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October 25: A Thin Line of Wire

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Today it is difficult to imagine what the invention of the telegraph meant to the development of the country. In the early 1800s it took weeks for messages to get from one side of the country to the other. The telegraph changed that. By 1860, the telegraph stretched as far west as St. Joseph, Missouri. The Pony Express took messages and mail from there to Sacramento, California in a record ten days. On this date in 1861, a telegraph message was sent from St. Louis to San Francisco, finally connecting the east coast with the west.

The transcontinental telegraph ran across the most heavily populated areas of the country. North Dakota was not on the route and lagged behind the rest of the country. There was a brief attempt to run a Pony Express route across Dakota Territory, but it came to an abrupt stop after one severe winter.

Sanford Cady was the man who advanced communication in what is now North Dakota. In 1869, Cady built a little log shack for himself overlooking the Red River. Between 1870 and 1890, the population of what became the city of Grand Forks exploded from thirty people to a population of five thousand. Cady was given the honor of naming the city. The area had long been called “Les Grandes Fourches” by the Metis. Cady anglicized that to Grand Forks.

In 1871, Cady erected and maintained the first telegraph in what is now North Dakota. The line ran from Pembina to Fargo. The following year the line was extended to Winnipeg and the military posts of Fort Abraham Lincoln, Camp Hancock, and Fort Seward.

The invention of the telegraph allowed for communication at unprecedented speed. Mail took days or even weeks. The telegraph was almost instant, the internet of its day. But by the time of Sanford Cady’s death in 1929, the telegraph had largely been supplanted by the telephone.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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