Samuel T. B. Morse missed the death of his wife due to a lag in communication and this was the impetus that provided an invention to change the method of communication forever.
(Did you know that Samuel F. B. Morse was a member of a corporation that first operated the telegraph in Alabama? It is hard to imagine how difficult communication was in Alabama less than one-hundred years ago. We’ve come a long way since those days.)
The telegraph started public service in Alabama in 1919 with two companies, the Postal Telegraph-Cable Co. and the Western Union Telegraph Co. Both were interstate companies, having extensive systems of wires and local offices, of which their Alabama properties form but a small part. Besides the facilities of the companies which perform a general commercial service for the public, telegraph lines were maintained by most of the railroad companies for the transmission of messages between their own officials and employees, and for use in dispatching their trains.
Telegraph worker stringing lines in 1862 (Library of Congress)
Telegraph companies were regulated by the state public service commission
Telegraph companies were classed as public service corporations and under the jurisdiction of the state public service commission, which has power to supervise their operation, including the regulation of their tolls and other rates of charges for service, and to require itemized reports of their business at specified times and in prescribed form. They are also required by law to make annual reports to the State board of equalization, giving prescribed details of their property holdings, income, expenditures, profits, etc., for its information and guidance in assessing the tangible and intangible taxes levied by the State.
With respect to taxation and the regulation of their operation and earnings in the State, telegraph companies were on practically the same basis as railroad companies. The municipal authorities of cities and towns have authority to regulate the use of streets by telegraph companies, and also have power “to sell, or lease in such manner as it may deem advisable, any franchise which . . [they have] power to grant.” The property of telegraph and telephone companies is protected from damage or interference by a penalty of from $25 to $500, and imprisonment in the county jail or sentence to hard labor for the county for not more than six months, at the discretion of the court.
Samuel F. B. Morse was a member of a corporation to operate the telegraph in Alabama
The first company authorized to construct and operate a telegraph system in the state was the Washington & New Orleans Telegraph Co., chartered by the legislature, March 3, 1848. The incorporators of this company included, besides Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, and his business associate, Amos Kendall, the following Alabamians: John J. Haley, William Knox, Charles T. Pollard, Joseph J. Winter, Frank M. Gilmer, Jr., John Whiting, John Henry, William Stewart, James Battle, and Robert Desha.
It was authorized to acquire from Morse the right to construct and operate the “electro magnetic telegraph” through the state by way of Montgomery, Cahaba and Mobile, to New Orleans. The charter contained a proviso that “funds to be raised for the construction of said Telegraph, putting the same in operation, and from time to time adding to, and improving it, shall be only sufficient for these purposes, and shall not be invested or employed for any other purpose whatever.”
However, the corporation* was empowered to increase its capital stock for the purpose of building or buying any connecting or sidelines, and was permitted to erect lines along the common roads, streets, turnpikes, railroads, and canals within the State. At a meeting of the stockholders, September 14, 1848, 19 directors were elected, among them, Charles T. Pollard, of Montgomery, W. W. Fambro of Cahaba, and Alex Stoddard of Mobile. The employment of operators and clerks at these towns was authorized, as follows: Montgomery, one operator at $750 a year; Cahaba, one operator at $500; Mobile, a chief operator at $1,000, and one assistant at $700.
Samuel F. B. Morse incorporated a telegraph system in Alabama in 1852
The second and third telegraph companies in the state, the North Alabama Telegraph Co. and the Alabama & Mississippi Telegraph Co., were chartered by the legislature on February 10, 1852, the incorporators of the first being Samuel F. B. Morse, (Missing a tragic event was the impetus for a new way of communication by an artist) James J. Donegan, Charles H. Patton, Robert Fearn, George P. Beirne, C. C. Clay, Sr., Samuel Cruise, Joseph B. Bradford, John Simpson, Thomas J. Foster, James H. Weakley, William Cooper, George G. Canale, and Richard Townes.
The incorporators of the second were Henry C. Hopburn and associates. The first was authorized to construct a line from any point on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, via Huntsville, “to connect with the Morse or ‘Southern Telegraph Line at Florence or Tuscumbla,” and the second, to establish a line from any point on the Alabama River to any point on the western boundary of the State.
Samuel F. B. Morse
Many more companies chartered as telegraph companies before the Civil War
The Selma and Tuscaloosa Telegraph Co, chartered by the legislature February 2, 1856, with F. S. Caswell, W. L. Allen, and associates as incorporators, was the fourth company. It was authorized to construct a line between the towns named in its title; but apparently little or nothing was accomplished, and the charter seems to have been allowed to lapse or was forfeited, for on January 25, 1867, the legislature chartered a new company with the same title, whose “chief business and object” were “to construct and use a telegraph line of communication from the city of Selma to Tuscaloosa, passing through the following places, to-wit: Marion Junction, Marion, Greensboro, and Eutaw.” The incorporators of the later company were Richard T. Knott, A. W. Coleman, and their associates.
The fifth and sixth companies, and the last ones organized until after the War, were the Mobile & Ohio Telegraph Co., chartered by the legislature, January 20, 1858, to construct a line “through this State, on the route of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, and to the mouth of the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois”; and the Cahaba & Tuscaloosa Telegraph Co., February 6, 1858, to build a line between the points named in the title of the company.
The records now available do not show what was done by these various companies toward constructing lines and performing actual service for the public, except in the case of the Washington & New Orleans Telegraph Co., which is known to have completed the line between Montgomery and Macon, Ga., the last link in its through line to New Orleans, by July 18, 1848.
Western Union Telegraph Company arrived after the Civil War and acquired all the business
Soon after the close of the War, probably between 1866 and 1868, the Western Union Telegraph Co. entered the State, acquiring the lines of the Washington and New Orleans company. The Western Union company was incorporated in New York, April 1, 1851, as the New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Co. Its name was changed to the present title in 1856. It appears that by 1869 this company had acquired all the telegraph interests in the State, from the fact that the report of the State auditor for that year shows taxes to the amount of $451.76 collected from the Western Union, and mentions no other company.
The property of the telegraph companies in the State was assessed for taxation in the year 1916 at the valuation of $1,279,222, and the amount of the privilege tax paid by them to the State for the same year was $4,693.40.
Stringing telegraph lines during the Civil War
Controversy between Western Union and L & N Railroad
An interesting phase of the telegraph service in the State is the controversy between the Western Union Telegraph Co. and the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co. over the occupation of the latter’s right-of-way by the poles and lines of the former, which arose at the expiration of the contract between the two companies entered into during 1884 and terminating August 17, 1912. The telegraph company served advance notice upon the railroad company of its intention to terminate the contract, and soon after instituted condemnation proceedings in the courts of Kentucky in the effort to secure a right-of-way for its lines upon the property of the railroad company. The matter has since been in litigation. A later development was the intervention of the Federal Government to prevent interference with preparations for war by any action resulting from the controversy.
Resentment that the State of Alabama was not getting its proper share
While the attitude of the State toward public service companies has usually been fair and even sympathetic, especially toward enterprises locally projected and financed, there was at one time a feeling among public men that the State was not getting its proper share of facilities for quick communication with other parts of the country.
This feeling characterized particularly the period after the War and prior to the consolidation of the several local lines into a few large systems which connected the cities of the East and North directly with those of the South and West. On February 2, 1870, the legislature adopted a joint resolution advocating “the establishment of a National Postal Telegraph System . . . which shall afford to the people abundant facilities for telegraphic correspondence, with equal charges for like distances in all parts of the country.” The Alabama Representatives in Congress were directed to urge the project upon the attention of that body, but with the adoption of the resolution, the matter seems to have been allowed to pass from public attention. Later development of the telegraph and the invention of the telephone, particularly the long distance’ appliances, have for some time afforded the people of the State ample facilities for quick and convenient communication with virtually all parts of the world.
Telegraph system revolutionized the daily news
While the telegraph has important uses in business and social affairs, not the least important is the revolution it has brought about in the assembling of the daily news. It may be said that the telegraph has revolutionized the news service of the country, and the extension of the telegraph from narrow limits’ to an enlarged cable service over the entire globe, makes possible the regulation of affairs in all parts of the world, in the light bf the knowledge of all important happenings as they occur. An interesting evolution of the telegraphic news service is presented by an examination of the newspaper files of the State. At first, the dispatches occupied but a few lines in an issue, and as the telegraph developed, the news service grew.
Telegraph messenger boy in 1910 in Birmingham, Alabama
The superiority of the telegraph over the old postal news service, and its great advantages for the quick transmission of vital information and instructions, were demonstrated during the War. Military information and orders, both public for the newspapers, and secret by means of cipher codes, were transmitted throughout the State; and, while the construction and extension of telegraph lines were retarded by the War, the use of existing facilities received an impetus which has continued to the present time. From the inch or two of unedited telegraphic reports on an inside page of newspapers in the fifties, the service has grown into worldwide news-gathering agencies.
Read more about the invention of the telegraph at: (Missing a tragic event was the impetus for a new way of communication by an artist)
We’ve come a long way since telegraph days, now I guess we text messages instead. Indiana University wondered which method was faster so they put it to the test in this video. Watch and see which method won.
- History of Alabama and dictionary of Alabama biography, Volume 2 By Thomas McAdory Owen, Marie Bankhead Owen
- Library of Congress