On This Day

transcontinental telegraph, pony express
Associated Press
A Pony Express rider waves to a crew of Western Union linemen building the first transcontinental telegraph.

On This Day: First Transcontinental Telegraph Ends Run of Pony Express

October 24, 2011 06:00 AM
by John Noonan
On Oct. 24, 1861, after 112 days of construction, Western Union completed the first transcontinental telegraph, rendering the 18-month-old Pony Express obsolete.

Building the Transcontinental Telegraph

In 1860, as the need for a transcontinental telegraph grew more apparent, the U.S. Congress approved the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860, which allowed the Department of Treasury to fund the creation of a transcontinental telegraph.

The daunting task of stretching telegraph cables over 2,000 miles across the Rocky Mountains and hostile “Indian territory” caused most telegraph companies to refuse the project.

Even Abraham Lincoln was aware of the difficulty of the proposal, saying, “I think it is a wild scheme. It will be next to impossible to get your poles and materials distributed on the plains, and as fast as you complete the line, the Indians will cut it down.”

The government awarded Western Union the contract to construct the telegraph. It arranged for James Gamble’s Overland Telegraph Company of California to build the telegraph line east from Carson City, Nev., while Edward Creighton’s Pacific Telegraph Company of Nebraska would move west from Julesburg, Colo.
The first poles were erected on July 4, 1861, and each day workers contributed 10 to 12 miles of new cable. The Pacific Telegraph Company and Overland Telegraph Company joined the cables in Salt Lake City, Utah, in October.

The first messages were sent on the evening of Oct. 24, including one from California to President Lincoln in Washington announcing the completion of the telegraph.

“With it disappeared the feeling of isolation the inhabitants of the Pacific Coast had labored under,” wrote Gamble in an 1881 issue of The Californian magazine. “San Francisco was in instant communication with New York, and the other great cities of the Atlantic seaboard. … In that moment California was brought within the circle of the sisterhood of States.”

Background: The Pony Express

For 18 months, the Pony Express reigned as the fastest way to deliver information across the United States. It was introduced in April 1860 as a way to deliver mail between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, Calif.

The Express used a system that employed a number of riders to travel 75 to 100 miles each. Riders switched horses every 10–15 miles across the 2,000-mile route. Frequently switching horses and ensuring that every station provided riders with well-rested horses allowed the Pony Express to constantly travel at full speed. The trip from St. Joseph to Sacramento took approximately 10 days, cutting previous delivery times in half. 

The average cost to mail a parcel by Pony Express was $5 per half ounce, and the average rider received between $100 and $150 a month for their dangerous and physically demanding job.

Although a financial failure, the Pony Express is largely hailed as a success for its ability to maintain communication between the East Coast and California during the onset of the Civil War. The Pony Express, after completing over 300 journeys each way, was able to boast losing “only one mail pouch, or mochila, during its entire run,” according to the Library of Congress.

The Pony Express was discontinued on Oct. 26, 1861, just two days after the completion of the transcontinental telegraph.

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