He opened the West with dots, dashes and 2,000 miles of wire

Time Before Now – April 1791President George Washington and Congress had decamped from New York to Philadelphia in the last month of 1790  and by the New Year France was in chaos as a windup to revolution. The famous churchman and cofounder of Methodism, John Wesley, died in England in March and John Fitch, American inventor, clock maker and engineer, began operating the country’s first commercial steamboat service on Pennsylvania’s Delaware River.  The 60-foot craft (right) barely cut a wake, speeding between Philadelphia and Burlington, New Jersey, at just over six miles an hour.

April 27, 1791

On this day Samuel Morse was born in Charleston, Massachusetts.  He would change the face of the American West without ever setting foot much past the Potomac.  

A portrait painter by trade and a card-carrying member of the Eastern elite, it was a personal tragedy that moved Morse (right) to spend a lifetime developing the Morse Code and the single-strand telegraph system.

It all began in 1825 when he was in Washington, D.C., to paint a portrait of Revolutionary War hero, the  Marquis de Lafayette.  A messenger on horseback arrived with a letter from his father in Connecticut with a message from his father that his, “dear wife is convalescing.” Another message arrived the next morning informing Morse that his wife, Lucretia, had died.  Rushing home to New Haven, by that time his wife had already been buried.  He learned only then she had been in failing health for some time.  

The late Lucretia Pickering Walker (right) was the daughter of Charles Walker,  a prominent New England banker and Concord’s Postmaster, appointed by President Thomas Jefferson.  Married in 1818 and the mother of three children, contemporary accounts say she suffered a “heart attack” just days after giving birth to the couple’s second son.

 The event left Morse devastated and determined to find a faster method of communication. Morse embarked on a quarter century quest for a way to transmit signals over long distances.  With New York University chemistry professor, Leonard Gale, (right) they developed a system of relays that lengthened transmission distances to 10 miles.  It was a stunning scientific breakthrough for its day, equal according to some scientists, with development of the Internet.

The first public demonstration of their invention was in a Morristown, New Jersey, factory on January 11, 1838.  It failed, however, to get much notice from Washington’s lawmakers.   It took nearly four years before Morse captured their attention when in December, 1842, he strung wires between two committee rooms in the nation’s Capitol.  The demonstration was impressive enough that Congress appropriated $30,000 for a telegraph line between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore the next year.  

Until then, Morse had been forced to scratch for money but by 1844 he became a celebrated inventor.  At age 57 he married the 21-year-old Sarah Elizabeth Griswold (right) and fathered four more children.

 Just five years later, his single-wire transmission system was adopted virtually around the globe and by 1861, the nation’s first transcontinental telegraph stretched nearly 1,200 miles from the Eastern seaboard to California.  

Fort Kearney, circa 1860s

Adopting the method used by the transcontinental railroad to speed construction over the country’s most difficult terrain two teams. Started at opposite ends of the route, one began at Fort Kearney, present day Nebraska and the other at today’s Nevada, Fort Churchill.  By the time the project was finished, the crews had set 27,000 poles and strung 2,000 miles of wire at a cost of a million dollars, more than $2 billion today.

Fort Churchill, circa 1860s

The telegraph was not without problems, however, having to withstand blizzards, prairie fires, lightening strikes and the occasional tornado.  In addition, Native Americans often sabotaged the lines, fearing the “singing wire” would bring more soldiers and settlers.

The Song of the Talking Wire, Henry Farny

And so it did, transforming the West from a vast unknown to the land of opportunity, speeding communications from weeks to mere minutes.  It had taken three and a half months for the news of President William Henry Harrison’s death in 1841 to reach California.  The news of President Abraham Lincoln’s death on April 14, 1865, was headline news in San Francisco’s Alta California the morning of April 16.

The original single strand line was used for less than a decade, replaced in 1869 by a multi-line telegraph which paralleled the transcontinental railroad route.   Although short lived, it proved to be immensely profitable. 

Morse spent much of his time fighting off multiple patent challenges but lived to see the Supreme Court recognize him as the telegraph’s single inventor, partially prevailing in a landmark patent decision, O’Reilly v. Morse.

He died in New York a wealthy man on April 2, 1872 at the age of 81.   His estate was estimated to be worth $500,000, as much as $10 million today.  He’d spent vast amounts of his fortune on charities promoting “the relation of the Bible to the Sciences,” and held a number of unpopular political and religious views.  Staunchly anti-Catholic, he was also an outspoken defender of slavery as a practice “ordained by God.”  (Above, Morse at 78)

While modern technology quickly left his hard-won invention in the tail lights, it apparently has not yet outlived its usefulness. Despite the fact that earth routinely receives satellite communications from the International Space Station, the United States Air Force reportedly still trains a handful of  its service members in Morse Code and . . . __ __ . . . remains the international signal for distress.

The 1880 Town, 24280 SD Hwy. 63, Midland, South Dakota, off I-90 near Murdo, South Dakota, accurately depicts a 19th century Western settlement with dozens of authentic frontier-era buildings from around the region including the C&N Depot, Express Agency and Telegraph Office, relocated from Gettysburg, South Dakota, a railroad town 100 miles northeast of Murdo.

A number of items used in the filming of the 1990 Kevin Cosner movie “Dances With Wolves” are on display and the park offers a variety of kid-friendly entertainment.  Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for senior, $7 for teens, $5 for children 6 to 12, children under five and wheel chair patrons are free.  Open June through August, 6:30 to 6:30.  Off peak, hours in May,  September and mid-October are 8 to 5.  Closed November through April.  For more information go to 1880town.com, e-mail info@1880town.com, write 1880 Town, PO box 507, Murdo, S.D. 57559 or call (605) 344-2236.

The Pioneer Auto Museum, located 20 minutes east on I-90 in Murdo, features some 275 antique cars, motorcycles and tractors.  Operating  since 1954, summer hours are 8 to 7:30 daily.  Open April and May 9 to 5 weekdays and 10 to 5, Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $12 for adults, $6 for children 5 to 12 and under 5 free.  For winter hours and more information, go to pioneerautoshow.com, e-mail pioneerauto@gwtc.net or call  (605) 669-2691.

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.