Even while the southern states were seceding and the nation seemed to be falling apart, President Abraham Lincoln continued projects that promised to bring the United States into the future. These projects, which today would be called infrastructure, would shed light on a new reality in October 1861 with the completion of the First Transcontinental Telegraph.
In 1860, the U. S. Post Office was authorized to spend $40,000 per year to build and maintain an overland telegraph route that would connect California with the remainder of the United States in the east. Samuel Morse’s 1830 invention had already seen practical use in the east. An experimental telegraph line was run between Washington D. C. and Baltimore.
There was no way of communicating with California, which had become a state in 1850, except by letters brought by boat or carried across the vast west by Pony Express. The government awarded a contract through the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 to Hiram Sibley, president of Western Union. Sibley then formed a group of companies to share in the construction of the transcontinental telegraph. These companies would share the federal and state subsides, as well as, any profits that might arise after the completion of the project.
The Pacific Telegraph Company of Nebraska started working westward from Omaha, laying telegraph lines. Meanwhile, the Overland Telegraph Company of California built eastward from Carson City, Nev. The goal was for the two lines to meet in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Despite problems with a shortage of supplies and work teams, the Transcontinental Telegraph line was completed on Oct. 24, 1861 at Salt Lake City. Now, there could be almost instantaneous communication between the east coast and west coast of America. The new function telegraph line meant the Pony Express was no longer needed and operations ceased.
In 1863, the Confederacy had stunning victories at Chancellorsville and Chickamauga while suffering debilitating defeats at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga. That same year, work began on the Transcontinental Railroad. Lincoln did not live to see the completion, as he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in April 1865.
The Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869. The Transcontinental Telegraph line operated until 1869. Afterwards, a new and improved telegraph line was stretched alongside the Transcontinental Railroad.
The telegraph also played an important role during the Civil War. Telegraph lines were laid so that Union generals could effectively communicate with the War Department in Washington D. C.