IDAHO HISTORY: Telegraph brought change to the Statesman

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANOctober 27, 2013 

Before the Statesman was connected by telegraph with the rest of the country, the editor, or a reporter, if there was one, collected local news by walking around the town, observing changes, visiting friends, businesses and prospective advertisers. Hotel registers were checked regularly to see who was new in town. People often stopped by the newspaper office with information they thought the editor might think worth printing.

Businessmen, upon their return from visits to other Idaho towns, especially from those in mining areas, often stopped by the Statesman office to share the latest developments in the mines of those places. Since the informant was usually an investor in one of the mines, the report he gave on its prospects was invariably optimistic. You had to be an optimist to risk your money in a mine, for history shows that far more investors lost money than got rich.

The other source of news, before the telegraph wire reached town in September 1875, was the mail, delivered to Boise by six-horse stagecoach. The mail included newspapers from other towns with which the Statesman regularly exchanged issues, and letters from those towns by correspondents who often used fanciful pen names.

In 1864, the paper’s news items from Silver City were signed “Vindex.” In 1875, reports from Rocky Bar were signed “Observer,” and in the 1880s, when new towns were springing up along the tracks of the Oregon Short Line Railroad, then being built across Idaho, the Statesman’s letters from Weiser were signed “Rusticus,” and those from Payette “Boomerang.”

Some of the Statesman’s best accounts of what was going on in the young territory were written by W.A. Goulder, the paper’s special traveling representative and correspondent. This old Virginian, who had represented Shoshone County in the second session of the Idaho Territorial Legislature in 1864, was a delightful writer who had a gift for making friends for himself and his paper as he went, usually on horseback but sometimes by stagecoach.

In 1909, at the age of 88, Goulder wrote “Reminiscences: Incidents in the Life of a Pioneer in Oregon and Idaho.” The book is still available in a 1989 University of Idaho reprint that was published as part of Idaho’s centennial of statehood celebration.

The arrival of the telegraph line from Silver City on Sept. 4, 1875, changed the content of the Idaho Statesman dramatically. The latest news from the entire country could be received almost as soon as it happened. In December 1875, Editor Milton Kelly, in an almost euphoric mood, wired this message to J.M. Shepherd, editor of the Baker City Bedrock Democrat: “The energy and go-aheadativeness (sic) of Platt Burr has given us the telegraph. The same zeal and energy will ere long unite us by rail. We throw up our hats this morning and hurrah for the new governor of Idaho, David P. Thompson of your state. This appointment gives great satisfaction here.

“Friend Shepherd, how are you this morning? Give us your hand and tell us how it feels to be struck by lightning? The Statesman extends congratulations to the Bedrock Democrat, and through it to the people of Baker City. We have the telegraph and are now neighbors. Let us talk with each other and be happy — Milton Kelly.” The principal investors in getting the telegraph extended to Baker City, also sent a message: “We, the people of Boise City, I.T., hail and greet the people of Baker and Union and give praise to the energy and enterprise of the N. & N. Telegraph Co.” It was signed by banker C.W. Moore and others who had helped raise money for the project.

On May 27, 1876, the Statesman reported to its readers the unhappy news from San Francisco that the Nevada & Northern Telegraph Co. was bankrupt. “Among the creditors whose names are given in the dispatch are: Platt Burr, $28,500; Tillotson & Co., New York, $6,000, and the Central Pacific Railroad Co., $3,000.”

In June the Statesman also felt the effect of the failure: “We paid them $1,000 in gold, in advance, for the telegraph, about $750 of which they still owe us, but for which they refuse to receive or transmit any message.”

The paper noted that C.W. Moore had raised $5,000 to help bring the telegraph to Boise, but that the company would not take their own scrip for telegraphing. Editor Milton Kelly, who had only a few weeks earlier been so overjoyed at the arrival of the telegraph, now called Nevada & Northern “a barefaced swindle.”

However, once people got used to having the latest news of the country and the world in every issue of their local paper, they never wanted to be without it. In November 1876, the Idaho Central Telegraph Co. was incorporated at Rocky Bar, and before the decade was over most North Idaho towns were also part of a network of telegraph lines that covered the Pacific Northwest.

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

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