The electric telegraph played an important role in the lives of the inhabitants of the Great Plains from its first appearance in the region in the 1860s until well into the twentieth century. Work on a coast-to-coast telegraph line in the United States began when Congress passed the Pacific Telegraph Act in 1860. The Western Union Telegraph Company supervised the construction of the line, which ran from Omaha, Nebraska, through Laramie, Wyoming, to San Francisco, California. Upon its completion in October 1861, the transcontinental telegraph spelled an end to the Pony Express, which had operated during its construction.
Some of the construction crews used electric batteries to give shocks to the Arapaho and Cheyenne inhabitants of the region and frighten them away, creating an atmosphere of hostility between the Native Americans and the telegraph companies. After the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, the Native Americans realized that the telegraph could be used to summon troops, and they began a campaign to tear down the wires in what is now western Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and southern Wyoming. This continued until 1869, when the lines were moved to the trackside of the newly completed Union Pacific Railroad. As in the United States, the completion of a cross-country telegraph system in western Canada preceded the building of the transcontinental railway. The Canadian Pacific Railway Telegraph was operational clear to the Pacific Coast ten years before the completion of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885.
Tributary lines soon connected major towns and cities to the main line. A mutually beneficial relationship grew up between the telegraph companies and the railroads. Western Union telegraph operators were stationed in each railroad depot and used the telegraph to signal train movements from one station to the next. When operators were not busy with train orders, they sent personal messages, received commodity reports, and arranged shipments for local farmers and merchants. Although the stereotypical telegraph operator in western lore is a male, women also worked as telegraphers. The percentage of women telegraphers in the Plains states grew from approximately 5 percent in 1870 to 10 percent in 1900.
During the 1870s and 1880s populists and members of the Grange movement accused the railroad and telegraph companies of manipulating commodity prices and shipping rates. The Interstate Commerce Commission, established in 1887 to regulate railroad shipping rates, was chartered to regulate the telegraph industry as well in 1910. The use of the telegraph began to decline after 1900 as it was replaced by the telephone for personal messages and by centralized traffic-control systems for railroad use. The depot telegrapher lived on in movies like Western Union (1939) and Kansas Pacific (1953) as a nostalgic symbol of a bygone era.
The problems of settling and governing the Great Plains were those of time and space; the telegraph solved these problems elegantly by compressing the time required to communicate between widely separated cities, towns, and forts from days to mere seconds. For newspaper editors the telegraph meant the swift arrival of news from the East. For farmers the telegraph provided a means to arrange the shipment of crops and cattle. And for all ordinary men and women the telegraph enabled personal communications with distant friends and family.
Thomas C. Jepsen National Coalition of Independent Scholars
Burnet, Robert. Canadian Railway Telegraph History. Etobicoke, Ontario: Telegraph Key and Sounder, 1997.
Gabler, Edwin. The American Telegrapher: A Social History, 1860– 1900. New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988.
Jepsen, Thomas. "The Telegraph Comes to Colorado: A New Technology and Its Consequences." Essays and Monographs in Colorado History 7 (1987): 1–25.