Transcontinental Telegraph Is Completed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The extension of telegraph wires from the Mississippi River to the West Coast catalyzed communication and trade and helped tighten the union between the East and West Coasts of the United States.

Summary of Event

In 1836, Samuel F. B. Morse Telegraph;invention of Morse, Samuel F. B. demonstrated the significance of the electromagnetic telegraph. In 1844, it was made operational by the Washington-Baltimore forty-mile line. However, the significance of its possible application to the western states and territories of the United States was not recognized until the early 1850’s. Meanwhile, private companies came to see the possibilities inherent in an apparatus able to send messages over long distances by using a code of some kind. Telegraph;transcontinental California;and telegraph[Telegraph] San Francisco;and telegraph[Telegraph] [kw]Transcontinental Telegraph Is Completed (Oct. 24, 1861) [kw]Telegraph Is Completed, Transcontinental (Oct. 24, 1861) [kw]Completed, Transcontinental Telegraph Is (Oct. 24, 1861) Telegraph;transcontinental California;and telegraph[Telegraph] San Francisco;and telegraph[Telegraph] [g]United States;Oct. 24, 1861: Transcontinental Telegraph Is Completed[3490] [c]Communications;Oct. 24, 1861: Transcontinental Telegraph Is Completed[3490] [c]Science and technology;Oct. 24, 1861: Transcontinental Telegraph Is Completed[3490] [c]Engineering;Oct. 24, 1861: Transcontinental Telegraph Is Completed[3490] Creighton, Edward Field, Stephen J. Sibley, Hiram Wade, Jeptha H.

The first private telegraph companies were organized on no systematic basis. In 1853, the California State Telegraph Company was established to connect San Francisco with Marysville, California, by an indirect line running through San Jose, Stockton, and Sacramento. The commercial success of this line led to the construction of a second telegraph line from Sacramento east to Placerville, Auburn, Grass Valley, and Nevada City by the Alta Telegraph Company in 1854.

Newspaper editors in both San Francisco and Sacramento began to encourage the building of a line southward through the San Joaquin Valley to relay news brought by the overland stage from the East with the greatest speed possible. By October, 1860, telegraphic communication between San Francisco and Los Angeles Los Angeles;and telegraph[Telegraph] was established. Meanwhile, in 1859, California’s state legislature pledged six thousand dollars a year to support the first telegraph company that connected the state with the East. In anticipation of technical difficulties or a temporary break of the line by bad weather or raids by American Indians, the legislature pledged four thousand dollars for a second line.

In 1858, similar developments were taking place in Missouri, Missouri;and telegraph[Telegraph] where one company had installed glass insulators on trees lining the banks of the Missouri River and strung wire between them all the way from St. Louis St. Louis, Missouri[Saint louis, Missouri];and telegraph[Telegraph] to Kansas City by way of Booneville. Another group of promoters began a line from Memphis to Fort Smith, Arkansas Arkansas;and telegraph[Telegraph] , intending to follow the route of the Butterfield Overland Mail Company, and they encouraged yet another company to start work eastward from Los Angeles on the same route. To avoid the necessity of procuring and erecting poles, and possibly to prevent disruption of the line by Indians, one impractical promoter thought that the best scheme was to lay the cable along the bottom of the Canadian River between Fort Smith and Santa Fe Santa Fe, New Mexico;and telegraph[Telegraph] , New Mexico.

By the mid-1850’s, telegraph lines operated by fledgling companies were proliferating, and competition among them was giving way to profitable mergers as telegraph lines pushed westward. Short, disconnected, and decrepit lines were replaced and combined into existing networks. The U.S. government was also taking an active interest in the process. On June 16, 1860, Congress passed the Pacific Telegraph Act Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 Congress, U.S.;Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 , allocating forty thousand dollars a year for ten years to the first company to string a working telegraph line from the western boundary of the state of Missouri to San Francisco. The offer carried the explicit understanding that the government was to have priority in the use of the line to transmit official messages free of charge.

Stringing telegraph wires alongside a railroad line.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

The Western Union Western Union Telegraph Company and Missouri Telegraph Company secured the federal contract. It was aggressively represented by its president, Hiram Sibley. Sibley, Hiram In 1856, Sibley had begun consolidating several new companies into the Western Union Company, providing a powerful boost to the completion of the transcontinental telegraph. Edward Creighton Creighton, Edward , the company’s construction superintendent, spent the entire summer of 1860 in the West surveying and gathering information. Among other actions, he notified the citizens of Denver that, if they wanted a line to run through their community, they would have to buy twenty thousand dollars of company stock. When they refused, he recommended that the telegraph be strung along the regular emigrant trail from Fort Laramie Fort Laramie to the South Pass, located in Wyoming.

Meanwhile, Sibley Sibley, Hiram dispatched Jeptha H. Wade Wade, Jeptha H. to consolidate the chaotic telegraph industry in California into the Overland Telegraph Company Overland Telegraph Company , with capital of $1,250,000. Under the superintendency of James Gamble Gamble, James , this company was to push a line east from Carson City, Nevada, through Ruby Valley, Egan Canyon, and Deep Creek—the route of the Pony Express Pony Express;and telegraph[Telegraph] —to Salt Lake City Salt Lake City , Utah. The Missouri and Western Telegraph Company Missouri and Western Telegraph Company , which operated a telegraph system between St. Louis and Omaha, Nebraska, established the Pacific Telegraph Company to build a line, under the direction of Edward Creighton Creighton, Edward , from Omaha up the Platte River via Fort Kearney to Fort Laramie, then up the Sweetwater River to South Pass and on to Salt Lake City.

The physical and human difficulties in building the telegraph network were great. Wires and insulators for the western section had to be shipped from New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn and then hauled east over the Sierra Nevada Sierra Nevada;and telegraph[Telegraph] and the deserts beyond. The task of delivering and distributing poles on the treeless plains to hold the wires was monumental. Moreover, even water had to be hauled into the desert by teams for the construction crews working in the summer of 1861.

The Mormons Mormons;and telegraph[Telegraph] who had settled most of present Utah were reluctant to allow a telegraph line to be strung across their territory and were uncooperative in providing timber and workers. The goodwill of the American Native Americans;and telegraph[Telegraph] Indians through whose lands the line was to pass also had to be secured. In spite of these obstacles, construction of the line was so well organized and energetically pursued by both Creighton Creighton, Edward and Gamble that the wires were connected in Salt Lake City Salt Lake City;and telegraph[Telegraph] on October 24, 1861, much earlier than expected. During that same evening, Stephen J. Field Field, Stephen J. , the chief justice of California and brother of Cyrus W. Field, the promoter of the first transatlantic cable, notified President Abraham Lincoln that the task was completed. Sensing the importance of the event, he stated that the telegraph would bind both East and West to the Union and proclaimed the loyalty of the citizens of the Pacific coast to the government of the United States.


Extension of telegraph lines from the Mississippi River to the West Coast had a profound impact on several aspects of American life. Newspapers began including “telegraph news” on their pages. Stockbrokers and businesspersons could move important information at great speed. Railroads Railroads;and telegraph[Telegraph] Telegraph;and railroads[Railroads] became the most valuable partners of the telegraph. For example, railroads generally agreed to lay telegraph lines along their rights-of-way. They also provided office space in their depots for telegraphers, who were employed by both the railroads and the telegraph company, and they provided free transportation to those who repaired telegraph lines. The major telegraph company west of the Mississippi River, Western Union Western Union Telegraph Company , contracted to transmit messages relating to railroad business free of charge and to give priority to wires concerning the movement of trains. In this way, traffic could be better coordinated and railroad safety increased. In exchange, the railroads offered Western Union a monopoly of protected routes. Thanks to long-distance telegraphs, the vast North American continent was becoming unmistakably smaller.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beauchamp, Ken. History of Telegraphy. London: Institution of Electrical Engineers, 2001. Comprehensive history of telegraphy, from its earliest invention to the turn of the twenty-first century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gabler, Edwin. The American Telegrapher: A Social History, 1860-1900. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988. Informative and well-illustrated historical account of the development of the wiring of the West and the people involved.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harlow, Alvin F. Old Wires and New Waves: The History of the Telegraph, Telephone, and Wireless. New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1936. Still one of the classics on the subject. Discusses the history of the Western Union Telegraph Company and its leaders.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kendall, Amos. Autobiography. New York: Peter Smith, 1971. The life story of Amos Kendall (1789-1869), Samuel Morse’s business manager and one of the leading early advocates of telegraphy, includes interesting historical vignettes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kranzberg, Melvin, and Carroll W. Pursell, Jr., eds. The Emergence of Modern Industrial Society, Earliest Times to 1900. Vol. 1 in Technology in Western Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. The article on communications provides a brief but pointed summary of the development and impact of the telegraph.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Standage, Tom. The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century On-line Pioneers. New York: Walker, 1998. Imaginative and simulating history of nineteenth century telegraphy that compares the development of the long-distance telegraph lines to the late twentieth century rise of the Internet.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Robert L. Wiring a Continent: The History of the Telegraph Industry in the United States, 1832-1866. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947. Excellent account of the early years of telegraphy in the United States. Highlights the physical achievements and colorful individuals involved, and the impact of the first large-scale major application of electricity through the telegraph.

Morse Sends First Telegraph Message

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First Transcontinental Railroad Is Completed

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Categories: History