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JUNE 17, 2013

Messages by Lighting
From the book "Sacramento"
By William M Holden

The Gold Rush brought dizzy changes to the little town hunkering on the Embarcadero. As Argonauts from all over the globe rushed in, Sacramento exploded seemingly overnight from nothing to a boomtown gone berserk. In 1848 Sacramento was called "an untenanted Plain." Less than a year later the town had mushroomed into one of 12,000 people, according to one report.

Strange as it seems, when Pony Express rider San Hamilton was galloping back to Sacramento from Placerville, Sacramento already knew that he was leaving on time with the return mail from St Joseph.

They had gotten the message by telegraph from Placerville and, earlier, a telegram from Carson City, Nevada, had given them similar information about the Pony Rider on that leg.

Furthermore, Sacramento was already connected by telegraph with San Francisco and other points.

In other words, even at the very origin of the Pony Express, its doom could have been foreseen in the expanding network of telegraph wires.

Telegraph service in Sacramento was inaugurated as early as October 19, 1853, over six years before the beginning of the Pony Express, when the first message from this city zipped to Marysville along wires of California State Telegraph Company. This firm had been set up the previous year by two New York promoters, Oliver Allen and Clark Burnham, who obtained a franchise from the Legislature for a 210 mile line connecting San Francisco and Marysville. It ran south around San Francisco Bay through San Jose, then through Stockton and Sacramento.

Meanwhile, the aggressive Alta Telegraph Company was continually adding miles of wire and opening new offices throughout the gold country. No conflict arose between the two companies because neither encroached on the other's territory, until July 1856 when Alta, expanding its network to 420 miles of wire, strung a line into San Francisco. Officials of California State Telegraph bristled at this invasion of their bailiwick.

In 1859, Alta Telegraph began operating in Sacramento's Hastings Building, but collided head-on with telegraph inventor Samuel B Morse, who filed a lawsuit charging patent infringement, and won, swiftly putting Alta out of business.

Agitation for a transcontinental telegraph was building up to fever pitch, and many telegraph companies wanted to build the western section, not least of all because the tremendous enterprise would mean juicy plums in the form of government subsidies.

By this time four telegraph companies were operating in California, and all wanted the prize. Besides California State Telegraph, they were Northern California Telegraph; on a line between Marysville and Yreka; Pacific Atlantic Telegraph, between San Jose and Los Angeles: and Salt Lake Company; between Placerville and Fort Churchill, Nevada.

Hiram Sibley, president of Western Union, proposed to the Federal government that the rivalries be contained by consolidating all four companies, to build the western section of the transcontinental. The Feds, because of rising tensions between North and South, agreed. Jeptha Wade, another Western Union official, came to California to consolidate them.

The governmental money for the consolidated firm included $6,000 a year that the California Legislature allocated starting in 1859, and a Federal subsidy of $40,000 a year, starting in 1860. Each was for a 10 year period, for construction and maintenance.

Just as the railroads one day would build toward each other from east and west, telegraph construction crews labored toward each other, installing poles and wires.

In Nevada, Paiute Indians worked on construction-bare handed, whereas white workers donned heavy leather gloves. Once a thunderstorm broke over the landscape, charging the wire with high voltage. Some of the Indians, called upon to help tighten the wire, grabbed it and the charge bowled them over like tenpins. Word of the mysterious "Bad Medicine" in the wirer flew around among the Indians. Afterward when an Indian had occasion to ride under a telegraph wire, he whipped his horse to a full gallop and warily kept his head low.

The new telegraph by 1861 was sending Civil War news to California. The daily bulletins clicked to the telegraph's westernmost station, then transferred to the Pony Express, which relayed them to the easternmost station of the western crew. As outer stations on each end of the line approached, the Pony Express played an even shorter role. But the pony riders gave valuable help during construction by reporting breaks in the wire. Some of the younger Indians, unafraid of the mysterious wire, would destroy it to show their contempt for the white man.

The crew moving from the east finished connections to Salt Lake City on October 18, 1861. Two days later, workers from the west completed the line between the pacific coast and Salt Lake City. From Sacramento, the first transcontinental message flashed out from the California State Telegraph office in the Hastings Building, 2nd and J Streets, when State Chief Justice Stephen Fields wired President Lincoln, assuring him of California's loyalty to the beleaguered Union. Ironically, this building also housed the Pony Express office, whose death-knell echoed in the telegraph wires.

Reported by,

Brother Fred "Mr Magoo" Willcox