Abstract: Disinterest and Distrust: The Ambivalent Relationship between Railroad Managers and Telegraph Entrepreneurs in Antebellum America

Benjamin Schwantes


As telegraph entrepreneurs rapidly constructed commercial telegraph lines throughout the eastern seaboard and the Mississippi Valley in the late 1840s and 1850s, managers of many railroad firms expressed great ambivalence about incorporating telegraphy into railroad operations. Firms such as the Pennsylvania Railroad, Illinois Central, and Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy allowed telegraph entrepreneurs access to their right-of-ways for line construction, but the railroad community as a whole found little use for telegraphy beyond intermittent business communications. Railroad officials persisted in viewing telegraphs as nothing more than expensive and unreliable devices suited solely for commercial message traffic. Antebellum railroad managers had few incentives to incorporate telegraphy into railroad management. Their traditional operational system, based on strictly regimented timetables and primitive time-interval train spacing, provided an acceptable level of safety and efficiency. Even railroad managers who maintained some personal interest in telegraph technology often viewed telegraphy with considerably more than a degree of distrust, despite its potential for greatly reducing the risk of accidents, increasing traffic volume, improving managerial supervision over railroad operations, and generating greater revenues for railroad companies. Only after the telegraph had proved its value during the American Civil War did railroad officials and telegraph entrepreneurs finally forge enduring bonds that strongly linked both communities.