Western Union completes the first transcontinental telegraph line
Oct. 24 in 1861, workers of the Western Union Telegraph Company link the eastern and western telegraph networks of the nation at Salt Lake City, Utah, completing a transcontinental line that for the first time allows instantaneous communication between Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Stephen J. Field, chief justice of California, sent the first transcontinental telegram to President Abraham Lincoln, predicting that the new communication link would help 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, as its name suggests, took up the challenge, and the company immediately began work on the critical link that would span the territory between the western edge of Missouri and Salt Lake City.
The obstacles to building the line over the sparsely populated and isolated western plains and mountains were huge. Wire and glass insulators had to be shipped by sea to San Francisco and carried eastward by horse-drawn wagons over the Sierra Nevada. Supplying the thousands of telegraph poles needed was an equally daunting challenge in the largely treeless Plains country, and these too had to be shipped from the western mountains. Indians also proved a problem. In the summer of 1861, a party of Sioux warriors cut part of the line that had been completed and took a long section of wire for making bracelets. Later, however, 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. Thereafter, 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 and a full eight years before the transcontinental railroad would be completed.