Making Connections | Prairie Public Broadcasting

Making Connections

Oct 18, 2019

On this date in 1907, it was announced that a telegraph school opened in Fargo. The Letford Telegraph and Railroad College opened its doors in the Dakota Business College. This was good news as government, businesses, and private citizens all relied on the telegraph.

Samuel Morse sent the first telegram on May 24, 1844. He tapped out “What hath God wrought” and the message flew from Washington to Baltimore. The telegraph was originally viewed as a curiosity, interesting but useless. But the invention quickly proved to be an effective method of keeping the country connected.

In the country’s earliest days, the vast expanses of the Great Plains were a challenge to communication. There was no easy way to get from the east coast to California. A sea voyage around the tip of South America took four to five months. The overland route took a similar amount of time. Travelers faced the dangers of shipwrecks, severe weather, accidents, and disease. Transporting the news and mail was slow and unreliable.

The Pony Express was an early attempt to speed up communication. Relay riders carried the mail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. They rode 2,000 miles in a remarkable ten days. Established in April, 1860 the Pony Express was out of business in only eighteen months. It proved to be reliable, with only one bag of mail reported lost. But it was an expensive undertaking. The newfangled telegraph was cheaper, faster, and safer.

As telegraph lines extended across the Plains, the country became more and more connected. Both good and bad news was transmitted. People learned of births and weddings, and even during World War II, the Western Union courier was a dreaded sight since the War Department still sent telegrams to inform families that their loved ones had been killed.

The telegraph served the country well for over 150 years. Western Union phased out couriers in the 1960s as long distance telephone rates began to fall. With the advent of faxes and emails, the telegraph was doomed. Western Union sent the very last telegram on January 27, 2006. The telegraph died with no fanfare, and no one seemed to miss it. But the telegram had served the country well for almost 150 years.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher

Sources:

Devils Lake Inter-Ocean. “New Telegraphic School.” Devils Lake ND. 18 October 1907. Page 7.

H-Net. “Pony Express.” https://www.historynet.com/pony-express  Accessed 9/18/2019.

Legends of America. “The Telegraph Connects the Masses.” https://www.legendsofamerica.com/ah-telegraph/  Accessed 9/18/2019.