The Transcontinental Telegraph of 1861
The Transcontinental Telegraph Research Group
Ultimately it may be our common curiosity, our interest in the forgotten, the unknown, and the undiscovered that moves us to seek answers. Where those questions are born and how those answers present themselves is not ours to control. In fact we learn to expect that every answer comes complete with its own bundle of new questions. Such is the nature of research and the fruit of the hunt. Each member of the Transcontinental Telegraph Research Group (TTRG) has come to understand and embrace this exciting and often frustrating truth in his or her own time.
In December, 1995 I had the unique and challenging opportunity to attend the Navy Senior Enlisted Academy in Newport, Rhode Island. To this history minded Sailor there could not have been a more spine chilling location than this small port city where the US Navy was born almost 240 years ago. I spent every spare minute I could muster seeking, discovering, and appreciating the history of tiny Newport. My father visited one weekend and we took our lunch down by the docks in a seaside pub where my Navy ancestors had likewise enjoyed their ‘Shore Liberty’ centuries before. It is a fond memory of time spent with my father that I will always cherish. And it was in this setting that the TTRG was born.
The Friday afternoon before academy finals, after an especially grueling study group, I took a little R&R at one of the student lab computers. After nine weeks of intense training I had grown accustomed to seeking refuge in the student’s computer room when my study schedule allowed. This evening’s email included a message about a particular telegraph insulator that was being peddled by a gentleman and fellow collector in Atlanta, GA. I read the offering with interest but assumed that I had either missed my opportunity to lay claim to the item or, more likely, its value would put it out of my reach. I did not respond to the email but I did drop it into my ‘save for later’ folder. This email was to our research project what the batting of the butterfly’s wings in the rain forest was to the birth of a hurricane off of the African coast.
In the early summer of 1996 I happened across the email and on a whim I picked up the phone and called Chip Anderson in Georgia. As I remember, we spoke for the better part of an hour before coming to an agreement on the threadless insulator for which he had received not one single inquiry. This incredibly unlikely sequence of events provides me with proof positive of intelligent design. Little did I know that the navigation charts were already marked and my course was already set on the voyage that would bring us together at this point in the sea of history.
A student of American history might easily assert that the western portion of the Transcontinental Telegraph was funded, planned, and built during the most tumultuous period in the history of The United States of America. Abraham Lincoln would soon be elected in a climate of dangerously polarized debate over the issue of slavery. Brigham Young was actively projecting Mormon influence throughout the Utah Territory, and the indigenous Indians that occupied much of the ‘Wild West’ were presenting the settlers, governments, and military therein with a unique set of challenges. The year is 1860 and the adolescent country is poised at the brink of civil war.
In June of that year the 36th Congress of the United States authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to advertise the availability of monies to be used to construct a ‘magnetic telegraph’ from the ‘west line of the state of Missouri’ to ‘the city of San Francisco, in the state of California…’ The Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 was intended to “facilitate communication between the Atlantic and Pacific states by electric telegraph.”1 The project was so risky that government support was necessary to convince investors to undertake it. On September 20th Hiram Sibley, president of Western Union, submitted a bid for $40,000 to build the line. The wire to be used was galvanized iron “of the best quality.” Insulators were constructed with iron holders embedded in glass, which in turn were enclosed in wooded forms. A wet cell battery was to provide 50 volts over nearly 500 miles of open desert, alkali flat, and rugged mountain terrain.2
“On March 2, 1861 just before officially leaving office President Buchanan signed, ‘An Act to Organize the Territory of Nevada.’ Two days later Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated, and on March 22 Lincoln commissioned James W. Nye of New York as Governor of the Nevada Territory.”3 The formation of Churchill County would come as part of a Nevada Territorial Act approved November 25 of that same year.
On May 27, 1861 a fully provisioned Overland Telegraph Company construction expedition under the direction of James Gamble began the trek from the California side of the Sierra-Nevada to the Carson Valley where I.M. Hubbard, the crew foreman, would supervise eastward construction toward Ruby Valley. It was there that they would ultimately meet their counterparts working westward from Salt Lake City, Territory of Utah, who were led by James Street. But they couldn’t have known that for sure so early in the project. The mountain crossing took more than thirty days and since the telegraph line from California eastward was already operational to Virginia City and Fort Churchill they set their first pole on the line to Salt Lake City June 24th, 1861.4,5,9
Meanwhile to the east of Salt Lake there were three Pacific Telegraph Company construction crews directed by Edward Creighton working almost simultaneously to complete their section of the line. The easternmost crew was responsible for building a 200 mile stretch along the Platte and South Platte rivers westward from Fort Kearney, in the southern central region of the Nebraska Territory to Julesburgh, near the north eastern corner of the Territory of Colorado.6 They were led by W.B. Hibbard and are said to have set their first pole on July 4th, 1861.7a The center-most crew responsible for building west from Julesburgh toward Salt Lake City was led by the superintendent himself, Edward Creighton. Creighton’s crew included a man named Charles Brown from whose diary much of this information has been drawn. Mr. Brown wrote that he helped Mr. Creighton set their crew’s first pole on July 2nd, 1861.7b The westernmost crew working eastward from Salt Lake City toward Julesburgh was supervised by W.H. Stebbins. The team supervised by Mr. Stebbins is reported by the NY Daily Tribune to have set their first pole on the line heading east July 11th, 1861.8 Creighton and Stebbins would guide their pole setting crews to an eventual meeting at some point east of Salt Lake City which we believe to be Fort Laramie in the Nebraska Territory near the confluence of the Laramie and North Fork of the Platte rivers. It should be explained here that we further believe that the wiring crews were operating independently from the pole line crews. This may account for the apparent disparity between where the pole line crews eventually met and where the final wire connection may have been made to complete the eastern segment.
5. The Telegraph - A History Of Morse’s Invention And Its Predecessors In The United States, Lewis Coe, McFarland & Co. Inc., 1993, Page 39
7. First Telegraph Line Across The Continent - Charles Brown’s 1861 Diary, Ed. Dennis N. Mihelich & James E. Potter, Nebraska State Historical Society Books, 2011, (7a) Page 23, (7b) Pages 51 & 52
8. New York Daily Tribune, July 27th, 1861
9. Report of J. Ross Browne to the United States House of Representatives, 2nd Session of the 40th Congress, 1867-‘68, Executive Document No. 202, Volume 16, Mineral Resources of States and Territories west of the Rocky Mountains, p. 433