When possible, Niagara Discoveries tries to observe important anniversaries in the history of Lockport and Niagara County but sometimes they are missed. Last Saturday, November 7th, was the 175th anniversary of a momentous day in the history of not only Lockport but the whole nation as well.
In this day of instant connectivity, we take it for granted that we can immediately communicate with another person, whether they're across the street or across the world. For people living 175 years ago, the invention of the telegraph was an astonishing technological development. Experiments in electromagnetism in both Europe and the United States had taken place since the early 1830s, years before Samuel F. B. Morse became involved.
Building upon the work of others, Morse’s improvements to the “magnetic-telegraph” were twofold: he developed a single wire system of transmission and, working with Professor Leonard Gale of New York University, discovered that telegraphic signals could be transmitted longer distances if numerous circuits (also called relays or repeaters) were used along the line.
Morse first tried this in 1838 and for the next four years lobbied the U.S. Congress for funding to build an experimental line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. He was finally given $30,000 to construct the line along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The first transmission between those two cities occurred on May 1, 1844 and the line was officially opened three weeks later as the first telegraph line in the United States.
As soon as it was shown that the telegraph was a viable means of communication, plans were made to build telegraph lines along railroads and public roads connecting major cities, initially in the eastern part of the United States. Along with several other men, Morse formed the Magnetic Telegraph Company and soon other competing companies were started as well.
By the summer of 1845, construction on the 26-mile Lockport to Buffalo line was already underway by Morse’s company. Poles were erected going south along Transit Road to Main Street in Williamsville and then west to Buffalo. It was expected to be completed by October but it wasn’t completed until early November. The telegraph machine was set up in George Boughton’s store on Canal Street (which also contained the Post Office). This is now the site of the Municipal Building.
On Friday, Nov. 7, 1845, a telegraph was sent to Buffalo announcing the results of the local election a few days earlier — the Whigs had won all offices. The telegraph was received in Buffalo at the Mansion House, which stood at the corner of Main and Exchange streets. According to several different newspaper accounts, following the election results, other business was conducted over the wire including prices of wheat, flour, sheep pelts and freight charges to Albany via a canal boat.
After having these inquiries answered immediately, a man in Lockport asked another question in which he was told he would have to wait about 10 minutes for someone who could answer him. In disgust, the man replied, “What? So long? Then I will call again!” Normally it would take at least three days by mail to get an answer to his inquiry but after seeing a demonstration of this wondrous new instantaneous technology, he couldn’t understand why he should have to wait (just think about how annoyed we are when we don’t get an immediate answer to a text message).
Finally, the two locations compared how many people were in the room to witness what the Lockport Courier called the “annihilating [of] both space and time and marking a new era in the history of the world.” Buffalo admitted that they only had 25 people in attendance, while Lockport had about 50, but both places “regretted exceedingly that there were no ladies.”
After the line was built, it was operated by the Lockport and Buffalo Telegraph Company. Rates to send a telegraph message were 25 cents for 25 words or less and a half cent per word over 25 words.
In less than a year, telegraph lines would connect Rochester to both Lockport and Buffalo. This new form of communication was enthusiastically embraced by the public but there were still some malcontents who cut wires and sawed down poles. Some newspapers called for “making the penalty extra severe for such misdemeanors” and lamented that if these acts of vandalism continued it would make the telegraph “worse than useless” and “will materially endanger the safety of any future operations.” Fortunately, the telegraph survived these attacks and the small local lines were eventually bought and consolidated into what became the Western Union Company.
For 155 years, Western Union continued its telegram service but the rise of other technologies caused the demise of the telegraph/telegram. The last Western Union telegram was sent on Jan. 26, 2006. International Telegram (iTelegram) acquired Western Union’s telegram and telex division and continues to offer those services in 180 countries.
Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.