The first transcontinental telegraph line went into operation 149 years ago on October 24, 1861, when the gap between the country's eastern and western networks was closed. The year before, Congress passed the Pacific Telegraph Act, subsidizing its construction and Hiram Sibley, president of the Western Union Telegraph Company, organized crews to build west from Omaha and East from Carson City to Salt Lake City.
While Abraham Lincoln received the very first message sent all the way across the nation that day, a different kind of leader was the first to test out the Salt Lake -- San Francisco wire: Brigham Young, leader of the Church of Latter Day Saints.
GREAT SALT LAKE CITY, OCTOBER 24, 7 P.M.
TO HON. H. W. CARPENTIER, PRESIDENT OF THE OVERLAND TELEGRAPH COMPANY
DEAR SIR: I AM VERY MUCH OBLIGED FOR YOUR KINDNESS, MANIFESTED THROUGH YOU AND MR. STREET, IN GIVING ME PRIVILEGE OF FIRST MESSAGE TO CALIFORNIA. MAY SUCCESS EVER ATTEND THE ENTERPRISE. THE SUCCESS OF MR. STREET IN COMPLETING HIS END OF THE LINE UNDER MANY UNFAVORABLE CIRCUMSTANCES IN SO SHORT A TIME IS BEYOND OUR MOST SANGUINE ANTICIPATIONS. JOIN YOUR WIRES WITH THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE, AND WE WILL CONVERSE WITH EUROPE.
Young was given the honor because the Mormons were absolutely crucial in ensuring the construction of the telegraph line. In fact, Young was fantastically gung-ho about the telegraph, and so the ranks of the Mormon Church was were too.
"Because of the lack of timber for poles along this route, and the necessity of securing transportation for materials and sustenance for workmen, it was essential that the builders of the transcontinental line secure the approval and assistance of the Latter-day Saints Church whose members occupied the strategic (in this case) Great Basin," wrote historian Leonard Arrington back in 1951. "Edward Creighton, contractor for Western Union, was dispatched to Salt Lake City in late 1860 for this purpose. He found Brigham Young and other leading Mormon officials anxious to assist the project in every way."
The big trouble with getting the telegraph across the desert is that there were no trees out of which to make poles (seriously). So, they had to contract with locals who could haul them out to the work site day after day. The Mormons were responsible for furnishing supplies and labor for about 1,000 miles of the telegraph line, according to Arrington.
The experience helped Young build a telegraph network connecting all the Mormon settlements in the area, an intention he expressed from the pulpit, saying, "I want a company raised to stretch a wire through our settlements in this Territory, that information may be communicated to all parts with lightning speed."
The line didn't get built until after the end of the Civil War, but its completion was a milestone in the institutional development of the Mormon settlements. The telegraph tied the settlers together more tightly and allowed Young to disseminate the church's messages more efficiently. By 1880, there were more than 1,000 miles of wire in the territory. Control of the telegraph was important enough that the president of the church (first Young and later others) was also the president of the Deseret Telegraph Company, a church-owned public utility. The company had a different rate structure from the purely commercial concerns, including bulk discounts for small stations to receive chunks of news.
Eventually, the federal government confiscated the line during its attempts to end Mormon polygamist practices during the 1880s. It was eventually given back to the church, which sold it to Western Union in 1900.
This photo has one of the best captions I've ever seen. At the National Archives it reads, "Richard Pierce, Western Union Telegraph Co. Messenger No. 2. 14 years of age. 9 months in service, works from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Smokes and visits houses of prostitution. Wilmington, Del., 05/1910"