On October 24, 1861, the Western Union Telegraph Company linked the nation’s eastern and western telegraph networks at Salt Lake City, Utah, completing a transcontinental line that allowed instantaneous communication between Washington, DC and San Francisco, California.  The first official telegraph was sent by California Chief Justice Stephen J. Field to President Abraham Lincoln, predicting that the telegraph would ensure the loyalty of the western states to the Union during the Civil War.

The push to create a transcontinental telegraph line had begun only a little more than year before when Congress authorized a subsidy of $40,000 a year to any company building a telegraph line that would join the eastern and western networks.  The Western Union Telegraph Company took up the challenge, and immediately began work on the section between the western edge of Missouri and Salt Lake City.

To accomplish this, telegraph wire and glass insulators had to be shipped by sea to San Francisco and carried eastward by horse-drawn wagons over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Because much of the area was treeless, thousands of telegraph poles had to be shipped from the western mountains.

Indians were also a problem.  In the summer of 1861, a party of Sioux warriors took a section of wire for making bracelets.  Later some of the Sioux wearing the telegraph-wire bracelets became sick and a Sioux medicine man convinced them that the great spirit of the “talking wire” had avenged its desecration.  So, the Sioux left the line alone, and the Western Union was able to connect the East and West Coasts of the nation much earlier than anyone had expected.

Incidentally, the transcontinental telegraph caused the end of the Pony Express.

Filed under: Old West History

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