As It Were: Arrival of telegraph in Columbus heralded new era of speedy communication

·4 min read
A man stands outside the Western Union office in Columbus circa 1900. Eventually, many telegraph services came through the Western Union Co.
A man stands outside the Western Union office in Columbus circa 1900. Eventually, many telegraph services came through the Western Union Co.

There was, and still remains, a common belief that the intrepid pioneers who ventured into the Ohio Country in the wake of the American Revolution were people lost to civilization, who had vanished into the forests and prairies never to return.

Although it is true that travel was difficult and many people stayed forever in their new homes, this did not mean they lost contact with the world they had left behind. Some newcomers to Ohio made regular trips back East. Among those who stayed, many kept in contact with friends and loved ones through conversation with occasional travelers and, increasingly, by mail.

But the mail was very, very slow.

Ed Lentz
Ed Lentz

In his old age, Col. Andrew McIlvain remembered his service as a mail carrier in 1805 from Chillicothe – eight years after the founding of Franklinton.

“The route was then on the west side of the Scioto (River). … I was the first appointed carrier and did carry the first mail to Franklinton, and was employed in that business about one year, during the winter and spring, having twice to swim Darby and Deer Creek, carrying the small mailbag on my shoulders. … I commenced carrying the mail at thirteen years old. … It was rather a lonesome route for a boy.”

With the improvement of previous animal and Native American trails to roadways, the speed of movement of people, packages and mail improved, as well. An announcement in the Ohio State Journal on Dec. 11, 1829, proclaimed the possibilities.

“Unparalleled Expedition: By the extraordinary exertions of the Ohio Stage Company, the President’s message, which was delivered at Washington City at ... noon, on Tuesday last, was received at our office at 15 minutes before eleven in the evening of the following Wednesday, having traveled the whole distance between the two places – estimated at about 420 miles – over excessively bad roads – in the space of 34 hours and 45 minutes – a performance unparalleled in the annals of traveling in this part of the country.”

The National Road – 60 feet wide with stone bridges – reached Columbus in 1831. In that same year, it was estimated that 70 coaches full of people were reaching Columbus every week. But the mail still was rather slow.

An early history of Columbus reported that “In 1833, the mail from Washington City came through to Wheeling in 55 hours and from Wheeling to Columbus in 24 hours.”

But the speed of communication – within the lifetime of some elderly pioneers – was about to change radically. The early history told the story of that change.

“Samuel F. B. Morse, its inventor, first conceived of the idea of transmitting intelligence by means of the electric current while voyaging across the Atlantic, from Havre to New York, in the packet ship Sully, in the autumn of 1832. The original apparatus was advanced to a working condition in 1836, and was for the first time exhibited at the University of New York in 1837. Morse’s patient but almost hopeless struggles for the recognition and support of Congress finally triumphed during the night of March 3, 1843, when an act was passed, and became a law, appropriating thirty thousand dollars for the erection of a trial line between Washington and Baltimore.”

On May 24, 1844, the first message was sent from Washington to Baltimore: “What Hath God Wrought.”

The early historian was impressed: “Such was the first telegraphic message transmitted in America. Since that momentous hour what marvelous things this wondrous invention has accomplished!”

The telegraph now brought information immediately to a waiting world. By 1860, more than 50,000 miles of telegraph wire was in operation. By September 1846, Morse’s magnetic telegraph line had reached from New York to Pittsburgh. The Ohio River was reached shortly thereafter and “by the end of July, the pole setters, following the National Road west from Wheeling, had passed Columbus and were pushing for Cincinnati, which place they reached about the 10th of August.”

In Columbus, work was done quickly on the telegraph.

“In the meantime, a stock subscription of five thousand dollars allotted to the capital had mostly been taken. After the pole setters had done their work, the wires were quickly strung, and between seven and eight o’clock in the evening of Wednesday, Aug. 11, 1847, the first telegraphic message ever received in Columbus came over the line from Pittsburgh. It was written out by Mr. Zook, the superintending operator: Henry O’Reilley presents his respects by lightning to Judge Thrall, Col. Medary, and Mr. Bateham on the extension of the telegraph within reach of the Columbus Press.”

The three men mentioned all had some connection to publications prepared and printed in Columbus. The Ohio Statesman newspaper called its telegraphic news "The Latest Streak."

It was just that, and a new age of American communication had begun.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News and The Columbus Dispatch.

This article originally appeared on ThisWeek: As It Were: Arrival of telegraph in Columbus heralded new era of speedy communication