On this day in 1861, the first transcontinental telegraph is sent, bringing an end to the Pony Express.
The task seemed impossible at first. How could cable be stretched over 2,000 miles of country, including the Rocky Mountains and other long stretches of sparsely populated land? Materials would have to be lugged by horse-drawn carriage to even very remote parts of the country.
There were other challenges too.
On one occasion in 1861, Sioux warriors cut part of the line that had been completed. They intended to use the wire to make bracelets. Unfortunately, some of the Sioux became very sick afterwards. Their medicine man determined it was the fault of the “talking wire,” and the Sioux quit taking wire after that.
Indeed, the challenges were so immense that, when Congress approved the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 and bids were solicited for construction of the line, only one company—Western Union—even dared to try.
Nevertheless, the first poles went up on July 4, 1861. The first telegraph was sent less than four months later. How’s that for a show of American determination?
The telegraph got rid of the need for the Pony Express, which had previously been the fastest method of communications between the western and eastern coasts of the country.
The Pony Express had not been in existence long—only about 18 months—but it had performed impressive feats for its time. At its height, riders were moving continuously from St. Joseph, Missouri, to San Francisco, California. Men rode constantly, in shifts. An average shift was 75 to 100 miles. Horses would be changed once every 10 to 15 miles, so that a rider always had a fresh horse able to gallop as fast as possible. The job was well-paid, because it was considered so dangerous. Riders faced difficult territory and the possibility of attacks. Sometimes, they even had to be escorted by military riders.
In short, the Pony Express crew was full of tough guys who rode hard. They delivered their messages in half the time that it would take a stagecoach to travel the same distance.
I wonder how those riders felt on the day when their difficult feats were no longer needed. They’d been replaced by construction of a line—also a difficult feat. Soon, more lines would be completed across oceans, making the reach of telegraphs more global. And, of course, none of those Americans could even begin to imagine what we have achieved in terms of communication today.
How American! Set your sights high and achieve task after task that was once thought to be impossible.
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Primary Sources & Further Reading:
1860-1861 History (National Pony Express Association website)
Historical Timeline (Pony Express Museum website)
Jim DeFelice, West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express (2018)
Pony Express National Historic Trail: History & Culture (National Park Service website)
Pony Express National Historic Trail: Long Distance Communication (National Park Service website)
Simon Worrall, Why the Short-Lived Pony Express Still Fascinates Us (National Geographic; June 22, 2018)
The Transcontinental Telegraph and the End of the Pony Express (Library of Congress website)