Learning Lincoln On-line


(Topic 28:  Civil War Technologies)

Goes with the Lincoln's War Politics #4



The Transcontinental Telegraph was a United States milestone and was completed on October 24th 1861.

Once an efficient telegraph was developed in the 1830’s, and Samuel Morse’s experimental line between Washington, DC and Baltimore, Maryland was shown to be successful, telegraph exploded. Soon there were lines in all the eastern state. In 1850 California became a state, and the need for communication with the non-contiguous state and the eastern based government became priority. Congress made proposals for subsidies to build a telegraph line throughout the 1850’s.

With the passing of the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860, a federal contract was awarded to the Western Union Company, whose president was Hiram Sibley. Sibley formed a constituency between his company and the telegraph companies operating in California. The newly created Overland Telegraph Company of California would build the line eastward while Sibley’s Pacific Telegraph Company of Nebraska would build westward. The lines were to meet in Salt Lake City, Utah. Construction began in 1861, and had to deal with constant shortages of telegraph poles crossing the Midwest and the Great Basin. The line moving westward from Omaha, Nebraska reached Salt Lake City on October 18th 1861. The line coming east from Carson City, Nevada reached the city and completed the line on October 24th 1861. [This made the Pony Express obsolete over night.]

The first telegram was sent to President Abraham Lincoln from San Francisco, California Chief Justice Stephen J Field ensuring California’s loyalty to the Union.

Over the Western Union Telegraph System

"To Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States:
In the temporary absence of the governor of the state I am requested to send you the first message which will be transmitted over the wires of the telegraph line which connects the pacific with the Atlantic states. The people of California desire to congratulate you upon the completion of the great work. They believe that it will be the means of strengthening the attachment which binds both the east and the west to the union, and they desire in this—the first message across the continent—to express their loyalty to the union and their determination to stand by its government on this its day of trial. They regard that government with affection and will adhere to it under all fortunes.
Stephen J. Field
Chief Justice of California”


The first transcontinental telegraph (completed in 1861) was a line that connected an existing network in the eastern United States to a small network in California by a link between Omaha and Carson City via Salt Lake City. It was a milestone in electrical engineering and in the formation of the United States of America. It served as the only method of near-instantaneous communication between the east and west coasts during the 1860s.


       The federal contract authorized through the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 was awarded to Hiram Sibley, the president of the Western Union Company. He then formed a consortium between Western Union and the telegraph companies in California: to share the efforts of constructing the overland telegraph, to split up the federal and state subsidies, and to share any profits from operation of the line. The newly consolidated Overland Telegraph Company of California would build the line eastward from Carson City (the eastern terminus of their lines), using the newly developed central route though Nevada and Utah. At the same time, the Pacific Telegraph Company of Nebraska was formed by Sibley. It would construct a line westward from Omaha, essentially using the eastern portion of the Oregon Trail. The lines would meet at a station in Salt Lake City.

        Materials for the line were collected in late 1860, and construction proceeded during the second half of 1861. Major problems in provisioning the construction teams were overcome, and there was a constant shortage of sources of telegraph poles on the plains of the Midwest and the deserts of the Great Basin. The line from Omaha reached Salt Lake City on October 18, 1861, and the line from Carson City was completed on October 24.






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