs. On the New York-Boston route, for example, the contest between F. O. J. Smith's Morse line and the rival Bain company had resulted in a gradual reduction of the customary twenty-five cent rate, to ten cents. Then with the union of the lines in July 1852, the old twenty-five cent fee had been promptly restored.

Magnetic Telegraph Co. Rates of Charges - October 18th, 1847

[...] Hours of labor [for telegraph operators] were uniformly long, the average being about fourteen a day. Many times, operators were called upon to work overtime and on Sundays, to accomodate press dispatches and other special messages. In the larger cities they were paid for overtime, but those employed at the way-stations usually received nothing. Moreover, the operating and battery rooms of the average telegraph office were small, dirty, and poorly ventilated. [...]

While the telegraph, under the tutelage of private industry, had made rapid strides in many respects, its development on the technical side had been relatively slight. Copper wire had been supplanted by iron wire, which was cheaper and less subject to breakage under varying weather conditions. The discovery of gutta-percha as a coating for wires for submarine purposes had offered the first practical solution to the problem of river crossings. The use of heavier poles of such durable wood as cedar or cypress, and deeply set, had begun to give lines a greater degree of permanence. Improved methods of insulation had brought more efficient operation, but results were still far from satisfactory. "In rainy and foggy weather, all the telegraph lines in the country are unreliable, and worked (if at all) with extreme difficulty," declared the editor of the American Telegraph Magazine, in an article on the subject of insulation, in the December 1852 issue of his publication.

American Telegraph Magazine - Vol. 1, No. 1. - New York, October, 1852 - Donald Mann, Editor

[...] The Morse instruments had undergone little change, and the old Grove battery continued to be the chief source of power for both main and local purposes. [...] To serve as a goad to the ingenuity of its superintendent, the Washinton & New Orleans line had ordered that he be paid but half his regular emolument when the line was working only one way, and nothing at all if the line was completely dead.

The most marked improvement occurring during the era of methodless enthusiasm had been in the operators themselves. With constant practice and experience had come skill, so that by 1849 many were finding the "extraordinary feat" of taking their messages by sound to be quicker and more efficient than the former method of translating the dispatch slowly from a strip of paper upon which it had been recorded. [...]

In spite of the telegraph's numerous shortcomings, men from all walks of life had been obliged to draft the new means of communication into their service. [...] Besides economic interests, social and political groups were likewise served. [...] The introduction of police and fire alarm telegraphs, moreover, brought to thousands of people residing in the principal towns a degree of security which they had not known before. [...]

Dr. William F. Channing of Boston, viewing the development of the industry through the eyes of a medical man, very aptly compared the role of the telegraph in modern society with that of the nervous system in the human body. "The electric telegraph is the nervous system of this nation and of modern society, by no figure of speech, by no distant analogy. Its wires spread like nerves over the surface of the land, interlinking distant parts, and making possible a perpetually higher cooperation among men, and higher social forms than have hitherto existed. By means of its life-like functions, the social body becomes a living whole, and each of its new applications marks a step in the organization of human life."

While the extension of the telegraph to nearly all the settled portions of the United States was thus revolutionizing many phases of life in this country, a similar development was taking place in Canada, Europe, and other civilized regions of the world. By the close of 1852, more than half a dozen companies had built a total of 983 miles of telegraph in Canada, and hundreds of miles more were projected and under construction. Outstanding among Canadian lines was the Montreal Telegraph Company under the efficient supervision of Orrin S. Wood, a brother-in-law of Ezra Cornell, who had gone to Canada to build lines in 1847. With the backing of such wealthy and able men as Andrew Shaw, James Dakers, H. P. Dwight, and Sir Hugh Allen, the company was a success from the start. During the 1850s, it was gathering all the important Canadian lines into a single great system, just as its American counterpart, the Western Union Telegraph System, was shortly to do in the United States.

Among the European nations, England stood next to the United States in the extent of its telegraph lines, with about 4,000 miles of wire in operation. Quality rather than quantity had been stressed by the English in the building of their lines, the cost of construction in some cases amounting to $600 per mile. As a result, the English lines were undoubtedly superior to those in the United States, and many of the operating difficulties which plagued the early American companies were avoided. Charges for transmission, however, were much higher than in the United States, one [English] penny [equivalent of two American cents] per word being charged for the first 50 miles and one farthing per mile for any distance beyond 100 miles. While a message of twenty words could be sent a distance of 500 miles in the United States for one dollar, a similar message in England would have cost seven. As a result, the telegraph was little used by the general public and press. It is interesting to note, however, that the closest cooperation existed between the telegraph and the railroad companies; English railroads considered the telegraph an indespensible agent to the operation of their trains. In June 1852, a submarine cable had been completed between Dover and Ostend, placing London in communication with such European centers as Paris, Trieste, Cracow, Odessa, and Leghorn; and wires were already being carried on to St. Petersburg and into India and Africa. Not many years were to pass before much of the British Empire was joined to the mother country by telegraph.

Prussia, France, Austria, and the smaller European countries were also extending their lines rapidly. In Prussia, there were some 1,700 miles of telegraph in operation; in France, where the telegraph was entirely government-controlled, only 750 miles; in Austria, 1,053 miles; in Saxony, 265 miles; and in Baravia, 455 miles. Additional lines were either built or building in Holland, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Russia, and Sweden.

In fact, the telegraph was beginning to find its way into almost every civilized portion of the globe. Lines were being projected in Cuba, Mexico, Central and South America, Africa, India, and Australia. And everywhere, the simple Morse instrument -- sturdy, inexpensive, and easy to operate -- was gradually replacing all rivals.

By the close of 1852, over 40,000 miles of telegraph webbed the surface of the earth. The communication systems of the United States, Canada, England, France, Prussia, far-distant India, and many other regions had been completely revolutionized. Messages which had formerly taken days, weeks, or even months to reach their destination by coach, steamship, and railroad, now sped, as though by magic, hundreds of miles almost instantly. The whole civilized world was entering upon a new era of speed and interdependence.

Emergence of the New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company

The erratic movement toward cooperation and consolidation among the numerous telegraph companies which had already made itself strongly evident in the years 1847-1852, progressed with amazing rapidity in the period from 1853 to 1860. Indeed, these years may well be termed the era of consolidation, for from them emerged a few clear-cut organizations having definite areas in which they were sovereign. [...]

Battle for the West, 1863 - Rival Systems

[...] That one hundred thousand dollars [collected via stock and loans, in 1854], with what was gained by the consolidation with the House lines outside of the State of New York, constituted the property of the Western Union Telegraph Company (called the New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company during this period) and soon exceeded in value the whole assessed value of the property real and personal of the city of Rochester. [...]

Colossus of the West: the Western Union Telegraph Company

In the spring of 1856, the New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company discarded its cumbersome name. Under the acts of the Wisconsin Legislature of March 4, 1856, and of the New York Legislature of April 4, 1856, the young concern was reincorporated as the Western Union Telegraph Company, a name under which it was to rise in two short decades to become the largest and most powerful corporation in the United States. [...]

The tasks facing the Western Union management in the next few years were to require its utmost energy and ability. Hundreds of miles of line acquired by lease and consolidation had to be rebuilt according to improved standards of construction, numerous extensions had to be erected, the service had to be improved-- in short, order and system were to replace confusion. By 1856 also the natural affinity of railroad and telegraph was becoming clear, and the progressive leaders in both industries were eager to join wire and rail to their mutual advantage. Sibley, Wade, Stager, Caton, Green, and others labored ceaselessly to secure exclusive contracts for lines along the important railroad rights of way in their territories. To no small degree, the future greatness of Western Union was built upon the dozens of exclusive railroad contracts drawn up by its founding fathers. [...]

By 1857, the Western Union Telegraph Company was dictator of the wires in the West. Through the construction of a few lines and the lease or purchase of many others, it had become a vast telegraph system with its lines reaching from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York on the Atlantic seabord, to Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Louisville, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis in the west. Dozens of feeders extended out from the main trunk lines into nearly every profitable point in the States of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and parts of Wisconsin and Missouri. [...]

Many a man might have been content to rest on his laurels after such an accomplishment. But Hiram Sibley, with true pioneer instinct and autacity, was already eagerly talking about and investigating the possibilities of a telegraph to the Pacific. Nearly two thousand miles of open plains and deserts, and savage Indian tribes, separated the telegraphic outposts of the nation in Missouri from the pioneer lines which had begun to spring up in the distant State of California. Friends warned of the impossibility of a transcontinental line, but in spite of all the hardships and risks involved, Sibley became convinced of its feasibility. [...]

The next few years were such busy ones in the industry that Sibley was obliged to let his transcontinental project rest, but it was not forgotten. The name of Western Union was to be carried to the far Pacific, and made to embrace all the important telegraph interests in the United States, and even beyond, before Sibley and his chief lieutenants retired from the field.

Emergence of the American Telegraph Company

While the Western Union Telegraph Company was consolidating the telegraph interests in the West, a similar movement had been proceeding in the East. In 1854, Cyrus W. Field, a retired merchant of New York City, had become interested in telegraphic communication as the result of a series of conversations with an ambitious Canadian promoter, Frederick N. Gisborne. [...]

Gisborne approached Field at a favorable time. Two years previously, at the age of thirty-three, Field had retired from the wholesale paper business in New York City with a modest fortune. He had not found release from active participation in business enterprise to his liking. At the time Gisborne approached him, therefore, Field was looking for a new venture in which to engage an active mind. He listened with interest to Gisborne's proposal for extending the telegraph to Newfoundland, but in the course of their conversations, Field's mind went one step further. Why not go ahead after reaching the easternmost point of Newfoundland, and establish direct telegraphic communication by cable with England and Europe via Ireland? The idea obsessed him, and after a careful examination of the project by experts, it was declared to be entirely feasible. [...]

Less than a year after Field and his associates had formally launched their enterprise [on May 8, 1854], the American Telegraph Company had become a force to be reckoned with in the industry. With its allies, it controlled a line of telegraph along the seaboard from St. John's, Newfoundland, to Boston and New York; and plans were well advanced for laying a transatlantic cable, which would give the American Company's land lines an exclusive connection with Europe. [...]

The "Treaty of the Six Nations", or Six Party Contract

As the ambitious plans of the American Telegraph Company unfolded, leaders of other companies in the industry were disturbed. With the progress that company had made in absorbing and gaining control of telegraph interests northeast of New York, it threatened to become a formidable competitor, whether the Atlantic cable succeeded or not. And should the cable succeed, many felt that the whole telegraph interest would be almost at its mercy. [...]

Kendall, therefore, determined to invite the representatives of all the companies in the city [of New York], including the American, to meet in a general convention "for the purpose of devising a plan for harmonizing all interests and protecting existing lines". [...]

Tentative articles of agreement were drawn up on July 7, 1857. [...]

Between the drafting of the articles and their adoption in August, Caton's Illinois & Mississippi was also drawn into the alliance, thereby making six powerful companies party to the cabal. On August 10, meeting in plenary session, the "Treaty of the Six Nations", or the "Six Party Contract" as it was more commonly called, was ratified; non-member organizations shortly began to feel its pressure. [...]

Through a careful territorial division of the United States, each "Nation" was to be absolutely sovereign in an area allocated to it. The American Telegraph Company was designated as the exclusive owner of the Hughes patent rights for all of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, the New England states, Long Island, Staten Island, the States of New Jersey, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and for a line through Mississippi and Louisiana to New Orleans; also for that part of New York north of the latitude of Troy and east of the Champlain canal, as well as the rights for lines on certain additional routes. The New York, Albany, & Buffalo received most of the remainder of New York State, while the Atlantic & Ohio was to have most of the State of Pennsylvania. The great power in the West, of course, was Western Union, which was to have hegemony over the States of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan; most of Wisconsin; small portions of western New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia; and certain specified routes in Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, and Kentucky. The New Orleans & Ohio Telegraph Lessees was to dominate the lower Mississippi Valley, having as its territory Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and most of Alabama; while Caton's Illinois & Mississippi and allied lines were to dominate the upper Mississippi Valley, with exclusive privileges for most of Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota, and for certain routes in Wisconsin and Missouri. Within its allotted territory, each party was entitled "to the exclusive enjoyment of all telegraph business".

Six Nations' Alliance - August 10, 1857

To avoid competition between the contracting parties over certain routes where there was duplication of service, the business was to be carefully pro-rated among the parties concerned. As an additional step toward future harmony, no competing lines were to be built in the several territories as established, nor the patent rights sold therefor. Moreover, the "Six Nations" pledged themselves to exchange business exclusively with one another, except for existing contracts. [...]

In short, the new alliance aimed at nothing less than a monopoly of the nation's telegraph business by the signatories to the Six Party Contract. Within their assigned spheres of influence, each member company was to strive to consolidate with or otherwise eliminate existing competition, and to prevent the erection of future rival lines. [...]

On the morning of August 6, 1857, the cable-laying fleet had streamed out of Valentia Bay, Ireland, bound for the far off Newfoundland shore. The expedition had succeeded in laying about 380 miles of cable, when on August 10, the slender metal thread snapped, and half a million dollars vanished beneath the waves.

Title Page of the Popular Sheet Music, "Atlantic Telegraph Polka", Dedicated to Cryus W. Fields in Honor of the Laying of the Atlantic Cable, 1858

[...] After months of strnuous effort and at great expense, a second cable expedition had been organized. On June 25, 1858, four ships of the cable-laying fleet had met in the mid-Atlantic, spliced the cable ends, and sailed for their respective shores-- Newfoundland and Ireland. All had gone well for the first eighty miles; then suddenly the cable parted. Returning to mid-ocean, they spliced the cable and set out hopefully. Once more, their efforts were doomed to failure. When the two sections of the fleet were about two hundred miles apart, the cable again snapped and the ships were obliged to return to Ireland for further supplies and instructions. Field was not to be discouraged. On July 17, the ships met at their mid-Atlantic rendezvous once more, spliced the cable, and headed for shore. This time all went well, and on the evening of August 4, 1858, a cable linking the Old World with the New was a reality.

The public was overjoyed at this most recent conquest of man over nature. Wild rejoicing occurred, and plans were made for a great public celebration on September 1. But the rejoicing was premature; the insulation proved faulty, and the signals became more and more feeble. As the day for the great celebration drew near, the cable had become useless. Instead of receiving a public ovation, Field was denounced as a charlatan, and his Atlantic cable was a subject of derision. Nevertheless, Field's faith in his grand design remained unshaken. He resolutely determined to try again as sono as the necessary money could be obtained. [...]

The trend of the times was toward fewer but larger companies, and those closely bound together by agreements. The goal toward which the North American Telegraph Association had directed its energies for sometime had been the establishment of a monopoly over the industry. That goal was virtually achieved by the agreements of October 12 [, 1859].

Titan of the East: The American Telegraph Company

[...] The position of the American Telegraph Company along the Atlantic seaboard was now believed to be almost impregnable. [...] It had the best, and in many instances the only available, routes for telegraph lines. [...] It held exclusive contracts for lines of telegraph along the leading railroads. It owned or controlled different sets of wires, over different routes, and connecting the principal cities. It held or controlled an extensive network of side lines. And as a member of the North American Telegraph Association, it enjoyed the benefit of exclusive business connections with all the great telegraph companies in the United States and Canada. With 283 offices and 13,500 miles of wire, the American Telegraph Company dominated the telegraph industry along the Atlantic seaboard. Stretching virtually unopposed from Newfoundland to New Orleans, the vigorous young Titan of the East gave promise of a bright future.

The Irrepressible Conflict

By 1860, a complete transformation had taken place in the telegraph industry. Instead of dozens of little uncoordinated units operating under rival patets, there was one great telegraph fraternity -- the North American Telegraph Association -- whose members ruled the nation's communications. [...] Through consolidations and long-term leases, they had absorbed or controlled hundreds of formerly independent companies, and they had begun to bring a semblance of order into a hithero chaotic industry. [...]

[But] leaders of the American Telegraph Company continued to sponsor actively Cyrus W. Field's project for an Atlantic cable, while those of Western Union, ably led by Hiram Sibley, earnestly advocated the construction of a telegraph line to connect the United States east of the Mississippi with California. [...] Robert W. Russell and some of the other American Telegraph leaders shortly brought forward a scheme for a southern transcontinental line, from New Orleans across Texas and New Mexico Territory, to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Constructing the Transcontinental Telegraph Line. A Scene from the Motion Picture, "Western Union".

"Building of the Transcontinental Telegraph". A Painting by W. H. Jackson.

Telegraph Office on Main Street, Salt Lake City, Where the Lines from East and West were Joined on October 24, 1861.

[...] By the close of 1860, it was becoming increasingly clear that the telegraph field was not big enough for six, or even two, companies. There had developed within the industry an irrepressible conflict. The telegraph was a natural monopoly, and men like Hiram Sibley and Jeptha H. Wade would not rest content until the nation's telegraph interestys had been brought under unified control. But the telegraph war which loomed on the horizon at the close of 1860 was soon engulfed by that larger conflict, the Civil War.

The Telegraph in California

During the 1850s, while railroads, steamships, and telegraphs were binding the states east of the Mississippi closer together and laying the foundations for a new economic order, another nation looking out upon the mighty Pacific Ocean, yet also claiming to be part of the United States, was growing up nearly two thousand miles away. The discovery of gold in California in January 1848 had brought thousands of people from all ends of the earth pouring into this latest El Dorado; the single year 1849 saw an influx of over 80,000. [...]

Separated from the rest of the Union by two thousand miles of prarie, desert, and mountain country, the bonds which united the new state with the central government at Washington were more sentimental than real. Overland transportation by stage coach required about sixty days, while the trip by way of Panama or around the Horn took even longer. [...] The cry went up for speedier transportation between the two extremes of the naton, and Congress was bombarded with memorials and bills asking federal aid for the construction of a transcontinental railway.

Nearly as imperative as the prompt transportation of men and goods was the need for more rapid communication between East and West. As early as 1849, the irrepressible Henry O'Reilly had offered to solve this problem by building a line to link the westernmost outpost of the telegraph in Missouri with remote California, and Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois had presented a memorial to that effect. Like so many of O'Reilly's schemes, however, the project was premature. [...]

Meanwhile, the lusty young state of California had awakened to the value of the telegraph as a means of rapid communication. Prior to 1852, its population shifted so rapidly from place that it would have been useless to set up telegraph poles. No sooner would the line have been completed, than the community it had been intended to serve would have moved on to greener pastures. By 1852 the gold fever had begun to abate somewhat, business was settling down, and future commercial centers were well indicated.

In May of that year, two enterprising promoters from New York, Oliver E. Allen and Clark Burnham, obtained from the legislature of California a franchise giving them the right to establish a line of telegraph between San Francisco and Marysville via San José, Stockton, and Sacramento. They were to enjoy exclusive rights over this route for fifteen years, and in return were obligated after three years to pay the state 3 percent of their net proceeds. (The company was released from this provision in 1866.) A further provision of their franchise required that the line be in operation by November 1, 1853. The California Telegraph Company, organized to carry out this project, met with many misfortunes, and as a result of severe losses from the great fire which swept San Francisco in 1852, the partners, Allen and Burnham, and their associates were finanically unable to build the line.

New capital was enlisted to save the valuable franchise, and on June 1, 1853, the concern was reorganized as the California State Telegraph Company, with a capitalization of $300,000. John Middleton was elected president; E. R. Carpentier, secretary; and Joseph C. Palmer, treasurer. After many delays, work was begun on September 13, 1853, with only six weeks remaining in which to coplete the line before the expiration of the contract. The company's superintendent, W. B. Ransom, had been fortunate in securing the services of a seasoned telegrapher, James Gamble, who had left the employ of Judge Caton's Illinois & Mississippi Telegraph Company the previous year to seek his fortune in the West. As supervisor of construction, Gamble with a little band of five men set out courageously to erect two hundred miles of telegraph through a rugged and undeveloped country. Working from sunrise to sunset, they were able to progress five or six miles on good days.

Great was the amazement of the people along the route as work on the mysterious new "lightning line" progressed. Many of them, not understanding the use of the poles with their cross arms, believed that the Yankees were fencing in the country with crosses to keep the devil out. When a certain devout Mexican woman of San José beheld them she exclaimed, "Well, I believe those Americans are becoming good Catholics!"

When the first regular telegraph office was opened at San José, interested spectators congregated in front of it hoping, in some manner, to fathom the mysteries of this strange new wonder called the telegraph. Observing the inquiring expressions on the faces of those who had managed to get near enough to thrust their heads through the open window, Gamble could not resist the impulse to act in a mysterious manner to see what effect it would have on his spectators. He had just received the first message from San Francisco which he had copied and placed in an envelope. On seeing him do this, his audience thought, as he supposed, that he was preparing a message for transmission. He then hid the dispatch under the table. As he did this he kept his eyes fixed intently on the wire out of doors, while with his right hand he began working the telegraph key. The moment the crowd heard the first click of the instrument, they all rushed from under the veranda out into the street to see the message in the envelope pass along the wire. As they failed to see it, their second supposition was that the wire was hollow and that the envelope with its message inclosed was forced through the hollow part to its destination.

After many vicissitudes, the line was completed to Marysville on October 25, six weeks from the day of its commencement, and the valuable franchise was saved. [...]

"No line in the world, of the same length, has ever done so large and profitable a business as that of the old California State Telegraph Company," stated Gamble in discussing its affairs some years later.

The prosperity of the California State Telegraph Company gave impetus to telegraph building in California. By January 1854, the Alta Telegraph Company had a line 121 miles in length completed and in operation, extending inland from Sacramento via Mormon Island, Diamond Springs, Placerville, Coloma, Auburn, and Grass Valley to Nevada City. [...]

Greedy promoters now organized companies and constructed lines with reckless abandon. The result was a period of fierce rivalry, litigation, and chaos-- an era of methodless enthusiasm; but, as had been the case in the East, the end of the decade saw an irresistible movement toward consolidation.

The Pacific Telegraph Act

Agitation for a transcontinental telegraph was becoming more and more insistent by the mid-1850s. In May 1858, a group of Western promoters headed by two brothers, Frederic A. and Albert W. Bee, organized the Placerville, Humbolt, & Salt Lake Telegraph Comany, for the purpose of constructing a telegraph line from Placerville to Genoa in Carson Valley and thence to Salt Lake City. [...]

Having established a degree of harmony within the telegraph fraternity itself, leaders of the [North American Telegraph] Association now bent every effort to secure passage of the telegraph bill by Congress. In many respects, the time was propitious for the passage of such a measure. The ominous political situation made speedy intercourse with California highly desirable; and the commercial interests both East and West were enthusiastic backers of a transcontinental telegraph. The semi-weekly mail by the overland route took eighteen to twenty days. The inauguration of the Pony Express between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California only reduced the time to nine days. There remained, therefore, a very real need for a line of telegraph to speed up communication and to bind the two extremities of the nation more closely together. [...]

The much-amended measure which finally became law on June 16, 1860 -- commonly known as the Pacific Telegraph Act -- authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to advertise for sealed proposals for a ine of telegraph to be constructed within two years from July 31, 1860, from some point on the western boundary of the State of Missouri to San Francisco, by any route which the contractors might select. The contract was to be awarded for a term of ten years to the lowest responsible bidder, provided his proffer did not require more than $40,000 a year from the United States. During the ten-year term, the party or parties to whom the contract was awarded should have the right to use such unoccupied public lands of the United States as might be necessary for the right of way, and for the purpose of establishing stations for repairs. Such stations were not to exceed in number one for fifteen miles on an average of the whole distance, and no station was to occupy more than one-quarter section of land. Authority was also granted for the construction and maintenance through the territories of the United States of a branch line to Oregon on similar terms. [...]

In return for these privileges, the government was to be entitled to priority use of the line, and with the approval of Congress might connect with it any of the military posts of the United States. The use of the line was to be given free of cost to the Coast Survey, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Observatory, for scientific purposes. The line was to be open to the use of all citizens on payment of the regular charges, which were not to exceed three dollars for a single dispatch of ten words, with the usual proportionate reductions for longer dispatches; and all messages received were to be impartially transmitted in the order of their receipt. [...]

On to the Pacific

[...] Quite a few believed the difficulties in the way of constructing and maintaining a Pacific telegraph line were almost insuperable. What was to prevent the Indians from tearing down the wires as fast as they were put up? Would not the poles be swept away by the irresistible movements of the immense herds of buffalo then roaming over the plains? In addition, there were other serious practical obstacles such as securing and transporting poles across the vast plains area, and repairing hundreds of miles of line stretching through uninhabited regions, as yet unpenetrated by the railroads. Finally, there was the important question of whether the amount of business to be depended upon after the line was constructed would be sufficient to pay the high cost of maintenance. Under the circumstances, quite a few of the [North American Telegraph] Association members favored suspending all action pending the passage of a more satisfactory measure by Congress. [...]

Official acceptance of [Western Union president Hiram] Sibley's bid [of $40,000] for construction of the Pacific line was communicated by Howard Cobb, the Secretary of the Treasury, on September 20, 1860. [...]

Transcontinental Line - 1861

Meanwhile, Western Union had sent Jeptha H. Wade to California to organize the chaotic telegraph industry there. Upon his arrival in November he had found four rival companies all anxious to join the Western Union interests in building the transcontinental line. An arrangement with one would have antagonized the others. Wade, therefore, told them that he would have nothing to do with any of them unless they would agree to consolidate; in which case they would be given the construction of the line from California to Salt Lake City, and an equitable share, according to distance, of the subsidies offered by the State of California and the Federal Government, as well as of the total receipts of the line. This incentive, along with the skillful negotiations conducted by Wade, shortly resulted in a consolidation of interests along the West coast under the California State Telegraph Company. [...]

All during the spring of 1861, the telegraph promoters were busy working out final plans for the construction of the transcontinental line. Much attention had been given to the important question of the route. Upon the recommendation of Edward Creighton, who had spent the entire summer of 1860 in the West surveying and gathering information, it was agreed that the Pacific Telegraph Company under his superintendence should construct a line from Omaha, Nebraska, up the Platte River via old Fort Kearney to Fort Laramie, then up the Sweetwater River, and through South Pass to Salt Lake. Simultaneously, the Overland Telegraph Company, under the superintendence of James Gamble, was to push a line eastward from Carson City through Ruby Valley, Egan Cañon, and Deep Creek, to join with Creighton's line at Salt Lake. But transcontinental service was not to wait for the completion of the lines. Through an arrangement worked out with the Pony Express, service was to cover the gap between the lines until their union was effected. As an incentive to speed up the work, it was agreed that the company completing its line to Salt Lake City first was to retain the full tariff received for messages between Omaha and San Francisco, until the entire line was complete. Should either party arrive at Salt Lake with their completed line fourt months in advance of the other, they were to receive $50 a day thereafter until the line was finished.

The specifications for the construction of the line called for poles of durable material and not less than twenty-five per mile; galvanized iron wire of the best quality was to be used; and the line was to be insulated in the best possible manner-- on the eastern section, the 'Wade' insulator was specified. Repeaters were to be provided so that communication could be carried on by either party as far as the junction of their respective lines at Salt Lake City without rewiring. The whole structure was to be finished by July 31, 1861, unless Congress should extend the time on account of any necessity which might arise. [...]

Gangs of men were organized to commence the work at a number of different points simultaneously. On the western section, Superintendent Gamble proposed to start one gang under the direction of James Street westward from Salt Lake City, while another under I. M. Hubbard was to push eastward from Carson City until the two should meet. Superintendent Creighton planned to follow a similar course in the construction of the eastern section. W. H. Stebbins was to direct the work from Salt Lake City eastward some four hundred miles, while Creighton himself would superintend the work on the remaining seven hundred miles to Omaha. [...]

The problems which confronted the telegraph builders on this heroic venture were many and varied. Wire and insulators for the western section had to be shipped from New York via Cape Horn to San Francisco and then hauled over the Sierra Nevadas to Carson City and beyond; or sent up the Missouri River and then overland across hundreds of miles of plain and desert to Salt Lake and on to their ultimate destination. Another perplexing problem was that of securing the necessary poles. Much of the territory that had to be traversed contained little native timber, and in some cases poles had to be hauled several hundred miles. [...]

In crossing desert regions, teams with barrels of water had to be kept abreast of the construction gang. In one instance, sixteen miles of line were built in one day in order to reach a point where water might be obtained by nightfall.

Still another problem of considerable importance and delicacy was that of gaining the good will of the Indian tribes through whose lands the line was to pass. [...] Shokup, chief of the Shoshones and an influential figure among the western tribes, after listening to [James] Street's careful explanation of the telegraph, expressed great interest in the white man's "wire rope express", as he termed it. [...] He dictated the following dispatch: "Shokup, Big Chief of the Shoshones, says to Big Captain at San Francisco, that his Indians will not trouble the telegraph line. Shokup is a friend of the white man. His people obey him. He will order them to be friendly with the white man and not injure the telegraph." [...]

An incident which tended to give the Indians respect for the telegraph is related by Gamble. One day as they were working on the line about two hundred miles east of the Sierra Nevadas, a thunder storm arose. The telegraph men, provided with buckskin gloves to protect them from the shock occasioned by violent lightning, were working hard to finish the day's mileage quota. A member of an Indian tribe that was watching the workmen came forward eagerly and grasped the wire to help; being in his bare feet and on moist ground, he received a shock which sent him running down the road like wildfire. Thereafter, no Indian along that section of the line could be induced to go near the wire or touch the poles under any circumstances. [...]

In order that no time should be lost, Hubbard's expedition organized a system. First, the route to be followed by the line was measured and staked off; hole diggers followed; then pole setters; and next the wire party. Even with such efficient organization, the line could not be strung at a rate of more than three to eight miles a day, depending upon the terrain. An advance telegraph station was maintained at the head of the line, and each day's progress reported. [...]

The last link in the great transcontinental chain was finally forged on October 24 [1861], just six days after Creighton had finished the eastern section. In little more than four months, a vast prarie and mountain barrier separating the two sections of the nation was spanned; and isolated California, whose only means of communication with the East had been the slow, hazardous journey over the plains, across the Isthmus, or around the Horn, was in close communication with the Atlantic coast-- and that, nearly eight years before President Stanford of the Central Pacific drove the historic gold spike connecting the oceans by rail. [...]

There followed a message from Horace W. Carpentier, President of the Overland Telegraph Company [to Abraham Lincoln]:

San Francisco, Cal.
October 24, 1861, 7:40 P.M.

To His Excellency, the President
Washington, D.C.

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.

Horace W. Carpentier
President, Overland Telegraph Company

Sibley's original intention had been to make St. Louis the eastern terminus or distributing point for Pacific news, but the tumult of the rebellion that had swept through the border states at the outbreak of the Civil War made it desirable to substitute some free-state center, and Chicago was selected. [...]

November found Caton's faithful lieutenant, E. D. L. Sweet, rushing construction on a line of telegraph across the State of Iowa so that transcontinental messages could be routed from Omaha via Council Bluffs, Des Moines, and Cedar Rapids, to Chicago. Writing to his employer from Des Moines on November 9, Sweet complained of the difficulty of getting laborers and teams; all had been taken by the army recruiting officers. Further trouble was encountered in securing good poles, and in order not to delay construction, he had been obliged to use cottonwood on part of the route.

In spite of the difficulties, the line was finished in early January 1862. [...]

Contrary to the expectations of many, the transcontinental line proved immediately and highly profitable. A heavy business was done the first few days at one dollar a word [later reduced], in spite of the clause in the Act of Congress fixing the charge at a maximum of three dollars for ten words. [...]

If Western Union was made to pay dearly for the great transcontinental line, it also derived great benefits from it. It controlled lines extending from ocean to ocean. Its business was large, its outlook brilliant, its position excellent, and its influence immense. It stood confessedly one of the largest and most comprehensive private enterprises in the world. Its directors were looked upon by many as business magicians. No project was too big, no venture too daring, so long as Hiram Sibley directed its course.

As a matter of fact, Sibley had begun, even before the line to the Pacific was completed, to make plans for another big undertaking. For several years, an energetic promoter, Perry McDonough Collins, had been at work upon a great international project for uniting the telegraph systems of the United States and Russia. Collins proposed to construct a vast overland line through British Columbia, Russian America [later Alaska], and northeastern Siberia to the mouth of the Amur River, on the Asiatic coast, where it was to be met by a Russian line which was already under construction from St. Petersburg. The plan possessed many obvious advantages. Everywhere, the line would run overland, except for a short distance at Bering Strait. There was the possibility also of extending it eventually down the Asiatic coast to Peking and the populous commercial centers of China. [...]

Collins had turned quite naturally to Hiram Sibley for assistance in carrying out his project, and the Western Union president, after a careful study of the scheme, became Collins' enthusiastic backer. [...] Writing to Collins in October [16,] 1861, Sibley declared, "[...] If the Russian government will meet us at Behring's Strait, and give us the right of way, etc., through their territory on the Pacific, we will complete the line in two years, and probably in one. The work is not more difficult than we have already accomplished over the Rocky Mountains and plains to California; and, in my opinion, the whole thing is entirely practicable, and that, too, in much less time and with much less expense than is generally supposed by those most hopeful. No work costing so little money was ever accomplished by man that will be so important in its results. The benefit resulting to the world will pay the entire cost of the line every year after completion while the world continues to be inhabited by civilized man; and it is to me a matter of surprise," concluded Sibley, "that any intelligent person, at all familiar with building and working telegraph lines in the West, should doubt the practicability of the successful working, after built, of a line to Behrings' Strait."

Professor Morse, in reply to a query from Collins, also pronounced the proposed project entirely feasible, asserting that there was no serious obstacle to be apprehended from climatic or geographic considerations. The next few years, however, were consumed with the exigencies of the Civil War; and the Russian-American project, while not forgotten, was held in abeyance.

War Years: the American and the Southwestern Telegraph Companies

The terrible War between the States which burst upon the nation in the spring of 1861 had a profound effect upon nearly every phase of American life. Its impact upon the telegraph industry was an important factor -- perhaps the decisive factor -- in the struggle between the leading companies for control of the industry. The immediate effect of the war was to swamp all of the lines with business. Armies had to be raised, supplies provided, and countless details handled quickly. [...] Newspapers, eager for the latest bulletins, made lavish use of the wires. Papers which prior to the war had printed no more than two or three columns of telegraph news a day were soon printing two or three pages. Business men throughout the nation tried franctically to settle their affairs before all contact between the sections was broken. Revenues of the telegraph companies skyrocketed as North and South prepared for combat.

Some of the companies were more advantageously situated to profit from the war than others. Those extending from north to south across the Mason-Dixon line and the Ohio River were soon cut in two; as the war continued, much of their property was destroyed, and their development checked. Those extending from east to west, on the other hand, were particularly favored. Being so situated as to link the loyal states with one another, they found the war years a period of golden harvest and growth.

The splendid communications system which the American Telegraph Company had developed along the seaboard from Newfoundland to New Orleans was rudely torn asunder by the war. On April 19 [1861], a company of militia seized the Washington office, and the next month was one of constant interference and confusion [...] resulting in the severing of telegraphic communcation between Washington and Richmond. Colonel Edward S. Sanford continued to direct affairs in the North, while the southern part of the company's system, reorganized as the Southern or Confederate Telegraph Company, was operated as an independent unit with Dr. William S. Morris, an important southern stockholder, as president.

Under the able management of Dr. Morris, the Southern Telegraph Company soon dominated the industry in the Confederacy. Shortly after the outbreak of war, Confederate Postmaster General John H. Reagan, on plea of military necessity, assumed nominal control of all telegraphs in the South. Reagan, in turn, chose no other than Dr. Morris as chief of military telegraphs. [...]

Notwithstanding the influence and success of the shrewd doctor in the handling of telegraph affairs in the Confederacy, leaders of the American Telegraph Company in the North viewed his activities with mixed feelings. Was it the intention of Dr. Morris merely to preserve and protect their southern property during the war years, or was he just waiting for an opportune time to declare it confiscated? [...]

With the company's property divided, much of it destroyed or damaged by the ravages of war, and the cable project completely halted, it was in no position to cope effectively with the bold tactics employed by that great rival, the Western Union Telegraph Company, in its campaign to dominate the industry. [...]

The lines of the Southwestern Telegraph Company, extending from Louisville south through the States of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, to New Orleans, were also severed. (The wire mileage of the company in 1861 was distributed as follows: Kentucky, 605; Tennessee, 567; Mississippi, 713; Louisiana, 253; Alabama, 35; for a total of 2,173 miles.) [...] George L. Douglas, long treasurer of the Southwestern, became acting president of the Confederate corporation. [...] On May 21, 1861, the Confederate Congress had passed an act declaring void the renewal on Morse's patent, thereby depriving the Southwestern Telegraph Company of all patent protection within the Confederacy. [...]

With the through business almost entirely destroyed, and local business from Memphis to Nashville just about enough to pay expenses, the company had to observe the most rigid economy. All building activities had been suspended, and the teams usually employed to make repairs during the summer had been dispensed with. [...]

Many miles of line in the war zone were being destroyed. Receipts from the southern section, while as large as could be expected, were in Confederate currency. [...]

In spite of continued pressure by Western Union during the ensuing months, the officers and stockholders of the Southwestern Telegraph Company stood firm and united.

War Years: the Illinois & Mississippi and the Western Union Telegraph Companies

In striking contrast with the difficulties and misfortunes of the American and Southwestern Telegraph Companies during the war years, were the experiences of the Western Union and the Illinois & Mississippi. Since these lines operated north of the Mason-Dixon line and the Ohio River, they were little ubject to the ravages of war. At the same time, both were recipients of a tremendous volume of governmental business. [...]

Lines were promptly repaired and extended so that military and governmental business could be handled rapidly and efficiently. [...]

A specific cause for ill-feeling [with Western Union] was the unsatisfactory manner in which the Illinois & Mississippi Company handled transcontinental messages. As a result of the war, these messages, it will be recalled, had been routed over Caton's lines through Iowa and Illinois to Chicago, instead of to St. Louis as originally planned. [B. H. Wilson wrote in "Across the Praries of Iowa", Palimpest, VII, p252-254, that] the cheap, hastily-constructed line through Iowa "suspended upon bean poles and corn stalks ... was down with every breath of the wind". Just when it was needed most, it was "utterly worthless".

The spring of 1862 found E. D. L. Sweet, [Judge] Caton's superintendent [in the Illinois & Mississippi], constructing a new line across Iowa with all possible speed. But Sibley and his Western Union associates refused to be pacified. The fundamental difficulty between the two companies was more deep-rooted than mere dissatisfaction on the part of Western Union with Illinois & Mississippi's service. Sibley was determined that every foot of the line to the Pacific coast should be controlled by Western Union. No other company could supply a link of the transcontinental line and manage it to his satisfaction. [...]

The Telegraph Construction Corps, Army of the Potomac, Brandy Station, Virginia, c. 1864 The Field Telegraph at the Battle of Fredericksburg, December, 1862

Telegraph Operator Tapping Rebel Telegraph Line Near Egypt, on the Mississippi Central Railroad Light Field Service

Such good fortune as had attended the Illinois & Mississippi during the war years was as nothing compared to the progress of the already powerful Western Union Telegraph Company. [...] The American Telegraph Company, crippled by the war, was no longer able to serve as an aggressive leader of the opposition to Western Union policies. [...] Sibley and his associates labored strenuously to convince [the smaller companies] that consolidation under Western Union management was the haven they sought. Moreover, while the American Telegraph Company's Atlantic cable project was stalemated by the war, Western Union's vast Russian-American project was being pushed with vigor. [...] A little more than six months after the outbreak of war, the general manager of Western Union had become chief for all the military telegraph lines of the United States as well. [...]

A few of the Pennsylvania Railroad's best telegraph operators were ordered to report to Washington where they were organized into the first United States military telegraph unit. One of their number, David Strouse, was invested with the power to erect and maintain such telegraphs as should be required by the War Department. His first task was to connect the War and Navy Departments with a telegraph line. Later, stations were established at Alexandria, Burke's Station, Fairfax, and other points in Virginia and the territory surrounding Washington. [...]

Meanwhile, in the West, [...] Anton Stager, already general superintendent of Western Union, [was appointed] as superintendent for military purposes of all telegraph lines within the [Military] Department [of the Ohio]. [...] A field telegraph system was also organized so that when [General George B.] McClellan's forces moved forward into western Virginia from Clarksburg through Buckhannon early in July 1861, "the first field telegraph that ever advanced with an army in America kept pace with this one". It soon became fairly accepted practice on the part of the Union armies for the telegraph service to follow them to the very edge of the battlefield. [...]

Superintendent Stager, in his first report, stated that from April 25 to November 15, 1861, there had been built for military purposes in the several departments, 1,137 miles of line, on which were 106 offices worked by 163 operators; of this total, 857 miles of line, 56 offices, and 80 operators were outside the Department of the Potomac. Describing the efficiency and value of the telegraph as an aid to military operations, Stager declared that "in many instances, the wires followed the march of the army at the rate of 8 to 12 miles per day, there being no other lines of communication upon the routes where these lines have been placed. The capacity of the telegraph for military service has been tested, and in affording rapid communication between the War Department, the Commander-in-Chief, and different divisions of the army, and in directing the movement of troops and the transportation of supplies, it may safely be asserted that it is an indispensable auxiliary in military operations. The organization of the Government Telegraph Department, under the direction of the Secretary of War, will add greatly to the efficiency of this branch of the service," concluded Stager. [...]

In striking contrast with the fabulous profits being made by companies like the Western Union and the Illinois & Mississippi, were the meager wages and unsatisfactory working conditions of labor of the hundreds of faithful employees of these concerns. The salary of the average operator remained between $70 and $90 a month, although by 1864 the greenbacks with which he was paid were worth only about forty cents on the dollar. His working day averaged from ten to fifteen hours, with no allowances for sickness. Sunday work was required of many of the men. The telegraph offices were small, dark, filthy, and poorly equipped. [...]

The telegraphers gradually turned to organization as a means of bettering their lot. In the autumn of 1863, the operators in Western Union's New York office met and appointend a committee to draft a constitution for a telegraphic union of national scope. [...]

The association was to be known as the National Telegraphic Union. [...] The first convention was held in Philadelphia on September 5, 1864. [...]

To disseminate information among its members and to provide them with general telegraphic news, the Union decided to publish a monthly review to be known as the Telegrapher. The first number was issued on September 26, 1864; and for more than a decade thereafter, it advocated measures which were believed to be in the best interest of the telegraphic fraternity.

The Telegrapher, Published By The National Telegraphic Union - "Is it not a feat sublime? Intellect hath conquered time." - F. L. Pope Dei., J. Trent Sc.

The Telegrapher, Published By The National Telegraphic Union - initial announcement

[...] An extensive government-owned and -operated military telegraph system which included additional hundreds of men and thousands of miles of wire had also come into being. A splendid military telegraph corps, which enrolled more than twelve hundred young men during the war, labored unceasingly to maintain military communications under any and all conditions. "The operators have shown great zeal, intrepidity, and fidelity," declared Quartermaster General Meigs in a report to Stanton. [...] Secretary of War Stanton, in his report to the President at the close of 1863, also warmly praised their work, declaring, "The military telegraph, under the general direction of Colonel Stager and Major Eckert, has been of inestimable value to the service, and no corps has surpassed, few have equalled, the telegraph operators in diligence and devotion to their duties."

On the first of July 1862, there were 3,571 miles in working order; during the following year, an additional 1,755 miles were laid, so that at the close of the fiscal year ending June 30, 1863, there were 5,326 miles of line in operation. Military telegraph lines were to be found in the District of Columbia, parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, and the Indian Territories. Approximately 1,200,000 telegraphs, varying in length from 10 to 100 words, had been sent over these lines during the year, or about 3,300 per day. [...]

Reviewing the situation at the close of 1865, Superintendent Stager declared that from the commencement of the rebellion, up to June 30, 1865, there had been constructed and operated about 15,000 miles of United States Military Telegraph-- land, submarine, and field lines. [...] Total expenditures for the construction, maintenance, and operation of the United States Military Telegraph during the period from May 1, 1861 to June 30, 1865, had amounted to $2,655,500. [...]

It is interesting to compare the above expenditures of the United States Government for military telegraphs with those of the Confederacy. On July 1, 1862, the Confederate Government had 16 military telegraph offices in operation, for which they employed 17 agents and operators; a year later, "offices in operation" had increased to 33, and operators to 33 also. Miles of line in operation on July 1, 1862 were 211; a year later, mileage had increased to 422. The year ending June 30, 1864 showed a slight further expansion of the military telegraph system in the Confederacy; offices in operation, 45; operators employed, 51; number of miles of line, 461. [...] The Confederates appear not to have regarded the telegraph as so essential as did the Federals. Frequently, telegraph lines were not extended from the main line offices to connect with the Confederate armies in the field. The Southerners relied upon the private companies to do most of their military telegraphing. The companies strove loyally to keep the armies supplied with service, and succeeded fairly well. Obviously, though, the telegraph system which served the Confederates was no match for its northern counterpart, either in efficiency or extent. [...]

Then in March 1864, had come news of Western Union's acceptance of the Russian-American project. The investing public visualized fabulous profits; New York, Chicago, and San Francisco were to be put into communication with St. Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, and London, with perhaps a branch line down the China coast to the great commercial centers of eastern Asia. There was even talk of extending another line from San Francisco and Los Angeles, southward to Mexico and Central and South America. The result was a period of dangerous excitement. [...] The stock at one time rose in value to $225 a share. [...]

While [merger] negotiations between the leading [remaining independent] telegraph companies were being dragged on month after month, numerous little lines were being quietly gobbled up by the rapacious Western Union. Then, late in 1864, word came out that Western Union had purchased a controlling interest in the important California State Telegraph Company. [...] The addition of the California State lines gave Sibley and his associates control of a communications system that stretched from New York and Philadelphia on the Atlantic, to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle on the Pacific. [...]

During 1863-1864, a number of companies were organized to build lines to compete with those of Western Union and the other old established firms. Several of these -- the Inland, the Inland Extension, the Independent, the United States, and the United States Extension Telegraph Companies -- proceeded to merge on August 3, 1864, the consolidated corporation retaining the felicitous name, United States Telegraph Company. [...] The merger brought under the control of the United States Tleegraph Company nearly 10,000 miles of line leading to many important points. [...]

While the United States Telegraph Company was rapidly extending its lines throughout the nation and apparently overcoming all opposition, the price it paid for its progress was out of all proportion to the value of the property secured. The concern which ultimately was to profit from the activities of the United States Telegraph, strangely enough, was none other than Western Union. [...]

Viewed in retrospect, the war years may be said to mark the turning point in the struggle for telegraphic supremacy. The American Telegraph Company, with its lines extending from North to South, had been torn asunder and its progress arrested by the conflict. The Western Union, on the other hand, with its lines stretching from East to West, had been in a position to take advantage of the unusual opportunities afforded by the war. That aggressive newcomer, the United States Telegraph Company, appeared to threaten both of the older concerns. As the Civil War drew to a close in the spring of 1865, the strategic position of the Western Union gave it a marked advantage over its rivals in the three-cornered contest for control of the industry which followed.

The Great Consolidations

[...] [After the Civil War,] there could be discerned in nearly every industry a clear and unmistakable trend toward fewer and larger units. That trend, as has already been shown, had progressed a long way in the case of the telegraph industry. In fact, the consolidation movement now entered its final phase, and the telegraph shortly emerged as the nation's first great industrial monopoly. [...]

With a nominal capitalization of $22,000,000 (actual stock issued: $21,355,100), possessing about 44,000 miles of wire, and 1,014 telegraph offices, Western Union was far ahead of its nearest rival, the American Telegraph Company, with a capitalization of $2,000,000 and about 23,000 miles of wire. The comparatively new United States Telegraph Company was a vigorous and rapidly growing third, with an authorized capitalization of $6,000,000 (actual stock issued: about $4,000,000) and nearly 16,000 miles of wire. [...]

In addition to the "Big Three" there were, of course, a number of smaller companies like the Illinois & Mississippi, which controlled the lines in Illinois and Iowa; the Southwestern, dominating the industry in Kentucky, Tennessee, and most of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas; and the newly organized Northwestern Telegraph Company, which had resulted from the consolidation of the principal lines in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The interests of these companies being confined to relatively limited regions, the concluding battles for national telegraphic supremacy, which now took place, were confied largely to the "Big Three". [...]

The continued prosperity of the company, declared [Jeptha H.] Wade [(who had replaced Sibley as Western Union president after his retirement on July 26, 1865)] in a report to the stockholders on October 1, 1865, absolutely depended upon [a far-reaching program of reconstruction and extension]. Many hastily and cheaply built lines were in an advanced state of decay, and would have to be thoroughly reconstructed at once if the company's business was not to suffer.

Moreover, the construction of hundreds of miles of new line along railroad rights-of-way was imperative if Western Union was to retain its hegemony in the West. [...] In order not to let rival interests get a foothold, therefore [(due to the many benefits of railroad/telegraph cooperation)], Western Union felt impelled to secure contracts with all the important railroads in its territory. The result was that in numerous instances, the company was obliged to erect new lines along railroad rights-of-way even though they covered practically the same territory as those that had been erected earlier along highways. [...]

Developments near the close of 1865 placed the American in a strong position to meet any competition its rival might offer. Both the American and Western Union Telegraph Companies had been wooing the strong and strategically situated Southwestern Telegraph for many months. Finally, in November, committees of the Southwestern and American had succeeded in arranging terms of consolidation satisfactory to both. [...]

The merger brought within the American Telegraph system animportant network of lines [...] aggregating approximately 4,800 wire miles in length. [...]

The United States Telegraph was in desperate straits [at the close of 1865, due to their carelessness and deceptiveness in stock issuances, including those for their proposed trancontinental competition line], and there was little reason to expect any marked improvement in the near future. [...]

Then suddenly [in early 1866], almost without warning, came the announcement that the United States Telegraph had accepted terms of consolidation with Western Union. [...]

There could be little doubt that the days of the independent companies were numbered. [...]

Intensive negotiations between the Western Union and American Telegraph Companies were carried on throughout the spring of 1866. Finally, on June 12, an agreement was concluded by President Wade and President Sanford for the merger of the two corporations. [...]

The Western Union Telegraph Company and Companies Owned By It, 1844 - 1900

The consolidations of 1866 created a mighty corporation with a combined capitalization of $41,063,100. [...] The combined lines should have provided the great monopoly with nearly 100,000 miles of wire. However, many of the lines of all three concerns at the time of consolidation were either worn out and practically worthless, or they merely provided the consolidated company with needless duplication of wires over the same routes. [...]

Linking the Continents, 1865. Proposed Routes of the Russian-American Telegraph Line and the Atlantic Cable

Linking the Continents

During the critical months that Western Union was engaged in bringing its great drive toward monopoly to a successful conclusion, another epic chapter was being written in the history of the telegraph industry. The struggle between the Western Union and American Telegraph Companies for the honor and profit of being the first to establish successful telegraphic communication with Europe was drawing to a close. The early months of 1866 found Western Union vigorously prosecuting its vast Russian-American project for linking the continents by a line through British Columbia, Russian America, and northeastern Siberia, to meet a projected Russian line at the mouth of the Amur River on the Asiatic Coast; at the same time, Cyrus Field and his British associates were equally busy preparing for one more attempt at the laying of a trans-Atlantic cable. [...]

It was foreseen, of course, that the Atlantic cable might succeed, and that such success would prove very damaging, if not fatal, to the prospects of the proposed "Overland Line". Such an event, however, did not seem probable, and after a careful examination of all the circumstances, the Western Union board of directors had decided to assume the inevitable risk. [...]

The execution of this mighty project was entrusted to Colonel Charles S. Bulkley, former superintendent of military telegraphs in the Department of the Gulf, who was appointed engineer-in-chief. In December 1864, he sailed from New York for San Francisco to organize and outfit exploring parties, and to begin active construction of the line. [...] Soon a motley telegraph army of several hundred men had been recruited. [...]

To expedite the work, Bulkley decided to commence at several points simultaneously. One exploring party under the command of Major H. L. Pope was landed in British Columbia near the mouth of the Fraser River in the autumn of 1865. Another, under Major Robert Kennicott, established its base on an island near Norton Sound to conduct operations in Russian America. A third, under C. L. McRae, was landed on the Asiatic side of Bering Strait at the mouth of the Anadyr River. During the winter and spring of 1865-1866, each of these parties was engaged in extensive exploring trips. All possible information with regard to climate, soil, timber, and inhabitants of the regions was obtained, and the location of a route for the proposed line was established.

The line was to extend from New Westminster, British Columbia, the proposed terminus of the California State Telegraph Company's line which was already nearing completion, for 1,200 miles along the Fraser River and the famous Caribou wagon train -- built shortly before to open the gold-mining country -- to Russian America. It was to continue for 900 trackless miles through this practically unknown region, to Bering Strait. Crossing to Asia at this point by means of a short submarine cable, it was to pierce the bleakest part of Siberia for another 1,800 miles to the mouth of the Amur River, where the Russians were to meet the Americans with a 7,000-mile line of their own from St. Petersburg. [...]

The Indians along the American coast had been misrepresented, for the exploring parties found them to be friendly, honest, and hospitable. The wooded country through which the line was to pass made the problem of securing the necessary poles relatively simple, and at the same time provided ample game. [...] Twenty-four steamers and vessels, in all, were at the disposal of the expedition. A series of "General Supply Depots" had been established at convenient points along the route, and arrangements made for the delivery to them of teams, wagons, arms, supplies, and telegraph materials of all kinds -- wire, insulators, instruments, batteries, and tools -- in sufficient quantities to complete the entire line. [...]

At this stage of developments, the Western Union management under the direction of its recently-elected president, Jeptha H. Wade, viewed the future with unbounded optimism. Through the construction of a network of subsidiary lines, the elated promoters visualised the commerce of all Europe, Asia, North and South America, as tributary to the Western Union system. [...] Russia, Western Union's partner in the great enterprise, already had lines to India and connections with the whole system of European telegraphs. [...]

In the spring of 1866, Bulkley's telegraph army, which had now swelled in numbers to well over a thousand men, began its great offensive. Poles were set -- some of them in solid rock, wires were strung, and supplies were distributed at convenient depots along the route. In spite of huge expenditures of both money and man-power, progress was somewhat disappointing. [...] The British-Columbian party, instead of following the feasible route explored the year before, had struck out into unexplored regions nearer the coast, and after building three or four hundred miles of line, had found themselves inextricably involved among impassable mountains. Major Kennicott, directing operations in Russian America, had been in failing health for some time, and on May 13, 1866, he was found dead by members of his party. Delay and confusion characterized the activity all along the way. [...]

[Meanwhile,] the steamer Great Easternat the docks of an English harbor was having coiled into her capacious hold, over two thousand miles of gutta-percha-covered cable. In spite of repeated failures, the indomitable Cyrus W. Field was once more preparing to lay a trans-Atlantic cable. [...]

On Friday, July 13, the Great Eastern, carrying the precious cable, once more started across the ocean for far-off Newfoundland. Two weeks later, on July 27, the cable was landed at Heart's Content. A short time later, a cable which had been lost the year before was found, picked up, spliced, and continued to the American shore, thereby giving the world two intercontinental cables. Cable service between Europe and America was officially opened to the public on August 26, 1866. A large and renumerative business followed, which soon handsomely repaid the projectors of the Atlantic cable.

Fortunately for Western Union, the land-line network, upon which the cable had to rely for the distribution of its inter-continental messages, had been brought under Western Union control with the absorption of the American Telegraph system in June. The success of the cable, therefore, brought greatly increased revenues to Western Union, and at least partly compensated for the blow which the cable dealt to the company's pet project-- the Russian-American line. [...]

In British Columbia, the construction party of about two hundred and fifty men, on receiving news of the completion of the cable, had remained in camp two or three days awaiting developments; and at the end of that time, finding the cable continuing to work well, they had set out for civilization, "leaving their tools, stores, and materials to the tender mercies of the Hudson Bay trapper and the native red man." [...]

The public was assured, by means of occasional paragraphs in the newspapers, that the Russian-American telegraph scheme was an undoubted success. Then on March 9, 1867, the Commercial and Financial Chronicle carried the following terse announcement: "It was decided at a meeting of the Directors of the Western Union Telegraph Company last week that in view of the successful working of the Atlantic Cable, it is not advisable to expend any more money on the Russian extension at present." [...]

After the Extension stock -- the greater portion of which was held by members of the board of directors -- had been secured upon the property of the Western Union Company through the issuance of Western Union bonds in exchange for the Russian Extension stock, the Russian-American project was precipitately abandoned, and the hundreds of small Western Union stockholders were required to absorb a loss of over $3,000,000. [...]

Even if bad management had not interfered with the completion of the vast Overland line, it is doubtful whether it could have competed successfully with the Atlantic cable. It was a question of 2,000 miles of cable against 16,000 miles of land line, half of which was along an unpopulated coast. [...]

Meanwhile, the Asiatic division, blissfully ignorant of events in the United States, had continued to push work on its part of the line. George Kennan, chronicler of the division, has recorded that they had explored and located the whole route of the line from the Amur River to the Bering Sea by the end of March 1867. Half a dozen working parties were in the field, and arrangements had been made to supplement their number with 600 to 800 hardy native laborers from Yakutsk. Fifteen to twenty thousand poles had been cut and prepared, and awaited only the arrival of 600 Siberian ponies to distribute them. An abundant supply of tools and provisions, as well as all the wire and insulators, were on the ground. The men felt hopeful that they should be able to get their part of the Overland line to St. Petersburg in working order before the beginning of 1870. So confident were some of the men that they were singing in pole-cutting camps to the tune of a popular war song:

In eighteen hundred and sixty eight
Hurrah! Hurrah!
In eighteen hundred and sixty eight
Hurrah! Hurrah!
In eighteen hundred and sixty eight,
The cable will be in a miserable state,
And we'll all feel gay
When they use it to fish for whales.

In eighteen hundred and sixty nine
Hurrah! Hurrah!
In eighteen hundred and sixty nine
Hurrah! Hurrah!
In eighteen hundred and sixty nine,
We're going to finish this overland line;
And we'll all feel gay
When it brings us good news from home.

The next news which Kennan and his colleagues received from home, however, was not of a nature to make them feel gay. On May 31, 1867, the vessel Sea Breeze of New Bedford, Massachusetts, was sighted. The next morning, Kennan and some of his party boarded her and conferred with her master, Captain Hamilton. The Captain wanted to know if they had been shipwrecked. They explained to him that they were trying to build a telegraph line.

"A telegraph line," he shouted. "Well, if that ain't the craziest thing I ever heard of! Who's going to telegraph from here?"

Having carefully explained their project to him, Kennan inquired about the Atlantic cable. [...]

The men were not long in ascertaining not only that the new Atlantic cable had been successfully laid, but that the broken cable of 1865 had been picked up in mid-ocean, repaired, and put in perfect working order. That information discouraged them more than anything else. If cables could be found in the middle of the Atlantic, picked up in 10 or 12,000 feet of water, and repaired on the deck of a steamer, the ultimate success of submarine telegraphy was assured. The Asiatic division might as well pack up and go home.

Kennan and his associates accordingly opened a sort of international bazaar, and proceeded to dispose of their superfluous goods upon the best terms possible. They cut the price of telegraph wire until that luxury was within the reach of the poorest Korak family. They glutted the market with pickaxes and long-handled shovels, which they assured the natives would be useful in burying their dead, and threw in a lot of frozen cucumber pickles and other anti-scorbutics which they warranted to fortify the health of the living. They sold glass insulators by the hundred as patent American tea cups, and brackets by the thousand as American kindling wood. They offered soap and candles as premiums to anybody who would buy their salt pork and dried apples, and taught the natives how to make cooling drinks and hot biscuits, in order to create a demand for their redundant lime juice and baking powder. They directed all their energies to the creation of artificial wants in that previously happy and contented community, and flooded the whole adjacent country with articles "that were of no more use to the poor natives than ice-boats and mouse-traps would be to the Quaregs of the Saharan desert".

In short, recorded Kennan, they dispensed the blessings of civilization with a free hand. But the result was not as satisfactory as the directors doubtless expected it to be. The market at last refused to absorb any more brackets and pickaxes; telegraph wire did not make as good fish-nets and dog-harnesses as some of the Americans confidently predicted that it would; and lime juice and water, as a beverage, even when drunk out of pressed-crystal insulators, beautifully tinted with green, did not seem to commend itself to the aboriginal mind. The saturation point having been reached, Kennan and his associates finally shut up shop.

[...] On December 16, 1867, the Russian minister, Baron Stoeckl, on behalf of his Government, and the officers of the Western Union, on behalf of the company, executed the official papers releasing each other from the engagements they had entered into so optimistically a few years before.

The huge expenditure of man-power and money upon the Russian-American line had not been entirely in vain. The construction of the line through British Columbia had aided materially in opening up that country, and the large expenditure of money by the telegrapher expedition proved a boon to the early colonists there. Moreover, the enterprise had added greatly to the United States Government's knowledge of Russian America, and was thus indirectly a factor in its later acquisition. In October 1867, Russian America was purchased by the United States and renamed Alaska.



Appendix 2: "An Act to Facilitate the Construction of Morse's Electro-Magnetic Telegraph", Passed by the State of New York, May 13, 1845

[The first general easement and protective telegraph act passed in this country, it served as a model for similar legislation in other States.]

The proprietors of the patent right of Morse's electro-magnetic telegraph may be and hereby are authorized to construct lines of said telegraph from point to point and across any of the waters within the limits of this State, by the erection of posts, piers, or butments for sustaining the wires of same: Provided, that the same shall not in any instance be so constructed as to endanger or injuriously interrupt the navigation of such waters; and provided also, that the private rights of individuals shall be in no wise impaired by the provisions of this act; nor shall this act authorize the construction of any bridge or other similar erection across any of the streams or waters in this State.

Any person or persons who shall knowingly or wilfully injure, molest, or destry any of said lines, or the materials or property pertaining thereto, shall, on conviction thereof, be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and be punished by fine or imprisonment, or both, at the discretion of the court which shall have and take cognizance thereof.

The legislature may, at any time, alter, modify, or repeal this act, and the same shall take effect immediately.


Appendix 4: Contract of Sanford J. Smith and Isaac Butts for Building a Line of House Printing Telegraph (New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company) from Buffalo, New York, to St. Louis, Missouri, September 6, 1850

This Agreement made this sixth day of September 1850, between Freeman M. Edson, and Samuel L. Selden, of the one part, and Isaac Butts, Sanford J. Smith, and Charles L. Sheperd, of the other part, witnesseth as follows: [...]

3. The said line shall have two conductors of iron wire, one designed for the through business, and the other to connect the various way stations, and shall be constructed in the following manner, to wit:

There shall be at least thirty poles to the mile where the line is straight, and whenever curves or angles occur, the number and size shall be increased as far as may be necessary to render the line as substantial and permanent as with thirty poles upon a straight line; such poles to be in ground, thirty feet in length, and to vary from that height only where the location may render it expedient; and shall be so placed that the wire or conductor shall not come into contact with trees or any other obstructions; and shall be at least twenty-seven inches in circumference four feet and a half from the butt, and not less than four inches in diameter at the top. The line or route to be surveyed by a competent person before the polles are set, whose duty it shall be to drive a stake wherever a pole is to be set, and to prescribe the size and height of the pole for each locality; the poles to be delivered and set in accordance with such survey, and all reasonable and practicable efforts shall be made so to adapt and set the said poles that the wire shall never come in contact with other telegraph lines or any obstructions whatever. And in all cases where the line built under this contract shall cross other lines, poles of sufficient height shall be set to carry this line at least six feet above the line to be crossed.

The through conductor shall be a single iron wire, weighing not less than six hundred pounds to the mile; and the way-conductor of like wire, weighing not less than four hundred and fifty pounds to the mile. The joints in the wire shall be made in the manner which shall or may be, at any time, directed by the said Royal E. House, and the insulator of the upper wire to be that recently invented by said House, and which is used upon the line now erecting between New York and Buffalo.

The poles, wherever it is practicable, shall be set five feet in the ground; and the wires shall be placed at least four feet apart on the poles, unless more than two wires are used upon one set of poles; but in no case shall they be less than three feet apart.

The poles to be of the most durable kind of timber that can be obtained along the route of the line. [...]

Appendix 5: Articles of Association and Incorporation of the New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company, April 1, 1851

Whereas, Sanford J. Smith and Isaac Butts, under and by virtue of a contract between them of the one part, and Freeman M. Edson and Samuel L. Selden of the other part, are entitled to the exclusive right of establishing and constructing a line of telegraph, to beoperated by the instrument known and patented under the name of "House's Printing Telegraph", between Buffalo, in the state of New York, and St. Louis, in the state of Missouri; and whereas, the said Sanford J. Smith and Isaac Butts are now engaged in constructing a line of telegraph between the places and for the purposes above mentioned: [...]

Article II. The route of the said Telegraph Line shall pass through this State [of New York], from the City of Buffalo, to the State of Pennsylvania, along the south side of Lake Erie. [...]

Article XV. The said Sanford J. Smith and Isaac Butts, are to construct said line from the city of Buffalo to the city of St. Louis, according to the contract hereinbefore mentioned, in the manner following, viz:

There shall be at least thirty posts to the mile, which shall be not less than thirty feet long; they shall also be twenty-seven inches or more in circumference four and a half feet from the butt, and twelve inches in circumference at the top; and they shall be set into the ground five feet. The posts shall be of the best timber -- reference being had to durability -- which is readily accessible on the route through which the line is to pass.

Upon these posts shall be stretched two conductors of single iron wire of the best quality, one of which shall weigh not less than six hundred pounds, and the other not less than four hundred and fifty pounds to the mile. The insulation used for the upper wire shall be that recently invented by the said Royal E. House, consisting of a heavy glass insulator, cast or moulded, with a screw to secure it at the top of the pole, and enclosed in a cast-iron cap, to which it is also secured with a screw; the side insulator shall be such as shall be approved by the said House. [...]

Appendix 10: Contract of the New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company and the New York State Printing Telegraph Companies with the Cleveland & Toledo, the Michigan Southern, and the Northern Indiana Railroad Companies, February 7, 1854

Articles of Agreement, made and entered into this 7th day of February, one thousand eight hundred and fifty-four, between The New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company, of the first part; Francis Morris, Hiram Sibley, and Freeman M. Edson, Trustees, appointed in and by a certain deed, bearing date the 18th day of April, 1853, to hold the undisposed of interests in House's Telegraphic Patents upon certain trusts therein mentioned, of the second part; the Cleveland and Toledo Rail Road Company, of the third part; and the Michigan Southern Rail Road Company, and the Northern Indiana Rail Road Company, of the fourth part; and the New York State Printing Telegraph Company, of the fifth part, witnesseth:

Article I. The Cleveland and Toledo Rail Company [...] will within twelve months from the date hereof, construct a Telegraph Line from Cleveland to Toledo, on or along the track of their Rail Road which passes nearest the shores of Lake Erie, and through the City of Sandusky, in the manner hereinafter particularly described. [...]

Article II. The Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana Rail Road Companies [...] will within twelve months from the date hereof, construct a Telegraph Line from Toledo to Chicago, on or along the track of their present Rail Road, running through Adrian, in the manner hereinafter particularly described. [...]

Article IV. The said Telegraph Line shall be constructed in a workmanlike manner and substantially, according to the following specifications, viz:

  1. The wire shall be of the best quality, weighing not less than six hundred pounds to the mile.
  2. There shall be at least thirty poles to the mile, which shall be firmly and securely set from four to five feet deep in the ground, according to the character thereof. They shall be either white oak, yellow cedar, or red cedar, or such other kind of timber as shall be satisfactory and approved by the person appointed as hereinafter provided to superintend the construction of the said Telegraph Line. They are all to be four inches in diameter at the top, and at the surface of the ground, when set, they are to be at least seven inches in diameter, if of red cedar, and at least nine inches in diameter if of white oak or other timber. They shall be at least twenty-five feet in length, and at all crossings of rail roads, streets, or highways, they shall be of suitable length to avoid all danger of contact with the wire. Wherever the Telegraph Line is not in a straight line, the poles shall be longer and stronger, and more firmly and securely set, than the others. The bark shall be taken off the poles before setting, and those in cities or incorporated villages shall be such as the municipal authorities shall require.
  3. The insulators shall be those commonly known as the "House-top-insulator", and shall be put on at the top in the most approved manner.
  4. Wherever the said Telegraph Line is to cross streams where there are draw bridges, the same shall be crossed with wire insulated with Gutta Percha, and to be sunk and secured in a proper and suitable manner, something like the crossing of the line of the said Telegraph Company at Cincinnati, or in such other manner as the person superintending the construction of the line shall direct.


Article VII. It is further mutually agreed by and between the parties hereto of the first, second, and third parts, that the said Cleveland and Toledo Rail Road Company, party of the third part, after they shall have constructed and completed the Telegraph Line from Cleveland to Toledo, along the Lake Shore Road as hereinbefore specified, shall have the right at any time, within five years from the date hereof, to construct a Telegraph Line from Toledo to Cleveland, along the track of their South or Norwalk Road, which line shall be constructed in the same manner as the line upon the Lake Shore Road, except as follows: that the wire may be smaller, but weighing not less than four hundred pounds to the mile, and poles may be one inch less in diameter at the surface of the ground, and the said wire may be strung on the same poles as the other wires, from Toledo to the point where the two tracks of said Rail Road divide; and from Grafton to Cleveland, the same may be strung on the poles of the present line, unless it shall be deemed inexpedient by the Telegraph Company to string the second wire on said poles, and in that case new poles shall be set from Grafton to Cleveland, by and at the expense of the Telegraph Company. Where the said wire is strung on poles with another wire, as above provided, the insulator to be used shall be what is called the "Lewis' Side Insulator", or such other side insulator as the Telegraph Company shall direct, and which shall not be more expensive than the Lewis' Side Insulator. [...]

Article VIII. It is further mutually agreed by and between the parties hereto of the first, second, and fourth parts, that the said Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana Rail Road Companies, party of the fourth part, after they shall have constructed and completed the Telegraph Line from Toledo to Chicago, on or along their road through Adrian as hereinbefore specified, shall have the right at any time, within five years from the date hereof, to construct a Telegraph Line from Toledo to Chicago, by their new road, now being built from Toledo to intersect their present road at Elkhart, which line shall be constructed in the same manner as the other line, except as follows: that the wire may be smaller, but weighing not less than four hundred pounds to the mile, and poles may be one inch less in diameter at the surface of the ground, and the said wire may be strung on the same poles as the other wires, from Toledo to the point where the two tracks of said Rail Road divide; and from Grafton to Cleveland, the same may be strung on the poles of the present line, unless it shall be deemed inexpedient by the Telegraph Company to string the second wire on said poles, and in that case new poles shall be set from Grafton to Cleveland, by and at the expense of the Telegraph Company. Where the said wire is strung on poles with another wire, as above provided, the insulator to be used shall be what is called the "Lewis' Side Insulator", or such other side insulator as the Telegraph Company shall direct, and which shall not be more expensive than the Lewis' Side Insulator. [...]

Appendix 14: The Six Party Contract, or Treaty of the Six Nations - Articles of Agreement for the Union, Protection, and Improvement of Certain Telegraph Lines in North America, August 10, 1857



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