Rethinking the Relationship between the Railroad and Telegraph Industries

I never set out to write a book reinterpreting the financial, social, and political relationship between the American railroad and telegraph industries in the nineteenth century. I have always had an interest in the history of communication and, to a lesser extent, the history of transportation. I primarily looked at these fields from a technical perspective. It was only in graduate school at the University of Delaware that I discovered the field of business history and quickly sought to immerse myself in its historiography. While reading some of the classic works in the field, I picked up on discussions about the critical role that the American railroad and telegraph industries played in the rise of big business in the second half of the nineteenth century. Thinking that this topic might make for a good seminar paper, I decided to take advantage of the extensive railroad collections housed by the nearby Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware. As I started to examine the Pennsylvania Railroad files, however, I began to wonder if I had misunderstood the arguments put forth in the business history books. Instead of seeing evidence of a harmonious relationship between Pennsylvania Railroad officials and early telegraph entrepreneurs in the 1850s and 1860s, I saw confusion, distrust, and outright hostility. As I began to look at records from other railroad firms of the same era, I saw the same pattern repeated. Ultimately, I came to realize that much of the classic historical literature regarding the relationship between these two industries was simply inaccurate or reductionist. I saw an opportunity to present a revisionist perspective on the topic that would help to correct the historical record by unpacking the messy and often confusing co-development of both industries and highlighting the role of external agents such as war and politics in shaping their relationship. Through my narrowly-focused doctoral dissertation and my much more broadly focused book, The Train and the Telegraph, with Johns Hopkins University Press, I feel that I have achieved this goal.

One story, in particular, helps to illustrate the complexities of the early business dealings between American railroad managers and telegraph entrepreneurs in the mid-nineteenth century and the influence of outside political and legal factors on this relationship. In early 1846, not quite two years after Samuel F.B. Morse successfully demonstrated the first long-distance telegraph line in the United States between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., one of his business partners was in the process of constructing a telegraph line between Baltimore and New York City. Working through Henry O’Reilly, a construction contractor, Amos Kendall sought permission to use the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad’s right-of-way for his telegraph line. O’Reilly secured permission to construct the line and completed the work in the spring of 1846. Within a couple months, however, the railroad’s president received an urgent letter from one of the landowners along the railroad’s right-of-way. The landowner complained that he had not given the telegraph company permission to build along the portion of the railroad right-of-way running through his land. He accused the railroad company of potentially violating its state-issued charter by engaging in a business activity not specifically allowed in the charter and even threatened to escalate the matter if the railroad did not address it promptly. Railroad officials eventually reached a compromise with the landowner by insisting that the telegraph company sign a separate lease to cross his land using the existing railroad right-of-way. This new legal arrangement, which had no impact on the physical location or operation of the telegraph line, apparently satisfied the landowner and avoided a lawsuit or possible trouble for the firm with the Pennsylvania General Assembly. This account, though, highlights just one of the numerous reasons why railroad executives were wary of dealing with telegraph firms in the mid-nineteenth century. Legal codes, both at the state and federal levels, did not anticipate multiple firms sharing a right-of-way, nor did they permit companies engaged in one activity, such as transportation, to provide other services, such as telegraphic communication. Nearly 25 years would pass before federal legislation resolved some of these shortcomings in the law, though the legal status of railroad rights-of-way would remain a hot topic in the courts and legislatures well into the twentieth century.

This historical account and others like it in The Train and the Telegraph reveal the true complexities of the co-development of the railroad and telegraph industries in the nineteenth century. I hope my book will influence future historical research and writing about this era and correct the inaccurate historical narrative that has shaped much of the writing about communication, transportation, business, and technology during this era.

Benjamin Sidney Michael Schwantes is the managing editor of the JANNAF Journal of Propulsion and Energetics and a lecturer at Widener University's Center for Extended Learning. He is the author of The Train and the Telegraph: A Revisionist History.