Long-distance telegraphs first exchanged complex messages in line-of-sight forms, such as smoke signals and flag semaphores. But electrical telegraphs eliminated the need for a direct observer and allowed messages to be communicated across the continent, virtually instantaneously.
Before the completion of the overland telegraph on October 26, 1861, a stage took about 25 days to deliver the mail from St. Louis, Missouri, to San Francisco, California. The Pony Express, which ended that October, took about 10 days to deliver the mail. Its high cost of $5 (about $136 today) made sending mail out of the reach for most. Released at a fractious time for our nation, the telegraph helped ensure the loyalty of the Western territories to the Union during the Civil War. (Western Union came up with its name in 1856 to signify the union of western lines with eastern lines into one system.)
In 1871, a decade after the telegraph brought instant communication from the East Coast to the West Coast, Western Union introduced the money transfer, which boosted individual and business buying power in the West.
Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian. His latest book is Wyatt Earp: Showdown at Tombstone. If you have a question, write:
Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org