Telegraph History in Texas Originated in Marshall

A landmark in downtown Marshall, Texas, pays tribute to a form of communication that predated the telephone and helped lead to the growth of the new state of Texas.

On January 5, 1854, the first telegraph company in Texas was chartered -- just 10 years after the first telegraph message -- called a "telegram" -- was transmitted in the U.S. by inventor Samuel Morse. The statue of two men receiving a telegraphed message recognizes this early Texas advancement. It is located in a slice of land called Telegraph Park, too.

The Texas and Red River Company opened its first office in Marshall on February 14, offering patrons connections with New Orleans via Shreveport and with Alexandria, Louisiana, and Natchez, Mississippi. Marshall was a thriving city -- the fourth largest in the state at that time -- thanks in part to it being on a major stagecoach route and a city on the new railroad cutting through East Texas.

The telegraph revolutionized long-distance communication. A telegraph system worked by transmitting electrical signals over a wire laid between stations. Telegraph wires were strung from treetop to treetop, and in many instances telegraph operators closed the offices and rode along the lines to make repairs when the wind swaying the trees caused breaks in the wires.

The signals -- collectively called Morse Code -- translated into words that formed messages. The ability to transmit a telegraph virtually instantly over hundreds of miles displaced the need to send messages by a rider on horseback. 

By contrast, the telephone was patented 22 years later -- in 1876 -- but its widespread use in the U.S. was still a few decades away.

By 1870 there was an estimated 1,500 miles of telegraph wire in Texas. Expansion was rapid up to 1890 as the transcontinental railroads completed lines across the state.

Famous telegrams included the announcement of the first flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903, and the distress calls by the sinking Titanic in 1912.

Then came telephones that gave people the ability to speak their message to someone listening at the call's destination. By 1943 the Western Union Telegraph Company, which had begun operating in Texas in 1866, was the only telegraph company still operating in the state.

The company closed the Marshall telegraph office--the oldest in the state--in 1972. 

(Source: Texas State Historical Association)

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