Idaho History: Boise waited a long time for the telegraph

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANOctober 20, 2013 

The news that President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated reached California on April 15, 1865, the very day he died. Idaho would not hear of it until several days later.

California got the news that day because it was connected to Washington, D.C. and the rest of the East by a transcontinental telegraph line that had been completed in October 1861. Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Carson City, Nev., also got the news of the president’s death that same day through a network of small, independent telegraph companies, most of which would soon become part of Western Union, the giant in the field.

Five years later, Boise City still had no telegraph, a severe handicap to the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman and all other Idaho newspapers that had to wait for news to arrive by mail, carried by stagecoaches. Idaho City’s Idaho World noted on June 9, 1870, that a telegraph line from Portland to Walla Walla, Wash., had just been completed and complained that, “We have telegraph lines on both sides of Idaho and yet not one in our Territory, except for the line running through to Virginia City, Montana.” That line, from Salt Lake City to Virginia City, a town near the Idaho border, had been in operation since November 1866 but had not yet been extended into Idaho.

In September 1870, the World observed, “The people of Southern Idaho have been isolated so long, from a telegraphic point of view, from the balance of the world, that the idea of the construction of a line from the railroad to Boise Basin at any time earlier than the completion of a branch railroad has been but little thought of.” The railroad referred to was the Union Pacific, completed on May 10, 1869, with a new and improved line of Western Union telegraph poles and wires paralleling its tracks across the continent. “It is mainly due to our own want of enterprise and energy,” thought the World, “that we have not had a telegraphic line between Boise City and the railroad in operation for several years past. We confidently predict the completion of a line from Elko, via Silver City and Boise City, to Idaho City within the next two months.”

This would prove to be optimistic indeed, for even though the Idaho Telegraph Co. was incorporated in Boise that month by C.W. Moore, George L. Greathouse, Cyrus Jacobs, James Reynolds, Eb Pinkham, John Lemp and R.H. Mann — all men with considerable local influence — construction of a line to Boise and Idaho City was still years away. Nobody at the time could have predicted the failure of Jay Cooke & Co., a major banking firm backing the building of the Northern Pacific Railroad, an event that started the financial panic of 1873 — known at the time as “the Great Depression,” until the much worse depression of the 1930s took over that title.

The Nevada & Northern Telegraph Co. was incorporated in San Francisco on May 27, 1874. Its wire reached Silver City on Friday, Aug. 28, 1874, amid festivities that included an oration, a free dinner and a grand ball. The Statesman reported on Sept. 1 that Gov. and Mrs. Thomas Bennett had taken the stage to Silver City to join in the celebration of the historic event. Everyone now assumed that the line would be extended to Boise as soon as possible. Alas, it was not to be. The first line out of Silver City was strung to the nearby mining camp of South Mountain in October. The Idaho Statesman lamented, “Is Boise to be ever left out in the cold?” In November, a line was built from Silver City to Fairview, a flourishing new mining settlement on War Eagle Mountain, a distance of three miles.

In the spring of 1875, Boise’s hopes of getting a telegraph line were renewed when an enterprising individual named Platt Burr told the Statesman he was “scouring the country” for money to extend the line from Silver City to Boise, Baker City, Ore., and Walla Walla. It was estimated that Boise people would contribute $4,000 to the cost of the poles, wire and labor; local farmers were expected to furnish teams and wagons to haul the poles and drop them off along the line where men were digging the holes in which they would be set. In August, banker C.W. Moore, who had led the effort to bring the telegraph to Boise, told the Statesman that the wire had arrived at Winnemucca, Nev., and was on its way north.

On Sept. 4, 1875, 14 years after the telegraph reached the West Coast, Boise rejoiced as the line from Silver City was completed and the first messages of congratulation were exchanged between the two towns.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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