It was not until 1860, when a bill was introduced by Senator Broderick, that the Senate should authorize the Postmaster General to enter into a contract with Henry O'Reilly, J. J. Speed, and T. P. Schaffner for the carrying of Government messages to and from the Pacific States. The contract was for ten years, and the consideration $70,000 a year, with a preemption of 320 acres of land every ten miles along the route. This bill was referred to the committee of which Dr. Gwin was a member, but, on account of incompatibility of temper between the two Senators, it never reached the House. The year previous, 1859, the State Legislature had passed an act granting $6000 a year, for ten years, to the company that should put the first line through, and $4000 a year to the one that would get the second line through. This encouragement gave fresh impetus to the enterprises already commenced-one by the way of Placerville and Carson Valley, known as the Placerville and St Joseph Telegraph Company, and another via Los Angeles, following the route of the Butterfield overland mail stages.
Early in the succeeding year, several other telegraph bills were introduced in the United States Senate. An examination of them in detail led to the conviction that no private company would be able to successfully build and maintain telegraphic communication across the continent, the cost of maintenance after the construction of the line being too great. Government aid was consequently considered absolutely necessary if the enterprise were to be carried out. A bill finally passed Congress appropriating $40,000 a year, for ten years, toward the construction and maintenance of a line of telegraph between the Atlantic and Pacific States. Within the appointed time the Secretary of the Treasury advertised for proposals. The Grand Confederated North American Association held a convention at New York, and agreed, as the Western Union Company had more at stake than any other Eastern company, to refer the whole matter to it and to the Placerville and St. Joseph Company. The Western Union Company resolved to put in a bid at the maximum price fixed by Congress, the bid to go in Hiram Sibley's name, but if successful, all the California lines, so disposed were to share in the benefits. Several other competing companies made bids, but as before the time came around for giving the necessary bonds they had all withdrawn, the contract was awarded to the Western Union Company.
The parties whom Mr. Sibley represented met at Rochester, New York, and agreed that if all the California lines would consolidate they should have construction of the line from Salt Lake to the Pacific connection, while the Western Union Company should build from Salt Lake to the eastern connection. It was also agreed that the California and Government subsidies, together with the receipts, should be divided equitably between them. In the fall of the same year, 1860, J.H. Wade, the representative of the Western Union Company, came to California to complete arrangements for the commencement of the great work. He brought the matter before the several companies then in operation on the Pacific Coast, proposing to them a plan of consolidation of all their lines, which was immediately carried out. The different companies agreed to consolidate with the California State Telegraph Company, and to create a new company called the Overland Telegraph Company with a capital stock of $1,250,000, to complete a line from San Francisco to Salt Lake. This company, on the completion of the line, was merged into the California State Company (the capital stock being doubled), which, from that time until its later consolidation with the Western Union, owned and controlled the telegraph lines from San Francisco to Salt Lake. The Western Union had in the meantime established a similar organization on the eastern side of the continent to meet the line from this side at Salt Lake.
All preliminaries having been settled, the work of construction was to be commenced without delay. The material was ordered, and preparations were made to complete the entire line before the close of 1861. The work on the eastern end was under the superintendence and general direction of Edward Creighton, while the construction from this end was directed by the writer. The lines of the California State Telegraph Company had already been extended as far as Virginia City after the consolidation of the lines, and it was decided that the work of extending the overland telegraph was to commence at Carson City. Part of the wire and insulators had in the meantime been ordered from the East, and were shipped round by Cape Horn. The next most important item of material was the poles. These had to be hauled on wagons and distributed along the route from Carson City to Salt Lake, a distance of six hundred miles. As there was not a stick of timber in sight throughout the entire distance, it seemed at first a mystery how they were to be procured, and the work finished within the time named. Among my associates in the enterprise was James Street, who had, previous to this, met and made a friend of Brigham Young. Mr. Street was full of pluck and energy; and early in the spring he went to Salt Lake and succeeded in arranging with the Mormons for the necessary poles along that section of the line.
On his return, be made it a point to see some of the Indian chiefs, to gain, if possible, their good will, as well as explain to them the object of the work. At Roberts Creek, he met Sho-kup, the head chief of the Shoshones, who received him in a very friendly manner. The chief told Mr. Street that he and his tribe were desirous of knowing and understanding the ways of the white man, and to be upon friendly terms with him. He expressed himself as anxious to do always that which was to the good of his own people, and provide for their wants. He added, with much feeling:
Sho-kup exercised great influence, not only over his own tribe, but also over the Goshutes and Pah-Utes. The Indians there, as everywhere, are very superstitious and put great faith in the teachings of their medicine men. At the time of the visit of Mr. Street, one of Sho-kup's wives (he had two) was dangerously ill, and one of her doctors had said the cause of it was the overland mail. The chief asked if this was true. The interpreter replied in the negative, and on behalf of Mr. Street invited Sho-kup to get on the stage and go to San Francisco where he was assured he would be kindly received, and be as well in all respects as if he had made the journey on horseback. The chief accepted the offer and started with them the next stage, but on reaching Carson City he resolved to return, as it was taking him too far from home. The telegraph was explained to him by the interpreter, and he afterward called it "We-ente-mo-ke-te-bope: meaning "wire rope express." On being pressed to continue his trip to San Francisco, he said no; he wanted to go back and learn how his wife was. He was told that when the telegraph was completed he could talk to her as well from there as if by her side; but this was more than his comprehension could seize. Talk to her when nearly three hundred miles away ! No; that was not possible. He shook his head, saying he would rather talk to her in the old way. His idea of the telegraph was that it was an animal, and he wished to know on what it fed. They told him it ate lightning; but, as he had never seen any one make a supper of lightning, he was not disposed to believe that. During his stay in Carson City, Sho-kup was kindly treated, and, as he refused to go farther, he was told he could talk with the Big Captain (President H. W. Carpentier) of the telegraph company at San Francisco. Thereupon he dictated the following dispatch:
On receipt of this message, General Carpentier, President of the Company, sent Sho-kup several friendly messages, and ordered presents of food and clothing to be made him. The importance of having a good understanding and keeping on friendly terms with the Indians was well understood, and everything was done, both then and during the period of the construction of the line, to prevent the occurrence of anything that would lead to trouble with them.
Mr. Street's contracts with the Mormons were for two to three hundred miles of poles for the eastern section of the line from Salt Lake west. I then went myself to Carson City and made contracts for one hundred miles of poles, running east from that point to Ruby Valley, where other contracts had been made with parties, familiar with that part of the country, to supply the poles for the middle section. I had many misgivings in respect to these contracts for poles, especially regarding those for the middle section. Along that portion of the route the mountains and plains were treeless as far as the eye could reach, viewed even from the highest point. Where, then, the poles were to come from, I could not conceive. But the frontier men with whom the bargain had been made appeared to know their business, and, as I afterward learned, they had in their hunting expeditions discovered canyons and gorges in the mountains where stunted pine and quaking asp could be found sufficiently large for telegraph poles. So far, then, all was satisfactory.
The material having been provided, the next important move was to get it on the ground. Early in the spring of 1861 I was authorized by the company to fit out an expedition and commence the work of construction. It was estimated that it would take twenty-six wagons to carry the material and supplies across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and these I was instructed to purchase, together with the necessary animals to move them. This was accomplished and the expedition was ready to move on the 27th of May, 1861. It comprised 228 oxen, 26 wagons, 50 men, and several riding-horses. Everything necessary for the work and subsistence had to be carried on the wagons, but as there was a fair road over the mountains, it was thought the crossing could be made in about twelve or fifteen days. The expedition was placed in charge of I. M. Hubbard, an experienced and energetic telegraph man. Instead of fifteen days, as supposed, it took over thirty days to get across the Sierra Nevada. The train was very long and the road narrow, and it was found that many of the wagons were too heavily laden for the mountain roads; so it made but slow progress. In addition to this, the train frequently blocked up the road, delaying incoming trains as long as a day at a time. It was, therefore, finally concluded to cut up the telegraph train into several sections, and it was not until late in June that the expedition reached Carson Valley, and the work of construction commenced. In the meantime, the poles were being distributed from both ends of the line of route, and, as the wire and insulators for the eastern end had been ordered shipped from the Missouri river to Salt Lake, the work began energetically from both ends.
The route selected was by way of Omaha, up the South Platte, via old Fort Kearney, Fort Laramie, up the Sweetwater and through the South Pass to Salt Lake. Thence, to Deep Creek, Egan Canyon, and Ruby Valley to Virginia City. Austin and Eureka were not at that time in existence. In fact,the only settlement along that portion of the route, was one at Ruby Valley, where some troops were stationed.
Mr. Creighton, who, as I have stated, was in charge of the eastern section, and myself, communicated freely, advising each other at frequent intervals of the progress of the work. His reports showed me with what energy he was pushing his part forward, and so enthusiastic were we both that a wager was laid between us as to which would first reach Salt Late, ready to open communication with San Francisco and the East. In order that all could be worked to the best advantage, the party, under Mr. Hubbard's direction, was thoroughly organized and systematized. The line was first measured and staked off; the hole-diggers followed; then came the pole-setters, and next the wire party. The line was strung up at the rate of from three to eight miles a day. An advance telegraph station was kept up with the head of the line, and the progress of the work reported each day. At this advance station the news was received on the arrival of the Pony Express, and telegraphed to San Francisco and other points. Commercial dispatches were also sent and received daily, as the Pony Express arrived at or departed from our camp. In this way the newspapers in San Francisco were supplied with telegraphic news, and were daily gaining on time as the lines advanced east and west across the continent toward their meeting point.
Among the different working parties were several Indians. They were employed principally in taking care of the stock, herding them at night where grass was to be found, and driving them in at early morning. Another object in employing them was that they might report to the different tribes how well they were treated, and in this way favorably influence the Indians toward the members of the party and the telegraph line. Those I employed were trusted almost entirely with the stock, and I never had any reason to regret the confidence I placed in them. They were generally paid in provisions and clothing, and always seemed perfectly satisfied. That this good feeling with the Indians was maintained throughout, was also in a measure due to a general order issued at the start, that any man of the expedition getting into trouble with the Indians, or their squaws, would be immediately dismissed from the service, and this rule was strictly enforced.
An incident occurred once during the construction of the line that doubtless had a lasting effect upon one Indian, at least, as to the power contained in the wire, which to them was so great a mystery. While our men were engaged stretching the wires up to a stage station, about two hundred miles east of the Sierra Nevada, a thunder storm broke over the valley at some distance from where they were working. The electric charges from the clouds were so heavy that the men were obliged to use buckskin gloves to avoid the shocks. Some strange Indians coming up just at that time, one of the men motioned to them to come and help him pull at the wire. One more willing than the rest took hold of it, and while drawing the wire along; the ground being moist, and the Indian in his bare feet, he received an electric charge that doubled him up in a knot. A more astonished Indian was probably never seen. He sprung to his feet and started on a full run. His companions, not knowing what had occurred, looked on with perfect astonishment. The electrified Indian stopped after running a short distance, and called to his comrades to join him, to whom, I presume, he explained the effect, without exactly knowing the cause. He and the others spread the news of this occurrence, and after that no Indian could be induced to go near the wire or touch the poles. Governor Nye, of Nevada, who also acted as Indian Agent, informed me, shortly after the completion of the overland line, that on his meeting with the Indians in Ruby Valley he noticed that whenever they had occasion to pass under the wire they got as nearly equidistant between the poles as possible, and appeared anxious to keep as far away from the line as they could. When I told him of the incident I have just related, he said it was very likely the cause of what he had observed.
In the meantime the construction of the line was being rapidly pushed forward. Many serious difficulties were, however, from time to time encountered, requiring our greatest energies to overcome. Deserts had to be crossed, which in many cases taxed the efforts and strength of the expedition to its very utmost. In one instance sixteen miles of line were built in one day, in order to reach a point where water could be obtained. As the weather was extremely hot, teams with barrels of water had to he kept with the different parties when crossing these deserts. Again, our pole-contractors failed us, and it was found necessary to send our own teams out on the mountain tops to procure and haul poles at the different points where an insufficient quantity had been provided. The first contract made with the Mormons was also a failure. Brigham Young denounced the contractors who agreed to furnish the poles from the pulpit, and said the work of furnishing the poles should and must be carried out. The work of getting them out was entrusted to other parties. Some of the poles had to be hauled nearly two hundred miles, most of them being taken from the mountains in the vicinity of Salt Lake, there being very few to be had west of that point.
Up to the first of October the work had progressed as well as could have been expected, all things considered. The poles were nearly all delivered, and the line completed with the exception of some fifty or sixty miles between Ruby Valley and Schell Creek, about midway between Carson City and Salt Lake. But at that time it began to be apparent that the pole contractors were going to fail on that section. Mountaineers and Indians were at once secured to scour the mountains, and procure, if possible, a sufficient number of poles to complete the remaining portion of the line. As the season was growing late, and cold weather coming on, I began to have serious fears that it would be impossible to complete it before winter. The men were also getting frightened, and many of them wanted to return home, as they feared we would be over taken by the snow. I finally ascertained that poles could be had on the top of a high mountain, about fifteen miles from a place called Egan Canyon, but that the only way to procure them was with our own men and teams. This I directed done, and with as little delay as possible.
The teams left Ruby Valley at once, with orders to go to this mountain, cut the poles, and get them down. Twenty wagons started in the train, under the direction of the wagon master and a foreman of construction. In a few days, after having had time, as I judged, to reach Egan Canyon, the stage brought me a note from the foreman, advising me that they had reached that point, but that his workmen and teamsters refused to go into the mountains, saying it was too late in the season to attempt it, and that they had determined to leave and go home. Matters were becoming serious, and I saw that nothing but strong determination on my part would induce the men to reverse their decision and encounter the risks of going into the mountains. I held a conference with my assistant, Mr. Hubbard, and Jasper McDonald, the commissary of the expedition. We decided to take the next stage for Egan Canyon, enforce orders, and, if such a thing were still possible, get out the necessary number of poles for the completion of the line. On our arrival we found the men very decided not to go farther. I informed them they had started on the work under an agreement to remain until it was completed, and that they would be held to it, or forfeit their pay. They continued to express great fears of being caught in the mountains by winter storms, but on the assurance that we would accompany them they agreed to go, and early on the morning after my arrival we all moved into the mountains. By sundown we reached the timber. We had a hard day's work to do so, as for a good portion of the way we had to open up and make the road for the teams to pass over. The poles were found at a point high up in the mountains. They were mostly fire-killed, hard and dry.
The night that we reached this place was dark and gloomy. Heavy clouds overhanging the mountains announced the near approach of a storm. Our men had been in the habit of rolling themselves up in their blankets and sleeping on the ground in the open air. We had tents with us, but many of them did not think it worth while to put them up. We were all very tired, climbing the mountain being very fatiguing, so it was not long after supper before the men were rolled up in their blankets for the night. I had a tent put up, into which I crawled with other officers of the expedition. My heart was filled with many misgivings as to what the morning would bring forth. Anything like a heavy fall of snow would, I knew well, seriously endanger, if not altogether destroy, our chances of getting out the poles, obliging me to leave the completion of the line until the following spring, to say nothing of the danger of being snowed up and of losing our lives. Wearied, I soon fell asleep, and slept soundly until morning.
When I awoke and raised the tent-door, my worst forebodings seemed fully realized: the ground was white with snow. But my attention was quickly diverted to the strangeness of the spectacle offered in the immediate surroundings of my tent. It was similar to that presented in a snow-clad churchyard, minus the headstones. Hummocks of snow, uniform in size, and arranged with all the silent precision of a cemetery, were grouped about me. One good loud shout of "Rouse out! rouse out!" sufficed, however, to animate the scene, as the men in answer to my call shook themselves from their blankets and coverlet of snow. The rapidity of the change in scene from the deathlike silence of the snow-covered sleepers, of whom not a vestige could be seen, to the noise and activity of the mountain camp, was panoramically grotesque, and for the moment made me forget the more serious part of the business on hand.
About six inches of snow had fallen during the night, and to increase our troubles not a single head of stock was to be found. They had all stampeded down the mountain side. The Indians were quickly rallied and started in pursuit. Instead of following down the canyon in search of the cattle, I was surprised to see them go up the mountain. It was not long before the reason of their doing so was made apparent. They got on to the ridge, from which point they could obtain a full view of the ravines and canyons below, and within a few hours from starting they had secured all the animals and driven them back to camp. By this time the sun was out, shining brightly, and the snow fast disappearing. The poles were all in sight, and the men went to work at them with a will. It did not take long to cut and trim them, and as fast as this was done they were "snaked" down the mountains by the Indians. In two days we had secured twenty wagon-loads, with which we hurried off to lose no time in placing them on the line of route.
Having now all the poles necessary for the completion of the line, and having given the necessary orders for winding up all matters for the return of the expedition, I returned to Ruby Valley on my way home, so as to be in San Francisco at the moment of the opening of the line. On reaching Ruby Valley I found a number of Indians camped there, at the head of whom was Buck Soldier, a Shoshone chief. He had got this name from always being dressed in a military suit. Buck had shown himself very friendly during the entire period of the expedition. He as well as Sho-kup had taken especial pains to give us all the aid possible; so, on parting, I presented to him a number of sacks of flour, sides of bacon, and some clothing, and for which he was greatly pleased. The next morning, just as I was mounting the box of the overland stage with the driver, he came out of his wik-i-up (wigwam), and presented me with an old daguerreotype of himself in full dress, taken in Salt Lake several years before, begging me to receive it as a mark of his appreciation of the kindness I had manifested toward him. This was accompanied by the request that on my return home I would send him a portrait of myself. I promised to do so, and on arriving in San Francisco had myself photographed, and also had a copy taken from Buck Soldier's picture. I had them both placed in a gold double locket, with a chain, so that it could be worn around the neck, and forwarded it to him through the Indian Agent, who afterward presented it to Buck with great ceremony.
I said good-bye to Buck Soldier and his Indians, and mounted the box The stage driver cracked his whip, and I was on for San Francisco as fast as six wild mustangs could take me. How fast that is any one who has made the overland stage trip well knows. You go a good deal faster than on a railway train even if you do not cover as much ground in the same space of time. On the old overland stage everything went--if I may be allowed the expression--not excepting the brain, which, in the continuous mental survey of possibilities, kept even pace with the horses and stage. At one moment tearing around the edge of a precipice at a height dizzy to look down from; at another, plunging down the side, at a pace suggestive of the day of judgment, which a mountain slide or broken brake would have ushered in without further ceremony. The trip in those days was a constant whirl of excitement, rendered still more exciting by the always possible appearance of road agents and hostile Indians.
Yet, when I come to look back, it seems strange how inured and hardened one became to it. I recollect that when I made my first overland trip my hand was constantly on the revolver in my belt. Twenty and more times a day I was ready to pull it out on the shortest possible notice, and lodge its contents in the first animate object that disputed our right of way. In later trips I observed myself disposed to put it under the cushion of the seat, where I believed it to be more comfortably placed than sticking in the middle of my back or trying to force its way between my lower two ribs. Still later, when the trip had become an "old story,' I seemed to think that the best place for my revolver was at the bottom of my carpet-bag. Had any one told me the first night I stood guard over our camp, with my rifle and revolver at full cock, when crossing the plains for the first time, that I would cross them again a few years later with my revolver at the bottom of my carpet-bag, I would have considered it base flattery-more than mortal courage was entitled to. But so it is; dangers that at first seem as big as mountains after a time become as molehills. It is not that the dangers are in any way lessened, but rather because our imagination at first overrates them and next underrates them.
I reached San Francisco in time for the opening of the great trans-continental telegraph line which took place on the evening of October 24th, 1861. The great work, which had been so agitated so many years, both on this coast, in the East, and in Congress, was completed, and in the short space of five months from the time the expedition moved from Sacramento. It had been proposed to get up a celebration in honor of such an important event, but owning to the uncertainty as to the exact time when the line would be completed, no preparation had been made. The employees of the company who stood around, manifested the greatest anxiety, watching the first click of the instrument across the continent. At last it came and read as follows:
This telegram was received by the operator, John Leatch. This gentleman at that time been in the employ of the company some six years, and has remained in its service nearly ever since. At this time he is engaged as an operator in the San Francisco office, and may well be classed among the veterans. The next dispatch was from Brigham Young, and it read as follows:
This message was received by Geo. S. Ladd, then a practical operator, who for many years after was in the service of the company as Secretary and Superintendent, and who is at present President of the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company of California. The first message sent from San Francisco was as follows:
overland line, I had the honor to manipulate myself.
The next in order was the following message, containing the painful announcement of the death of Col. E. D. Baker. It read:
The street in front of the office was densely crowded during the evening, and there would probably have been an impromptu celebration of the great event but for the sad news above mentioned, which cast a gloom over the city and prevented any demonstration taking place. Other dispatches were sent during the evening, and among them the following to the President:
There were also received a large number of news dispatches, among which were the particulars of the death of Colonel Baker and another announcing:
"Beauregard will retire beyond Bull Run."
The overland telegraph was, then, an accomplished fact. A few years previous news from the other side was only semi-monthly, and usually from twenty-five to thirty days old. Then came the semi-weekly mail by the overland route, with news on an average from eighteen to twenty days old. After that came the Pony Express. This latter, though a vast improvement on both the first and the second, only made clearer that something still remained to be done to bring California within the sphere of the other civilized countries of the world. This the telegraph in its first click did.
With it disappeared the feeling of isolation the inhabitants of the Pacific Coast had labored under. San Francisco was in instant communication with New York, and the other great cities of the Atlantic seaboard. The change was a great one, but it was one to which the people readily adapted themselves to, having wished and waited so long for it. In that moment California was brought within the circle of the sisterhood of States. No longer as one beyond the pale of civilization, but, with renewed assurances of peace and prosperity, she was linked in electrical bonds to the great national family union.
Originally published in The Californian magazine, 1881.
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