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From Weeks to Hours: Shrinking the Time to Cross the Country

By John P. Wilson

 

A new era in cross-country communications opened in October 1858, when the Butterfield Overland Mail linked the westernmost railroad line in Missouri with San Francisco in California. The stagecoaches and lighter celerity wagons completed their 2,800 mile runs in as little as twenty-one days. The coaches entered Arizona from New Mexico at Doubtful Canyon, a few miles north of Interstate 10. From there they rolled west through Apache Pass, Dragoon Springs, Tucson, Picacho Pass, Maricopa Wells, Gila Bend and Fort Yuma. Then in early March of 1861, Congress annulled the Butterfield subsidy for carrying mail and ended service on this route.

In the meantime, the famous Pony Express had begun along what was called the central overland route through Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada. Beginning in April 1860, express riders rode relays between upwards of 190 way stations from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. They cut the time required by Butterfield’s coaches in half, over a distance of just under 2,000 miles. Although immensely popular at the time, the privately funded Pony Express could carry relatively few letters and at a very expensive rate. This venture went bankrupt after it ceased operation in October 1861.

The newest wonder of the age, the Pacific Telegraph Company, replaced express riders. The telegraph also followed the central route as it brought the coasts of our country closer together than at any time before. The first message transmitted by wire from Sacramento reached President Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. on October 25, 1861, in an elapsed time of only fifteen hours and fifty minutes. The telegraph required relays and could transmit only one message at a time, but on the first day, more than 200 messages passed over the single line. Communications that required three weeks in 1858 needed less than a day just three years later.

The Butterfield Overland Mail and Pony Express maintained their schedules well, although both met occasional delays due to rivers in flood and unfriendly Indians. With arrival of the talking wire, a new problem arose, one that we might even think of as an early-day equivalent of a computer virus. The equipment was not at fault, nor were humans responsible. Instead, nature intervened in a way that no one could have expected. The Palmyra (Missouri) Spectator gave this account of what happened:

 “The buffaloes find in the telegraph poles on the overland line a new source of delight on the treeless prairie--the novelty of having something to scratch against. Nevertheless, it was expensive scratching for the telegraph company, and there, indeed, was the rub, for the bisons shook down miles of wire daily. A bright idea struck somebody to send to St. Louis and Chicago for all the bradawls that could be purchased; these were driven into the poles with a view to wound the animals and check their rubbing propensity. Never was a greater mistake made. The buffaloes were delighted. For the first time they came to the scratch sure of a sensation in their thick hides that thrilled them from horn to tail. They would go fifteen miles to find a bradawl!”

Bradawls, at one time common tools in cabinetry and furniture making, were thin rods having a chisel point at one end, normally used with a wooden handle. How the telegraph company resolved its problem, we are not told. Today, an idea equivalent to the bradawls might be someone’s ticket to a CEO position. At least until the buffalos arrived.

 

Sources:

Roscoe P. and Margaret B. Conkling, The Butterfield Overland Mail, 1857-1869, 3 vols. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co.; 1947).
Donald L. Hardesty, The Pony Express in Central Nevada. Bureau of Land Management, Nevada State Office, Cultural Resource Series No. 1 (1979).
The New York Times, October 26, 1861, p. 4; Oct. 27, 1861, p. 5; Oct. 29, 1861, p. 5.
Palmyra Spectator (Palmyra, Missouri), April 16, 1869, p. 1.
Websites for the Pony Express.