New York and New England Union Telegraph Company, Early history of construction

[Trade Journal]

Publication: The Telegrapher

New York, NY, United States
vol. 11, no. 477, p. 211-2, col. 1-3

The New York and New England Union Telegraph





WITHIN a very short time after the completion and successful operation of Morse's first experimental line from Washington to Baltimore in 1844, some of the most sagacious and public spirited citizens of different parts of the United States began to perceive the advantages which would result from the general extension of this new and important means of communication to the principal cities. The Morse patent was then owned by Professor Morse himself, Prof. L. D. Gale, Alfred Vail and F. O. J. Smith, the latter having one fourth interest. In 1844-45, Mr. Smith, aided by a few friends, labored indefatigably to enlist the public interest sufficiently to raise the necessary funds to construct a line of telegraph from New York to Boston, and thence to Portland, Me., of which city he was himself a resident. This proved a difficult task, but he at length succeeded in inducing some of his friends, as well as a limited number of public spirited citizens in some of the intermediate towns, to advance a sum, which, supplemented by the means which he himself was able to furnish, served to construct the pioneer telegraph line between New York and Boston. These gentlemen were organized into a company under the title of the "New York and Boston Magnetic Telegraph Association."

The original New York and Boston line, which was built by this association, was completed in 1845. The conductor was of No 16 copper wire and the insulation of glass. The route was by way of the Bowery and Third avenue, in New York, to Harlem, and thence along the Harlem Railroad for a distance of seven or eight miles, and thence by turnpike through Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport to New Haven, the railroad between these points not being thou in existence. Thence it followed the line of the railroad from New Haven, via Hartford, Springfield and Worcester, to Boston.

This line, as originally constructed, was not remarkably successful. In fact it was disabled more than half the time. Every heavy storm broke the copper wire in hundreds of places. In 1846 Mr. Smith, in his annual report, advocated the substitution of iron wire for the copper, which was shortly afterwards commenced. During the following year such a great amount of trouble was experienced from the improvements upon the Harlem and Western railroads, in the way of double tracks and new station buildings, that the directors finally became disgusted, and in 1848 flanked the Western Railroad by building a new line across the country from Clappville near Worcester to Enfield Bridge, Conn. with thirty-five poles to the mile, No. 9 iron wire and brimstone insulators, to which one of the through lines was connected, The Harlem railroad was dodged in a similar way. The line must have paid a Hibernian dividend in 1848, the receipts for the year ending August 1st being $34.835, and the expenses $36.034.

The improvements which had been made had, however, increased the reliability of the line to such an extent that there was now a fair prospect of some return to the stockholder during the ensuing year. But unfortunately the managers of the line, feeling secure in their patented monopoly, had treated its patrons, especially the newspapers, somewhat arbitrarily, and, much dissatisfaction existed. In consequence of this mistaken policy, the merchants of New York were quite ready, not to say willing, to embark their capital in an opposition line, which was projected by Henry O'Reilly in the fall of 1848. Mr. O'Reilly had secured the Bain patent for operating his line, which was pushed forward with great energy, having been completed in September and opened for business in October, 1849. A company was formed embracing a number of the leading New York merchants of that day, prominent among whom was Marshall Lefferts, Esq., now president of the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company, under the corporate title of the "New York and New England Telegraph Company," though the line was popularly known as the "Merchants' Line."

This line was built along Eighth avenue, crossing the Harlem river at High Bridge, and thence by turnpike to New Haven, much of the way alongside the old line. At New Haven it diverged and followed the turnpike through Middletown and Norwich to Providence, and from thence into Boston by the Boston and Providence railroad. It was well built with large chestnut poles, No. 10 English galvanized wire, and iron-protected insulators, and worked much more reliably than the Morse line. Mr. Lefferts, the president of the line, was a business man and managed it on business principles, and it succeeded in a very short time in building up a comparatively profitable business. During the same year, 1849, a second competing line, using the House printing instrument, was constructed between New York and Boston, via New Haven, Middletown, Hartford, Springfield and Providence, having two wires and running upon the turnpike.

The Merchants' Line made a dividend the first year after its opening, but during the following two years the competition between the rival lines became so fierce, and the tariffs were so reduced, the rate between New York and Boston being only 10 cents, that neither of the three made any money. The final result of this state of things was that Messrs. Lefferts and Smith entered into negotiations which terminated in the consolidation of the Morse and Bain lines, a new company being formed on the 1st of July, 1852, under the corporate title of the "New York and New England Union Telegraph Company." The original stockholders in the consolidated company were F. O. J. Smith, J. M. Clark, John McKesson, John McKinney, J. J. Haley, A. B. Sands, H. M. Schieffelin, A. A. Pettingill, C. H. Seymour and P. Naylor. John McKinney was the first superintendent, but in less than a month he disposed of his interest in the concern to Marshall Lefferts and resigned his position. He then leased the House line, which, from having being poorly built in the first place, had grown more and more dilapidated and demoralized, and at once proceeded to reorganize it and make competition lively for his former associates. In August, 1852, H. M. Schieffelin was elected president. John A. Lefferts, superintendent, and L. L. Sadler, secretary and treasurer. Gustavus Swan, who learned the art in Utica, N. Y., in 1845, in the line then running from Albany to Syracuse, was appointed chief operator at New York. The board of directors held a meeting in September, adopted a new alphabet, a to go into use as soon as the operators have had sufficient time to perfect themselves therein," and fixed the salaries of the principal employes. It is to be presumed that the operators never perfected themselves in the new alphabet, as it does not seem to have gone into use. The salaries of the superintendent and treasurer were fixed at $125 per month. The Providence operator got $50 per month. New haven, Hartford and Worcester, $41.66, while the operators at Bridgeport, Middleton, New London, Norwich, and Springfield were obliged to work for $33.33 per month, and the fun of it. In order to promote economy it was resolved "that the superintendent be instructed to cause the operators on the Morse registers to write out the messages themselves as they receive them."

In the latter part of 1852 Mr. Lefferts resigned the superintendency of the line, and Mr. Swan was appointed in his place. He had considerable trouble in getting matters arranged so as to work smoothly. The consolidation of the offices of the two lines, using different systems of telegraphing and different alphabets, made a great deal of confusion. The alphabet question was especially troublesome. The board of directors voted to have all the operators use the Bain alphabet, but the operators of the Morse line did not take very kindly to the proposition. The insulator question was also a great bother, as it has been ever since. Mr. Swan favored John A. Lefferts' plug insulator, then recently invented, and carried his point. They were at all events much better than any of their predecessors. The New York offices of the respective lines were at 5 Hanover and 29 Wall street. The operating room at the latter place was an ill ventilated apartment, about twelve feet square, into which operators, copyists, clerks and messengers were closely packed, regardless of health and comfort, to say nothing of conveniences for transacting business. The offices were however shortly afterwards consolidated and removed to 23 Wall street, on the corner where the Drexel Building now stands, which afforded much better accommodations.

By this time, however, John McKinney and his friends had got the rival "House Line" into first rate condition. They had secured the associated press report, which was alone worth fifteen or twenty thousand dollars per year, besides a large share of the private business. They were extending their connections in all directions, and their energy and enterprise began to disturb the complacency of the managers of the Union line very seriously. The latter company therefore pushed on their improvements in the way of rebuilding and reinsulating with considerable vigor. During tile spring of 1853 they also purchased the line of the Rhode Island Magnetic Telegraph Company, a rather rickety concern, extending from Worcester to Pawtucket, Providence, Taunton, Fall River and New Bedford, and annexed it to their own lines, which gave the company a total mileage of 663 miles of poles, 1,281 miles of wire, and 18 offices. The gross receipts at this period averaged from $6,000 to $7,000 per month. The whole number of messages sent and received from the New York offices from July 1, 1852, to July 3, 1853, was about 145,000.

About this time Mr. Swan conceived the idea of establishing branch offices at some of the principal hotels in New York. As an experiment he built a branch line at his own expense from 23 Wall street to the Astor House, and opened for business on a commission of the receipts. This was the beginning of the system of branch offices and city lines, which has since become so extensive and popular. Mr. Swan's Astor House line may have cost him, all told, perhaps $250, and it has probably been the, most profitable telegraph line, in proportion to its cost, that was ever built. He still retains the ownership of it, or did at a very recent period.

In September, 1853, Mr. Swan resigned the superintendency of the line, and Chas P. Wood, of the Magnetic Line office, was appointed in his place. Mr. Wood went to work energetically to improve the condition of the lines, rightly judging that continuous and reliable working would bring a large increase of business from the many flourishing cities throughout the territory covered by the company's lines. By the summer of 1854 matters were very much improved in this respect. About $10,000 had been spent in reconstruction and the reinsulation of the lines with the Lefferts' plug insulator. The Grove batteries hitherto in use had been abolished and replaced with Chester's improved Smee battery. New instruments were placed in most of the offices, and the switches, connections and leading in-wires overhauled to the great improvement of the working of the line. The wires between Harlem and Stamford were transferred to new poles on the New York and New Haven railroad, which completed the reconstruction of all the main routes between New York and Boston. By an arrangement with the House Line the tariffs were restored to something like it living rate, and an era of prosperity began to dawn upon the enterprise. As Mr. Wood remarked in one of his annual reports, "The secret of its success lies in keeping the wires at all times in good working order, doing business expeditiously, serving the public faithfully, and giving them what they have ever wanted, and are willing to pay for, viz., reilability [sic] reliability." The success of John McKinney's House Line probably served not a little to "point the moral and adorn the tale."

The correctness of this theory was proved by the gross receipts, which by another year had increased front $6,000 to $9,000 per month, enabling dividends amounting to 10 per cent. per annum to be regularly declared, whereat the directors were so delighted that they voted to present President Schielffelin with a service of plate. In 1856 the company succeeded in getting control of the Worcester and Nashua line, as well as arranging for the use of two wires between Boston and Fail River, one belonging to the Old Colony railroad, and the other to the Boston and Cape Cod Marine Telegraph Company.

In the meantime, however, the opposition had not been idle. About the year 1855, the American Telegraph Company was formed, which immediately leased the lines of the Maine Telegraph Company, extending from Boston to Calais, which was one of the most profitable telegraphic enterprises in the world, on account of the large revenues derived from the transmission of the European steamer reports. This company then proceeded to absorb the existing lines with great rapidity. They leased the New Brunswick line from Calais to Sackville, and the Troy and Canada Junction line, and the northern line extending respectively from Troy to Montreal and Boston to Burlington, Vt. In 1855, they purchased the house lines from New York to Boston, and Springfield to Albany, They also purchased the patent of the Hughes' printing instrument, which had then just been brought out, attracting a great deal of attention. To 1856 they built anew line from New York to Boston, via Brewster's, Waterbury, Hartford, Springfield and Worcester, for commercial business, and equipped it with the new instrument; extended the Montreal line from Troy to New York by the way of the Harlem Railroad, and proceeded to make the competition very warm for the Union Company. The final result was that in 1860 the victorious American Company succeeded in consolidating all the lines between Sackville, N. B., and New Orleans, and the New York and New England Company, whose history we have briefly endeavored to trace, terminated its existence as a district organization.

A few words as to the operators and managers of the Union line may not be out of place. Many of them are still in the service, and ore among our best known telegraph men at the present day. John A. Lefferts, the first superintendent, is still a resident of New York City, and is engaged in manufacturing. Gustavus Swan continues to run his Astor House office and branch line which he established in 1853, which affords him a very snug income. Chas. F. Wood is still actively engaged in the service of the Western Union Company as District Superintendent of the lines between New York and Boston, having held this position continuously ever since his appointment in September 1853, a period of twenty-two years. During this time the mileage of wire under his charge has increased from 1,281 to nearly 8,000, and the number of telegraph offices from 18 to somewhere in the neighborhood of 300! It is probable that the business handled, and the receipts for transmission have increased in even greater proportion. Geo. B. Prescott, who was chief operator of the Bain line at Boston, and with the Union Company after the consolidation, is now electrician of the Western Union Company. Henry H. Ward, of Boston office, is Secretary and Treasurer of the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company, of New York. H. N. Williams and W. P. Potter, who operated the old Rhode Island line at Providence were transferred, one to Worcester, and the other to Fall River in 1853. The latter is still in charge of the Fall River office, a position which he has hold for 22 years. Mr. Williams, after a long term of service, retired three or four years since on account a impaired health. Another of the old settlers is J. D. Raymond, who was one of the inspectors of the Union line from the beginning, and still holds a similar position with the Western Union. His associate, W. W. Sadler, brother of the Secretary and Treasurer of the Union line, died some years since, as did also R. W. Raymond, of the Springfield, Mass., office, and that jovial old philosopher, Dan Smith, of New London. S. B. Fairchild, of New Haven, is now a chief operator in one of the principal Western cities. Thus we have endeavored, hastily and imperfectly, to preserve some historical reminiscences of one of the old telegraph companies, and some of the items which have been recorded may rot be without interest and value to the future telegraphic historian.


Keywords:General : Lefferts
Researcher notes: 
Supplemental information: 
Researcher:Bob Stahr
Date completed:January 10, 2006 by: Elton Gish;