Pony Express and transcontinental telegraph


Publication: The Mountain Democrat

Placerville, CA, United States
vol. 149, no. 97, p. 6, col. 1-4

The Pony Express and the

transcontinental telegraph


The history of the Pony Express is inextricably linked with the development of the transcontinental telegraph line. Throughout most of its history, Pony Express riders carried messages overland between the eastern and the western terminus of the cross country telegraph line. Only when the gap was bridged in October 1861 did the Pony Express become unnecessary.

In 1844 Samuel F. B. Morse perfected the electromagnetic telegraph, and within 10 years the telegraph was seen as the scientific marvel that would bridge the communications gap between California and the rest of the country. By that time, construction of telegraph lines had commenced in California for intrastate wire communications. It began in 1853 when the California State Telegraph Company established lines running from San Francisco to San Jose, Stockton, Sacramento and Marysville. The following year the Alta Telegraph Company commenced construction of lines from Sacramento to Placerville, Auburn, Grass Valley and Nevada City. By 1860 the state was "wired" when a line between San Francisco and Los Angeles was opened.

By then forces were in motion to construct a line across the continent to connect New York with San Francisco and all major points in between. In 1858 a telegraph line had been extended west from St. Louis to Bonneville on the banks of the Missouri River. In 1859 the California Legislature pledged $6000 a year to subsidize the building of a telegraph line from California to the east.

The following year, driven no doubt by concerns over the succession of the southern states, Congress passed the Pacific Telegraph Act authorizing a subsidy in the form of a loan of $40,000 a year for 10 years to any company that would build a telegraph line from the western boundary of Missouri to San Francisco.

Despite the offer of congressional funding, the building of the transcontinental telegraph line was largely the result of private enterprise. Congress' load offer was not picked up by the telegraph companies.

In California Jeptha Wade consolidated the state's telegraph system into the Overland Telegraph Company, capitalized at over $1 million. James Gamble was hired to supervise construction of a telegraph line from Carson City, Nev., east to Salt Lake City, where is would join with a line being pushed west from Nebraska. The Missouri and Western Telegraph Company operated a line from St. Louis to Omaha, Neb., and the Western Union Company formed the Pacific Telegraph Company to extend the line from Omaha to Fort Kearny. Fort Laramie, through the South Pass and on to Salt Lake City, where it would link up with the Overland Telegraph Company line coming east from California and Nevada.

Hiram Sibley was president of the Western Union Telegraph Company, and he hired Edward Creighton to superintend construction of the line. As early as 1857 Sibley suggested to Western Union's board of directors that a line be extended across the country connecting California with the rest of the country. The board agreed but felt that the project depended upon the preliminary consolidation of all the major telegraph lines in the east before the construction of a westward line could go forward. When Sibley proposed a transcontinental telegraph line to the presidents of the other companies, they scorned his proposal as impractical and visionary. Thus, when Western Union decided to go it alone, it quickly obtained a favorable if not monopolistic position in the communications market.

Construction of the transcontinental telegraph proceeded expeditiously, largely due to the strategy of Gamble and Creighton in dividing their work forces into specialized groups. One crew surveyed and laid out the line, another crew installed the poles while a third crew strung the wires, and a fourth crew had the responsibility of setting up work camps and feeding the construction workers.

As usual Indian outrages were overestimated, and interference caused by Indian activities was relatively minimal. As soon as stations were constructed, they were staffed by trained telegraphers, and messages began flying over the wires as far as the line was extended. As the telegraph line grew, the Pony Express Trail for telegraph messages shrank. By late 1861 the overland gap in telegraph communications was down to a few hundred miles. Construction of a transcontinental telegraph line was not without its problems. Electrical and other equipment to construct the western portion of the line had to be shipped from the east around the Horn to San Francisco, and then transshipped overland across the Sierra Nevada mountains to construction sites in Nevada and Utah. The Placerville Carson Valley Road was a vital link in the transportation of men, equipment and supplies for the western portion of the transcontinental line.

Poles for the eastern portion of the line were not locally available while crossing the treeless plains and prairies, so they had to be shipped west from midwestern timberlands. Indians occasionally attached the lines, cutting wires and toppling poles.

The residents of Denver refused to fulfill promised stock subscriptions, following which the companies bypassed Denver and pushed the line through the South Pass. The Mormons in Salt Lake City at first were uncooperative, fearing that the communications link would intrude on the western isolation Brigham Young sought on the banks of the salty lake where the Saints finally settled.

Despite all the difficulties the western and eastern sections of the transcontinental telegraph line were joined at Salt Lake City on Oct. 24, 1861 on time and under budget. Actually the western and eastern portions of the line were linked earlier than expected. The link put an end to the Pony Express.

Keywords:Telegraph : Jeptha Wade : Jeptha Wade
Researcher notes: 
Supplemental information: 
Researcher:Elton Gish
Date completed:January 2, 2005 by: Elton Gish;