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Monday, November 19, 2018

First Transcontinental Telegraph & a Family Connection

The American Civil War started in early 1861. Later that same year on October 24th, the workers of the two companies working under the Western Union Telegraph Company linked the eastern and western telegraph networks of the nation at Salt Lake City, Utah, completing a transcontinental line that for the first time allows instantaneous communication between Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. Stephen J. Field, chief justice of California, sent the first transcontinental telegram to President Abraham Lincoln, predicting that the new communication link would help ensure the loyalty of the western states to the Union during the Civil War.

With the passing of the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860, Congress authorized a subsidy of $40,000 a year to any company building a telegraph line that would join the eastern and western networks. The Western Union Company won the bid. A milestone in electrical engineering, the line connected an existing network in the eastern United States to a small existing network in California by a link between Omaha and Carson City via Salt Lake City.

The newly created Overland Telegraph Company of California built the line eastward while Sibley's Pacific Telegraph Company of Nebraska built westward. The lines met in Salt Lake City, Utah. Construction began in 1861. 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 24, 1861.

There were many other challenges to building the telegraph line. Wire and glass insulators had to be shipped by sea to San Francisco and carried eastward by horse-drawn wagons over the Sierra Nevada. The largely treeless Midwest and the Great Basin country meant poles needed to be transported east from the western mountains.

Indians also proved a problem. In the summer of 1861, a party of Sioux warriors cut part of the line that had been completed and took a long section of wire for making bracelets. Later, however, some of the Sioux wearing the telegraph-wire bracelets became sick, and a Sioux medicine man convinced them that the great spirit of the “talking wire” had avenged its desecration. Thereafter, the Sioux left the line alone.

From my personal family history, my great-grandfather, Edwin Brown, was called up to serve in the Civil War. To set the stage, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints still dominated the Salt Lake City region. Four years before the beginning of the Civil War, upon being convinced by enemies of the Church that the Mormons (the nickname given to the church by its enemies; the members referred to themselves as Saints) were in revolt against the United States, President Buchanan authorized a large Army to march to Utah Territory to subdue the people. Word got back to the people in Salt Lake City the intent was to annihilate the members of the church—genocide.

The Saints fought back and prevented Johnston’s entry into the Salt Lake valley during the winter of 1857-58—enough time for the citizens to temporarily relocate elsewhere. It ended up that the church president, Brigham Young, recognized the new governor sent by Washington D.C. However, he made it clear to Johnston that if he came to Salt Lake City, he must march his men through the city without stopping, or the Saints would torch Salt Lake City and burn it to the ground. The members of the church were done with building up cities only be driven out by mob violence so others could come in and inhabit what they had built. Johnston did just that and set up Camp Floyd to the west.

Yet, in 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, President Lincoln sent messages to the leaders of all the territories to the west to know if they intended to stand with the Union. Anyone who knew anything about Utah Territory knew, no matter who ran the civil government, to get the cooperation of the majority of the population, they must go through Brigham Young.

There remained an uneasy truce between the soldiers who came to quell a rebellion that did not exist and the Saints. When the Civil War broke out, Sidney Johnston had already been transferred to California to head the Pacific Division of the Army. The soldiers at Camp Floyd left for the East to join the war effort. Yet, Brigham Young was the first in the territories to send the message back to President Lincoln that the Saints would stand with the Union.

After that, Utah was asked to raise a company, which it did. Brigham Young asked for each family to send one man to serve under Lot Smith (who led the resistance against Johnston’s Army a few years earlier). Brigham Young himself came to the Brown family with his request.

The Brown family had immigrated to the United States from England in 1853 and believed in the practice of primogeniture where the oldest son inherits the bulk of the estate upon the father’s death. Because my second great-grandfather died many years earlier, his oldest son, Henry, inherited and had the responsibility for providing for his mother and younger siblings in addition to his own wife and children. It fell to the second son, my great-grandfather, to serve.

As with most volunteer units of the day, the men were called up for a six month enlistment. Their assignment was to protect the newly-completed telegraph line between Green River, Wyoming and northern Utah from both Indians and Confederate saboteurs intent upon disrupting communications between Washington D.C. and California—the source of gold President Lincoln counted on to help finance the Union Army. Strung out along the route of the telegraph and far from civilization, the men suffered from the elements and the lack of a consistent food supply.

At the end of the six months, it was decided this unit did not need as many men. Those who owned their own horses were re-enlisted for an additional six months. Those like my great-grandfather who were on foot were mustered out to return home.

With the completion of the transcontinental telegraph, the Pony Express became obsolete overnight. It would be another nine years before trains crossed the vast Prairie. The transcontinental telegraph served as the only method of near-instantaneous communication between the east and west coasts during the 1860s.

Family history of Robyn Echols


Bridgeport Holiday Brides, my fifth and final book in the series, Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 takes place in November. It wraps up the remaining romances in the series. You may read the book description and find the purchase link by CLICKING HERE.

The following is one of my favorite excerpts from the book. It takes place during the wedding reception for Val and Beth:

         "And your sister is delightful." A twinkle entered her eye and a grin lit her face. "And I understand she soon may also be joining the family in an even closer capacity very soon."
         Beth's eyes twitched with suspicion. "Who told you that?"
         Barbara's eyes widened and she brought her fingers to her lips. "Oh! I hope I didn't let the cat out of the bag. Luther made a special trip up to Carson City to buy Hazel a ring. He stopped by and stayed with us coming and going. It's a beautiful ring, Beth. Haven't you seen it yet?"
         "No, I ain't. And Hazel ain't of age. Luther finagled his way into courtin' her, but he ain't said nothin' to me about askin' for her hand."
         "Oh. I'm sorry, Beth. I thought you knew."
         "No need apologizin'. Right glad you spoke up."
         Beth's gaze roamed over the crowd until she located Luther with Hazel on his arm while he chatted with friends.
         Once Luther caught the eye of his newest sister-in-law and realized she was glaring at him, he straightened to his full height then froze in place, like prey hypnotized by a snake. As soon as Beth started toward him with a resolute stride, he turned to Hazel and whispered in her ear.
         Three long strides on his part, and Luther and Beth stood face to face.
         Beth spoke first. "You and me need to talk, Luther Caldwell. Somewhere private."
         Hazel followed Luther, standing behind him. She looked on with concern. "Bethie?"
         "Luther'll be right back, Hazel. Him and I got a bone to pick over."
         Luther followed Beth outside the barn. Although most of the wedding guests were in the barn where it was relatively warm, there were enough in the yard that Beth had to search for a spot where she could speak to Luther in relative privacy. She finally spotted a tree on the far side of the yard next to one of the corrals. She strode in that direction, knowing Luther followed close behind her. Once she was far enough away from everyone she spun on the ball of her foot to face her brother-in-law. Luther almost toppled over in the effort to keep from running into Beth.
         Her arms akimbo, Beth glared at Luther. "Heard you done bought Hazel a ring."
         Luther's expression of consternation turned to a mischievous grin. "Has Barbara been talking to you? She never could keep things like that to herself."
         "Good she did, because you sure ain't been talkin' to me. You give that ring to Hazel yet?"
         Luther turned serious. "No, Beth. I haven't said anything. I wanted to get past yours and Val's wedding. I didn't want to say anything too soon and have the news of it take away from yours and Val's big day."
         "That's right thoughtful of you, Luther, but you know she ain't of age. You need to get my say-so before you go askin' her."
         Luther gave another sheepish grin. "That was another reason I planned to wait. I figured once you were happily married, you would settle down and be apt to be more agreeable to our engagement. I had planned to ask her so we could announce it at Thanksgiving dinner."


  1. What a wonderful piece of history, and having a personal connection is so exciting to this historian. Thank you. Doris

  2. Considering all the hazards they were up against building the telegraph line, it's amazing that it was successful. I remember in my youth how important the telegraph was. Now, of course, we have internet everything and smart phones, but that first telegraph line across the United States was a huge accomplishment.
    Great article, Zina.
    Bridgeport Holiday Brides sure looks enticing, too. Was it hard for you to write the end of a series? Are you going to begin a new series now?

  3. What an informative article, Zina. The story about the Sioux may just have to pop up in a future book of mine. Best of luck with Bridgeport Holiday Brides. It sounds great.