2000 >> October >> The Texas and Red River Telegraph Company  

The Texas and Red River Telegraph Company
by Jimmy Burns

Reprinted from "Crown Jewels of the Wire", October 2000, page 10

It was a very pleasant weekend during the spring of 1995, and I had promised my wife a "no insulator" outing in the woods of Sam Houston National Forest approximately thirty miles from our home, between Montgomery and Huntsville in southeastern Texas. As we drove along, we came to a series of historical markers where we stopped and read to our children. The last one we came upon before we entered, Montgomery, Texas, read as follows:

"THE TELEGRAPH ROAD"

LOCATION: ON FM 149, SIX MILES NORTH OF MONTGOMERY.

PIONEER TRAIL FROM MONTGOMERY TO HOUSTON (SE) AND HUNTSVILLE (NE). IMPORTANT BY 1845 AS A ROUTE FOR SETTLER'S WAGON TRAILS. MAIL, STAGECOACHES. & FREIGHTING. AT THE INTRODUCTION OF TELEGRAPH (WITH THE CHARTERING OF TEXAS AND RED RIVER TELEGRAPH COMPANY IN 1854) WIRES WERE STRUNG ALONG THIS ROAD TO EXTEND SERVICE TO MONTGOMERY AND HOUSTON. THAT GAVE THE EXISTING TRAIL THE NAME "TELEGRAPH ROAD." ALTHOUGH WIRES WERE REMOVED TO A RAILROAD RIGHT OF WAY A GENERATION LATER. THE NAME PERSISTED. PORTIONS OF THE OLD TELEGRAPH ROAD ARE STILL VISIBLE, AS AT THIS LOCATION. RECORDED (TEXAS) HISTORIC LANDMARK 1972.

My wife, Vickey, smiled as she knew that even on this "no insulator weekend," I had managed to find a reference, even if a somewhat indirect one, to insulators.

Even though I am a collector of color porcelain insulators, I was instantly curious about what had to be a threadless line in my backyard. The truth is that I had never associated this area of Texas, or even the whole state of Texas with the possibility of early telegraph lines. I had heard of early Military Telegraphs skirting the Texas-Oklahoma borders and entering the state to serve the far western frontier forts. However, I was very surprised to find in my research that the telegraph in Texas goes back to the days when Texas was an independent Republic.

Business representatives of Samuel F. B. Morse, who were having difficulties promoting his "Electro Magnetic Telegraph" to the Government of the United States, tried to sell the idea at the Texas Embassy in Washington, D.C. While seriously considered, it was finally rejected as being too costly, and the impoverished Government of Texas, heavily indebted, could not afford an expensive experiment. In 1845, when Texas joined the Union, it had no commercial telegraph.

The history of The Red River and Texas Telegraph starts not in Texas, but in Louisiana. Early in 1850 a telegraph line was built from New Orleans to Shreveport in Louisiana. The city of Shreveport and the history of Texas are woven together at times. Shreveport is geographically situated about thirty miles east of the Texas border. Founded in 1830, the city marked the spot where safe navigation of the Red River terminated. It became a natural port and supply route into Texas. As the Telegraph reached Shreveport, it was natural that the line be extended into Texas. By 1852, financial backers had founded the Red River and Texas Telegraph Company to build the first commercial Telegraph into Texas.

Shreveport would be headquarters for the company for the duration of existence. Not only would the city be a transportation center, but now it was a major communication center for telegraph messages entering Texas. During the Civil War, a major goal of the Union Army's Red River Campaign was to capture the city to cut transportation and communication lines into Texas. The Confederate Army stopped the Northern Forces fifty miles short of their goal at the Battle of Mansfield in 1864, denying the Union its prize. Shreveport remained uncaptured and the Telegraph continued to send messages into Texas. 

A group of New Orleans' investors chartered The Red River and Texas Telegraph Company on January 5, 1854, and hastily constructed an initial line between Shreveport and Marshall, Texas at a length of forty-nine miles. Unlike the western portion of Texas, portrayed in the cowboy flicks as desolate of vegetation, virgin, un-logged forest covered East Texas in the 1850's. To save investment capital, the company ran the lines atop trees. Early operators complained of having to close offices to ride lines "to make repairs when the wind swaying the trees caused breaks in the wire." Patrons were offered connections through Shreveport to Natchez, Mississippi; Alexandria, Louisiana; Baton Rouge, Louisiana: and New Orleans, Louisiana. Quickly, the company built additional miles of lines to cities along north-south axis that included Henderson, Rusk, Crockett, and Montgomery. By the end of 1854, the company opened offices in Houston and Galveston. Later additions to The Red River and Texas Telegraph Company included branch lines to Huntsville and Nacogdoches. 

Almost a year after the first telegraph company in Texas began operations, a second rival company, The Texas and New Orleans Telegraph was chartered by New York Investors. This company built lines between Galveston and San Antonio and then on to Austin. However, the lines did not reach Austin until 1862 because of having to build an overland construction without the benefits of the trees of East Texas. Cedar and cypress poles carried the wires of this second telegraph company. Shortly before the Civil War both companies consolidated their interest and merged into the Southwestern Telegraph Company that built a direct line to New Orleans. In 1860, in conjunction with the constructions of the first railroad between Houston and Galveston, engineers laid the first line to follow the tracks in Texas. During the Civil War the Confederate Government nationalized the Southwestern in the name of the war effort. After the war the Texas assets of the company were sold to the American Telegraph Company which was absorbed in 1870 when the first north-south railroad telegraph was completed by Western Union.

As an insulator collector I must ask about insulators used by The Red River and Texas Telegraph Company in building the first line through the woods of Eastern Texas. Although there have been reports of a cobalt blue threadless Tillotson found along Buffalo Bayou in Houston by a bottle collector during the 1970's, a few threadless Brookfield's have turned up in the Grenham-Navasota area of Texas, I can only document one type of insulator used for sure by the first Telegraph company. The Houston Heritage Society owns the only picture that I have seen that shows the Red River and Texas Telegraph Company line as it entered 1857 Houston along Fannin Street. It is an amazing picture that shows a cypress pole with a typical birds-nest construction common to the era that held two glass blocks from which two strands of very heavy looking wire that ran through the insulators and on to the next pole in the background. Were these blocks the only insulators that were used on the first telegraph as it literally passed through the trees of east Texas? I doubt it, but the answers probably lie beneath the ground somewhere in the piney woods. The possibility of glass rings and knobs used to insulate the line as it passed from one tree branch to another must be considered and researched further. As lines were modernized in the late 1850 's, it is very possible that threadless insulators held by smooth wooden pins were introduced on hand hewn poles.

As intriguing as this first line is because of its construction and its insulators, the true significance of The Texas and Red River Telegraph exists in the historical context of messages it carried into and out of Texas. It announced to the Lone Star State that the United States of America elected Abraham Lincoln as its President in 1860; that a Confederacy of southern states chose to secede from the Union: and a war between the states commenced with the bombardment of Fort Sumpter. The telegraph also carried the news out of Texas when Sam Houston resigned as governor because he could not support secession from his beloved Union. The wires hummed in 1863 to declare that "Old" Sam passed away in Huntsville, Texas. Through the trees came the dreaded casualty lists from far away places with foreign sounding names like Manassas, Shiloh and Gettysburg. At the end of its existence came further news: Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House; Lincoln's assassination; and the death of the Confederate States of America. The Red River and Texas Telegraph Company set and received the news through turbulent times in Texas along lines that swayed through the fickle limbs of trees indigenous to native soil. This is the ultimate legacy of the first commercial telegraph line constructed in Texas.

CITATIONS:

1. Texas Historical Commission "The Telegraph Road" Roadside Marker 1972

2. The New Handbook of Texas "Telegraph Service" 
The Texas Historical Association Vol. 6 1998 p. 243 
Note: Samuel F.B. Morse's original proposal as well as a model of Morse's original telegraph is on exhibit in the Texas State Archives.

3. The New Handbook of Texas, op. cit.



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