This is the first post in a series on the history of communication technologies in Asheville & WNC, from telegraphs to the Internet. Stay tuned for future entries!
In the 19th and 20th centuries, telegraphs revolutionized long-distance communication. Invented by Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail in the 1830s, “Morse’s Magnetic Telegraph” (as it was called in the Asheville Messenger) relied on a network of telegraph wires that transmitted electrical signals from one telegraph office to another.
In the 1840s, the Asheville newspaper reported on the new communication networks connecting cities such as Washington, D. C, Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia. It would take decades longer from the time Morse sent Vail the historic first message “What hath God wrought!” before Asheville joined the network with a different inaugural message, beginning with “Shout the glad news!”[i]
Funding was one issue. Speculations about forthcoming telegraph lines connecting Asheville with Salisbury in 1869 turned out to be false, but a “big telegraph man at Richmond” suggested it might happen with public funding.[ii]
Ultimately, it took funding and support from some Very Important People, but it did happen–on July 28, 1877. Key movers and shakers behind the efforts to bring the telegraph to Asheville included Calvin Monroe McLoud (sometimes spelled McCloud or McLeod), Jesse Merrimon, and superintendent J.W. Kates of the Postal Telegraph Company. Samuel G. Weldon was the first operator.[i]
In the book Western North Carolina: A History (1730-1913), John Preston Arthur writes that after this first step, “through the efforts of the late Capt. C. M. McLoud, the line afterwards extended to Hendersonville. Then Mr. Weldon became the owner and operator thereof till the railroad company took it off his hands.”[iii]
The Hendersonville Courier made a point of mentioning that McLoud’s generosity in funding the endeavor stood in stark contrast to the miserliness of SOME PEOPLE.[iv]
The telegraph line extended then from Hendersonville to Spartanburg, ending at the terminus of the Spartanburg & Asheville Railroad. By 1879, Terry Ruscin writes in A History of Transportation in Western North Carolina, there were “47.67 miles of telegraph line installed from Spartanburg to Hendersonville […] and 19.8 miles from Hendersonville to Biltmore seven years later.”[v] (The Spartanburg & Asheville and the Asheville & Spartanburg lines were part of the Richmond & Danville Railroad, later acquired by the Southern Railway Company.)
Railroads had been the first industry to make commercial use of the new communication technology, which facilitated accurate, consistent timekeeping across railroad stations. The history of the telegraph is intertwined with the history of the railroad (and thus, it is worth noting, with the use of convict labor to create railroad infrastructure in WNC—see the RAIL Project).
Cutting the wires
Wireless telegraphs (not wired) were next. On January 4, 1909, the Asheville Telegraph reported that United Wireless Telegraph Company would install a new wireless station in Asheville, joining about 200 other stations in operation and “put[ting] Asheville into direct communication with the ships of the Atlantic carrying wireless outfits and some European stations, under favorable conditions, to say nothing of those on American shores.”[vi]
Asheville’s mountainous terrain gave the city an advantage in being chosen for a station: “As many know, the distance a message can be sent or received depends on the height of the aerials,” the Citizen reported. “Asheville has a great natural advantage in this respect, for aerials can be erected on a nearby mountain and connected with a station in the city by ordinary metallic circuit.”[vi]
Both the railroad and the telegraph were symbols of moving up in urban status, and Asheville residents were proud of these accomplishments in infrastructure. In this 1878 newspaper snippet, the new telegraph, railroads, and courthouse were all reasons to count Asheville among the top cities in the state.[vii]
Some Asheville residents may have subscribed to the same technological optimism as others around the world.
“For what is the end to be accomplished,” New York author C.F. Briggs wrote, “but the most spiritual ever possible? Not the modification or transportation of matter, but the transmission of thought. […] This binds together by a vital cord all the nations of the earth. It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for an exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth.”[viii]
Well, that was in 1858. Maybe by the time Asheville got set up with the telegraph, after the Civil War, reality had tempered such utopian prospects.
And the telegraph had its critics, too, of course.
For one thing, monopolies of telegraph companies and railroads were a major public concern. In the Asheville papers, as elsewhere, people called for the government to break up monopolies to increase competition, or to move towards public ownership of communication and transportation infrastructure. The public utility argument was modeled on the postal service and precedents in European countries. Others strongly opposed, arguing against increasing government control over utilities.[ix]
The Western Union Telegraph Company was a dominating force. Led for a time in the 1800s by William H. Vanderbilt (a cousin of the Vanderbilt who commissioned Biltmore), Western Union aggressively pursued control over the communications industry (and, predictably, opposed government involvement.)[x]
The details of business mergers, legal battles, personal conflicts, and federal regulations extend well past regional history and could fill several books on their own (and have!) so we’ll skip them here. Suffice to say that for many reasons, the telegraph played its part in the development of industrial conglomerates in the Gilded Age and the modern international corporation today.
In Asheville, Western Union’s telegraph office operated several locations and branch offices over the years, including an office at the Eagle Hotel in 1883. Also operating in Asheville in the late 19th and early 20th century were the Postal Telegraph Company and the Asheville Telegraph & Telephone Company.
The Work of Telegraphy
Telegraph operators had the difficult job of receiving and decoding Morse code—dots (or dits) and dashes (or dahs)—into alphabetical characters. Among the first Asheville area operators were Weldon and Merrimon, mentioned above, but telegraph infrastructure soon grew to require a larger labor force.
The careers of “Morsemen” Herbert S. Howell, Morris N. Clayton, and C. D. Clarke were remembered in the Asheville Citizen-Times in 1952 (below). Horace L. Carpenter wrote to the paper a few days later with additional memories being one of four operators in the Western Union office in 1892. Of notable tenure in the workforce was Edward N. Williams (1874-1939). Born in Buncombe County, Williams had started his 45-year Western Union career as a messenger boy, eventually leading the team of telegraph operators as manager until his retirement in 1939.[xii]
“Asheville’s Western Union Office still has the table with equipment where Morsemen clicked out their message or held their ears to the awkward wooden boxes—the ‘resonators’–and heard the garble of sounds that carried thoughts of every conceivable nature across the world,” the article stated. Providing wire stories, called “ponies,” to the newspaper was a key responsibility of operators.[xiii]
Originally, recalled Carpenter, “the press report and all telegrams were copied in longhand; no operator had learned to copy on the typewriter.”[xiv]
Major news days were hectic for telegraph workers from the early days on. Following the 1884 election, the telegraph office that operated at that time out of the Eagle Hotel, was “crowded night and day […] somewhat Bedlamic.”[xv]
The 1916 flood was a challenging time for all, including telegraph operators who had to field inquiries not only from newspapers all over the country, but also from friends and relatives checking in on their loved ones.
Edward N. Williams, then working as a telegraph operator, carried “two suitcases filled with messages” across the only bridge that held out against the flood and provided rail service out of Asheville, “to Atlanta, where the larger office was alerted to the emergency” and from which “messages of reassurance were eventually dispatched.”
The “Morsemen” recalled the “most significant stories of their careers” as Babe Ruth’s 1926 collapse, the 1932 discovery of missing-person Col. Raymond Robins in a boarding house at Whittier, and the 1936 murder of 18-year-old Helen Clavenger in the Battery Park Hotel. Clavenger’s murder resulted in a barrage of 40,000 to 50,000 messages every day for weeks.
The telegraph’s days were marked from the time the telephone came on the scene. Still, telegrams continued to be used for news (as described above), as a quick way to send personal updates, and for official purposes such as notifying families of a military service member’s death. Most of the telegrams held by Buncombe County Special Collections date from the 1920s through the World War II era.
In the US, the last Western Union telegram was sent in 2006.[xvi] The technology held out a few more years in India, where government communications traditionally relied on telegrams longer than the rest of the world: the world’s last telegraph service ended in July 2013, ten years ago this month.[xvii]
This was already long after other telecommunications options—from the telephone to email–had overtaken the antiquated telegraph. (Stay tuned for the next posts in this series for more about when and how these technologies made their way to Asheville & WNC!)
Post by Carissa Pfeiffer, Librarian, Buncombe County Special Collections
[i] “Shout the Glad Tidings” in The Raleigh News and Observer, July 29, 1877, page 3. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-news-and-observer-asheville-gets-tel/128053174/
[ii] “That Telegraph” in Carolina Watchman (Salisbury, NC), Thursday, July 29, 1875, page 3. https://www.newspapers.com/article/carolina-watchman-est-of-telegraph-from/125588478/
[iii] Arthur, John Preston. Western North Carolina: A History (1730 to 1913). (Asheville: Edward Buncombe chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, 1914). [Find a copy at BCPL: https://www.nccardinal.org/eg/opac/record/10063063?locg=111]
[iv] “The Hendersonville Courier, in speaking of Capt McLoud’s liberality…” in The Asheville Weekly Citizen, July 25, 1878, page 1. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-asheville-weekly-citizen-capt-mcloud/125589458/
[v] Ruscin, Terry. A History of Transportation in Western North Carolina: Trails, Roads, Rails & Air. (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2016). [Find a copy at BCPL: https://www.nccardinal.org/eg/opac/record/9244151?locg=111]
[vi] “United Wireless Telegraph Co. to Locate Station in Asheville” in The Asheville Citizen, January 4, 1909, page 8. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-wireless-telegra/126170183/
[vii] “Asheville, the County Seat” in The Asheville Weekly Citizen, September 5, 1878, page 1. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-asheville-weekly-citizen-avl-in-sep/125698272/
[viii] Briggs, Charles F. (Charles Frederick).The Story of the Telegraph. (New York: Rudd & Carleton, 1858), pages 13 and 22. https://archive.org/details/storyoftelegraph01brig/page/n11/mode/2up.
[ix] “The Government and the Telegraph” in The Asheville Weekly Citizen, October 31, 1883, page 2. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-asheville-weekly-citizen-make-telegr/125700320/
[x] Western Union Telegraph Company, The Proposed Union of the Telegraph and Postal Systems. (Cambridge: Welch, Bigelow and Company, 1869). https://archive.org/details/proposedunionte00compgoog/page/n6/mode/2up
[xi] “The wires of the Southern telegraph…” in The Asheville Weekly Citizen, August 23, 1883, page 1. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-asheville-weekly-citizen-telegraph-m/125700177/
[xii] “E. N. Williams Dies Suddenly in Florida City” in The Asheville Citizen, September 27, 1939, pages 1-2. https://www.newspapers.com/image/195461502/?clipping_id=129072329
[xiii] Warner, Nelson. “3 Morsemen, Members of Vanishing Era, Recall Highlights of Careers” in The Asheville Citizen-Times, Sunday, August 24, 1952, page 29. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-telegraph-operat/126169475/
[xiv] Carpenter, Horace L. “Telegraphers, Railroaders, 60 Years Ago” [letter to the editor] in The Asheville Citizen-Times, August 31, 1952, page 14. https://www.newspapers.com/image/201797133/?match=1&clipping_id=129070541
[xv] “The public room of the Eagle…” in The Asheville Weekly Citizen, November 1, 1884, page 1. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-asheville-weekly-citizen-the-telegra/125700625/
[xvi] Freierman, Shelly. “Telegram Falls Silent Stop Era Ends Stop,” in The New York Times, February 6, 2006. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/06/technology/telegram-falls-silent-stop-era-ends-stop.html
[xvii] Moss, Stephen. “Final telegram to be sent STOP,” in The Guardian, July 10, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2013/jul/10/final-telegram-to-be-sent-india