The 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Telegraph



Hi there – Winnie Griggs here. I was looking through my handy-dandy ‘This Day In History’ calendar a few days ago and discovered that 150 years ago today the Western Union Telegraph Co. linked the eastern and western networks of telegraph systems at Salt Lake City, Utah. For the first time in our nation’s history nearly instantaneous communication between Washington D.C and San Francisco, CA was possible.  I’d heard quite a bit about the Transcontinental Railroad but nothing about the Transcontinental Telegraph so I decided to do a little digging and then share with you something of what I learned.

The first transcontinental telegraph was actually sent by the chief justice of California, Stephen Field, and was sent to President Abraham Lincoln. In the historic missive, Field predicted that the newly established communication venue would help ensure that the western states would remain loyal to the Union during the Civil War.

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

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

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

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

Carson city joined it on October 24, 1861.

A side result of this momentous accomplishment that happened almost immediately was that it made the Pony Express obsolete.  On October 26th, a scant two days after the lines were joined, this adventurous, dedicated relay mail service which had previously provided the fastest means of communication between the western and eastern United States, officially closed.  Just as often happens today, the new technology made their jobs obsolete.

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
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17 thoughts on “The 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Telegraph”

  1. Wow, how things change. It always amazes me that the Pony Express was short-lived.

    Wonder how we will be communicating 150 years from now!

    Peace, Julie

  2. Interesting stuff, Winnie. I can’t believe the Pony Express shut down just two days after the telegraph was completed. Wow! They probably didn’t get two week’s severance pay, either.

  3. Winnie, how interesting. I don’t think I ever heard when exactly the telegraph got started. I think I’ve used it in almost every story I’ve written. Thank goodness I haven’t written any stories prior to 1861. Thanks for an interesting post.

  4. Reading your blog, Winnie, I had the impression that the telegraph had an impact comparable to the internet today. What a momentous change it made. Thanks for the fascinating facts.

  5. Winnie when you wrote ‘i’ve heard about the transcontinental railroad but not the trancontinental telegraph’, that was exactly what I was thinking.
    You write about the telegraph adn I think, well, of course someone had to do it sometime and it stands to reason it’d be a big job, but I’d just never thought about it before.
    Great post.

  6. Like the Pony Express, the telegraph lines were a vulnerable means of communications. Cut or broken lines interrupted service, but then again, the same thing happens to our phone and cable when there is a storm that takes down lines. We are still as vulnerable and much more dependent on rapid communication than ever before.
    As you said, when you think that it was all done by horse and wagon, it was quite a feat to get all supplies delivered and construction completed. In a way, the railroad was a bit easier in that area. They could deliver their own supplies.

    Thanks for another interesting post.

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