Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Railroads and Western Union Connect a Continent

Posted on | February 11, 2015 | No Comments

This is a section from my upcoming book Information and Financial Technologies in Early America: Telegraphy, Tabulation, and Time-Space Power..

The geographic expanse and rugged terrain of the American West presented major challenges to overland transportation and the expansion of telegraphic communication. Attempts to conquer these obstacles would shape the American frontier for years. The fate of the railroad was intrinsically intertwined with land-based telegraphy, and with the outbreak of the Civil War, both the railroads and telegraph would be corporately organized, and their diffusion accelerated.

The movie Western Union (1941) by German Director Fritz Lang presents an interesting, although somewhat racist, depiction of the venture to expand the telegraph’s reach towards the Pacific.

Railroads and telegraphic lines developed initially in the Northeast, but the promise of the West lured the Eastern population and required technological solutions. The rough terrain made travel very difficult. One of the first technical successes that made transportation (and thus communication) more practical was the Erie Canal, completed in 1825. It successfully connected New York’s Hudson River to the Great Lakes and made Chicago a focal point for the Midwest’s aspiring commodities markets (thus further isolating the South). Texas was integrated in 1845 and the Oregon Territory the following year. Mexico ceded its territories in the West in 1848, and California became a state in 1850. California’s population quadrupled over the ten years after the discovery of gold.[1] As the US widened its population and Westernized economy, communication and transportation systems became more important.

Moving goods and people to and from California to the East Coast proved tricky. The route by sea necessarily required a ship to steam around the southern tip of South America. Water transportation involving the Midwest relied heavily on the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. Both trips, however, required traversing the hurricane-prone Caribbean and the southern US coast. For example, the steamship Central America sunk in a storm off the coast of the Carolinas with some 500 passengers and 21 tons of gold. It was on its forty-fourth trip when its demise came on September 12, 1857. Along with the tragic loss of life, the sinking sparked panic among traders on Wall Street, who were desperately anticipating the arrival of the ship’s precious metal cargo to increase the nation’s money supply.

Alternatively, travelers could travel by horseback or wagon some 1,600 miles from Kansas City to the Pacific or through the malaria-plagued Isthmus of Panama. Suitable road development suffered in the West as construction had been left to the individual states after older states sensed little benefit in subsidizing better transportation in the newer states. State support of the railroad development became contentious after the Panic of 1837 hampered state credit and capital flows from Eastern and European investors. Although growth returned in the 1850s, a series of investment problems hindered the expansion of the train system as European investors suffered from stock manipulation. Thus, it was primarily up to the federal government to ensure the western development of the railroads.

In 1855, a Committee on Pacific Railroads was formed by Congress to hasten the completion of transcontinental endeavors. Army Topological Engineers were sent to scout routes for the railroads and telegraph lines to make forays into the West. In anticipation, the Pony Express Pony Express was set up to carry mail across the country. The horses carried commercial and political messages and documents that helped coordinate the telegraph line construction. Although the riders could traverse the two thousand-mile route that stretched between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento in about ten days, they would soon be replaced by the efficiency of the telegraph that carried messages in minutes.

It took the initiative of President Lincoln and Congress to effectuate a more extensive transportation and communications grid for the country. Transportation infrastructure lagged until the Civil War and Lincoln’s resolve to secure the West. Motivation increased after silver was found in Nevada in 1859 and the Gold Rush’s expansion to Colorado’s Pike’s Peak the following year. Lincoln saw the preservation of the Union not only in North-South terms but also in incorporating the vast expanses of the West.

A semaphore telegraph was constructed on San Francisco’s “Telegraph Hill” in 1849 to notify the city’s merchants when ships were sighted entering the Golden Gate. It used raisable pole-and-arm signals that could form various configurations with specific meanings, such as a sailing boat, steamer, etc., as well as their type of cargo. Knowing a ship’s impending arrival and its load could affect local merchants’ prices for those goods and commodities. It was rendered obsolete in 1853, when the California State Telegraph Company began constructing telegraph lines to connect San Francisco with San Jose, Stockton, and Sacramento. Soon, the California Legislature offered a $6,000 a year incentive complete a telegraph line across the continent.

In June of 1860, Congress passed the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860, appropriating $40,000 a year, for ten years, for the construction and maintenance of a line of telegraph connections between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The Secretary of the Treasury advertised for contractors, and it went to Western Union due to its high bid and the withdrawal of other contenders. Competing companies in California agreed to work together and fund the upstart Overland Telegraph Company, to build the lines between San Francisco and Salt Lake City in Utah. Western Union, which had already consolidated many telegraph companies in the eastern states, formed the Pacific Telegraph Company and committed to building the telegraph line from Omaha to the connection with the Overland Telegraph Company near Salt Lake City.

Edward Creighton, whose character is featured in the Western Union movies above, surveyed the route of the proposed telegraph line between Omaha and Sacramento and dug the first post hole for the telegraph line on July 2, 1861. Creighton, who had managed construction on the eastern side, was noted for establishing good relationships with many Native American tribes along the route. The California State Telegraph Company, with additional federal funding, extended its lines eastward. The line ran from Omaha through Fort Laramie, along the famous Oregon Trail, until it veered off into Utah.

Provisioning the construction was difficult, especially providing lumber for poles throughout the plains of the Midwest. Confederate spies, Native Indians, and outlaw gangs created additional problems. Mormons were particularly useful in the final stages, especially as fears of the oncoming winter mounted. On October 24, 1861, Western Union Telegraph Company workers linked the eastern and western telegraph networks at Salt Lake City, Utah. Instantaneous telegraphic communication between Washington, D.C., and San Francisco was possible for the first time.[2] Western Union soon absorbed both companies and became the first US corporation to span the nation.

After the Civil War had erupted in April 1861, the North debated and took several measures to encourage the pacification and settling of the West. One, the Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged western development by no longer selling but instead offering ownership to those who settled and cultivated the land. Two, the Railways and Telegraph Act of 1862 nationalized the emerging technological infrastructure and mobilized West Point graduates and other military personnel to propel its development. The Union assigned military units to help protect the construction and, unfortunately, engaged in widespread genocide of Native Americans to eliminate any threat to the Western advance. Three, the U.S. government took an active role in expanding both the reach of the railroads and the telegraph. The Pacific Railroad Act chose two companies to link Omaha, Nebraska, with Sacramento, California, and thus complete the transcontinental railroad.

General Herman Haupt took over the North’s railroads and turned them into a crucial logistical tool. Originally from Philadelphia, he chose railroad engineering after graduating from West Point at the age of eighteen. When the war broke out, he offered to serve the North as a civilian. At first, he was assigned to the Army of Virginia, where he took the position of colonel to expedite his charge to bring order to the chaotic state of the railroads in that area of the country. There, he designed the responsibilities of the Department of Military Railroads: inventory the railroads and their distances, assess their condition, and determine the availability and prices of materials and labor for building and maintaining the lines. Haupt’s railroads were used to quickly move large numbers of troops to the battlefield as well as ammunition, other equipment, and food. It proved crucial at Chattanooga the next year as the North quickly moved nearly 23,000 soldiers, ten batteries of artillery, and 100 cars of supplies from Virginia to the front in Tennessee.

After the war, Haupt and many other officers went to work for various railroad and telegraph companies. These were the vanguard companies of the modern corporation, and the military officers had the best training for running large, technologically complex operations. Leading troops into battle, or coordinating the massive supply lines needed for modern armies, provided the experience necessary to build railroads and telegraph lines. Military regiments were also used to build and protect this rapidly growing infrastructure. However, western expansion, in particular, presented numerous problems for the fast-growing industries that faced contending threats from criminal gangs, Native Americans, weather, and wild animals. .

Several Republican businessmen organized in California California to build a railroad to build a railroad through the rugged mountains of western America. Most prominent of these was Leland Stanford, California’s future governor, and Stanford University’s benefactor. One of the many abolitionists who wanted to stay connected to the Union, he helped raise money for the project and lobby Congress. In 1862, Congress passed the Railroad Act of 1862, and Lincoln signed legislation to help build the Missouri River-California railroad. The Act authorized two companies to build the transatlantic railroad. One was the Central Pacific Railroad, chaired by Stanford. It would go east from Sacramento through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The other company, Union Pacific, would go West from Omaha, Nebraska, over the Great Plains and through the Rocky Mountains. To help the process, the government gave the companies 20 square miles for each mile of track laid.[4]

The work was long and arduous, but the two companies persisted. The Central Pacific had difficulty getting through the Sierra Summit and its 1600 feet of granite. It hired Chinese crews to bore through the summit and several other mountains with gunpowder and nitroglycerin. Sioux and Cheyenne raided the Union Pacific lines and cut telegraph wires, but the company made faster time than their Western counterparts. They only had to cut through four mountains as they traversed the Rocky Mountains. Their real challenges came with the dry desolation of the Nevada desert and persistent financial problems. Droughts of water and cash plagued the western trek, and Dr. Durant, its director, was accused of bribing Congressional members to garner additional support. Persistent labor shortages also hindered progress, but with the end of the Civil War, many soldiers and officers went west to help finish the project.

Despite record snowstorms during the 1867 and 1868 winters, the two companies connected their tracks on May 10, 1869, at Promontory, Utah. The endeavor took six years, and over 21 million acres of land were awarded to the two companies as well as generous subsidies. The event was highly anticipated nationwide and was one of the first true national media events. Telegraph lines were already connected to Promontory, and telegraphers stood by to signal the event. Leland Stanford of the Central Pacific Railroad was invited to drive the last spike. Crowds eagerly awaited the news as they gathered around telegraph offices in San Francisco and other cities. The final spike was wired to the telegraph to signal the event. Although Leland missed on his first attempt, the telegrapher signaled three dots indicating the spike had been driven into the rail. Celebrations commenced throughout the country, and the Liberty Bell was even struck gently in Philadelphia to mark the occasion.[5]

These two technologies became highly dependent on each other. As the transcontinental railroads became the major mode of transportation for most parts of the United States, it also aided the construction of telegraph lines. The telegraph lines provided for the expansion of business, government, and news operations. The vast expanse of the western US frontier provided ample natural resources for the burgeoning economy and a growing consumer market in the East. As the western states prospered, they also became important markets for industrial goods from the East, such as clothes, linens, plows, rifles, and shovels. A railroad employee, R.W. Sears, started one of the most famous mail-order businesses with the Sears Catalog. Sears, Roebuck, and Company went on to become the world’s largest retailer.

With the westward expansion opened by the military and government for commercial exploitation, railroads and telegraph lines soon crisscrossed the country and conquered the West. The Buffalo was the first victim of the locomotive. In some places, miles of bones and rotting hides could be seen alongside the railway. The end of the Buffalo stirred up the last resistance from the native Indians. Just days before the country celebrated its hundredth centennial, news spread that General Custer had met his demise at Little Big Horn. But his “last stand” on June 25th, 1876, proved to be more of an ending for the Indians as they soon lost their cherished Black Hills and an additional 40 million acres of promised reservation lands. The markets for fresh meat in the East created the era of the cowboy, as steers were herded north from Texas and other MidSouth states to the railroads that were hungry for business. Chicago meatpackers invented the assembly line and other technological processes such as refrigerated cars to streamline the of supply line of fresh meats from ranches to local butchers.


[1] Data on incorporating states from The Permanent Frontier by Haig Babian; Gerald R Rosen; Institute of Economic Affairs, New York University as published in (1961) p. 40.
[2] A major source from the time period is “The making of the U.S. transcontinental telegraph line.” By James Gamble. Harper’s Weekly, November 23, 1861. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
[3] Eicher, D.J. (2002) The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. NY: Simon and Schuster. One of the few accounts of the Civil War that addresses the issues of communications and transportation.
[4] Information on Leland Stanford from the history section of the Stanford University website accessed on May 8, 2015. [5] From the PBS website Biography: Leland Stanford (1824-1893) accessed the same day. Leland Stanford went on to become the Governor of California in 1871 and a US Senator in 1885.
[5] Information on the telegraph’s role in the celebration of the transcontinental railroad from The West, a documentary by Ken Burns.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a professor at the State University of New York, Korea. Previously he was a professor of Global Media at Hannam University in South Korea and he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas. For most of his career, he was on the faculty of New York University. His first position was at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.


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