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The History of the US Telegraph

Samuel Morse

While a professor of arts and design at New York University in 1835, Samuel Morse proved that signals could be transmitted by wire. He used pulses of current to deflect an electromagnet, which moved a marker to produce written codes on a strip of paper - the invention of Morse Code. The following year, the device was modified to emboss the paper with dots and dashes. He gave a public demonstration in 1838, but it was not until five years later that Congress (reflecting public apathy) funded $30,000 to construct an experimental telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore, a distance of 40 miles.

Six years later, members of Congress witnessed the sending and receiving of messages over part of the telegraph line. Before the line had reached Baltimore, the Whig party held its national convention there, and on May 1, 1844, nominated Henry Clay. This news was hand-carried to Annapolis Junction (between Washington and Baltimore) where Morse's partner, Alfred Vail, wired it to the Capitol. This was the first news dispatched by electric telegraph.

The establishment of telegraphic communication between the principal cities of California had the effect of making the people on the Pacific Coast realize more clearly their isolated position from the rest of the Union, and the question of an overland telegraph was at once agitated. The matter had already, in point of a fact, been considered in Congress soon after the acquisition of this territory by the United States. The plan thought to be the most feasible, among the several suggested, was one by the Hon. Stephen A. Douglas. It was for the Government to establish stockades or military posts at distances thirty to fifty miles apart across the continent. It was thought that such a plan would have the double advantage of protecting the emigrants as well as opening up safe and reliable communication between the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. A careful examination into the details of this scheme showed that it would prove too expensive, and nothing came of it.

It was not until 1860, when a bill was introduced by Senator Broderick, that the Senate should authorize the Postmaster General to enter into a contract with Henry O'Reilly, J. J. Speed, and T. P. Schaffner for the carrying of Government messages to and from the Pacific States. The contract was for ten years, and the consideration $70,000 a year, with a preemption of 320 acres of land every ten miles along the route. This bill was referred to the committee of which Dr. Gwin was a member, but, on account of incompatibility of temper between the two Senators, it never reached the House. The year previous, 1859, the State Legislature had passed an act granting $6000 a year, for ten years, to the company that should put the first line through, and $4000 a year to the one that would get the second line through. This encouragement gave fresh impetus to the enterprises already commenced-one by the way of Placerville and Carson Valley, known as the Placerville and St Joseph Telegraph Company, and another via Los Angles, following the route of the Butterfield overland mail stages.

Early in the succeeding year, several other telegraph bills were introduced in the United States Senate. An examination of them in detail led to the conviction that no private company would be able to successfully build and maintain telegraphic communication across the continent, the cost of maintenance after the construction of the line being too great. Government aid was consequently considered absolutely necessary if the enterprise were to be carried out. A bill finally passed Congress appropriating $40,000 a year, for ten years, toward the construction and maintenance of a line of telegraph between the Atlantic and Pacific States. Within the appointed time the Secretary of the Treasury advertised for proposals. The Grand Confederated North American Association held a convention at New York, and agreed, as the Western Union Company had more at stake than any other Eastern company, to refer the whole matter to it and to the Placerville and St. Joseph Company. The Western Union Company resolved to put in a bid at the maximum price fixed by Congress, the bid to go in Hiram Sibley's name, but if successful, all the California lines, so disposed were to share in the benefits. Several other competing companies made bids, but as before the time came around for giving the necessary bonds they had all withdrawn, the contract was awarded to the Western Union Company.

The parties whom Mr. Sibley represented met at Rochester, New York, and agreed that if all the California lines would consolidate they should have construction of the line from Salt Lake to the Pacific connection, while the Western Union Company should build from Salt Lake to the eastern connection. It was also agreed that the California and Government subsidies, together with the receipts, should be divided equitably between them. In the fall of the same year, 1860, J.H. Wade, the representative of the Western Union Company, came to California to complete arrangements for the commencement of the great work. He brought the matter before the several companies then in operation on the Pacific Coast, proposing to them a plan of consolidation of all their lines, which was immediately carried out. The different companies agreed to consolidate with the California State Telegraph Company, and to create a new company called the Overland Telegraph Company with a capital stock of $1,250,000, to complete a line from San Francisco to Salt Lake. This company, on the completion of the line, was merged into the California State Company (the capital stock being doubled), which, from that time until its later consolidation with the Western Union, owned and controlled the telegraph lines from San Francisco to Salt Lake. The Western Union had in the meantime established a similar organization on the eastern side of the continent to meet the line from this side at Salt Lake.

All preliminaries having been settled, the work of construction was to be commenced without delay. The material was ordered, and preparations were made to complete the entire line before the close of 1861. The work on the eastern end was under the superintendence and general direction of Edward Creighton, while the construction from this end was directed by the writer. The lines of the California State Telegraph Company had already been extended as far as Virginia City after the consolidation of the lines, and it was decided that the work of extending the overland telegraph was to commence at Carson City. Part of the wire and insulators had in the meantime been ordered from the East, and were shipped round by Cape Horn. The next most important item of material was the poles. These had to be hauled on wagons and distributed along the route from Carson City to Salt Lake, a distance of six hundred miles. As there was not a stick of timber in sight throughout the entire distance, it seemed at first a mystery how they were to be procured, and the work finished within the time named. Among my associates in the enterprise was James Street, who had, previous to this, met and made a friend of Brigham Young. Mr. Street was full of pluck and energy; and early in the spring he went to Salt Lake and succeeded in arranging with the Mormons for the necessary poles along that section of the line.

On his return, be made it a point to see some of the Indian chiefs, to gain, if possible, their good will, as well as explain to them the object of the work. At Roberts Creek, he met Sho-kup, the head chief of the Shoshones, who received him in a very friendly manner. The chief told Mr. Street that he and his tribe were desirous of knowing and understanding the ways of the white man, and to be upon friendly terms with him. He expressed himself as anxious to do always that which was to the good of his own people, and provide for their wants.


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