Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, March 02, 2015

The Telegraph in Pelham: Pre-Telephone Communications with the Outside World

"What hath God wrought!" were the words tapped out by Samuel F. B. Morse from the United States Supreme Court chambers in Washington, D. C. to his colleague, Alfred Vail, in Baltimore on May 24, 1844.  With those now-famous words, Morse made clear to the world that the telegraph was a viable means of virtually instant communication throughout the nation if not the world.  Within two years, the first commercial telegraph line was completed between New York City and Washington, D. C.  Soon, telegraph lines criss-crossed the entire United States.

The sleepy little Town of Pelham had little need for the new invention.  The area was not yet a business suburb of New York City.  The New York and New Haven Railroad did not reach Pelhamville until a single track was laid through the area in late 1848.  Likewise, the Harlem River branch of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad did not reach City Island and the Pelham Manor area along the Sound until 1872.  Most residents of the Town were oystermen, seamen, shipbuilders or local merchants on City Island or were farmers and local merchants on the mainland.  Despite a number of grand country estates owned by businessmen, artists, and financiers along the Sound, for the most part Pelham residents were perfectly content having no instantaneous communications with the outside world.

Things seemed to change shortly after the so-called Branch Line came to the area in 1872.  Efforts began to develop an area on the mainland as an exclusive suburban enclave for affluent business commuters who wished to live in a suburb of New York City.  Additionally, the City Island and Pelham Bridge areas of Pelham were becoming a regional tourist destination.

In 1878, millionaire banker, broker, and financier, William Belden, had a residence on City Island in the Town of Pelham.  Belden was one of the most colorful characters of 19th century Wall Street.  He is remembered as one of the three principal financiers, together with Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, who manipulated the price of gold upward until the bubble burst and caused the "Black Friday" stock market crash of September 24, 1869.  Thereafter bad business deals and years of prosecution for his misdeeds forced Belden into bankruptcy in the late 1880s.  In 1878, however, Belden had residences in Manhattan and City Island and continued to dabble in high finance.  According to one account, Belden was responsible for the first telegraph line ever strung to the Town of Pelham when he had the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company extend a private line to his house where he operated an office and had his own telegraph operator to man the line.  See City Island, The Chronicle [Mount Vernon, NY], May 31, 1878, Vol. IX, No. 454, p. 2, col. 5 ("Mr. Wm. Belden is having the A. & P. Telegraph wire extended as far as his house, and has an operator and an office of his own at his private residence.").  When Belden had the A&P telegraph line extended to his residence on City Island in 1878, the company was controlled by Belden's fellow financier and acquaintance Jay Gould.  (See below.)

In early May, 1882, the Western Union Telegraph Company seems to have run another telegraph line from Williamsbridge to City Island and connected the line with the more extensive lines of the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company.  Only a few years before, in 1875, financier Jay Gould had acquired sufficient shares of the company to take control and initiated a rate war with competing telegraph companies including Western Union.  By 1878, Gould sold the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company to Western Union at a profit, thereby enabling Western Union easily to arrange connection of its City Island telegraph line to the lines of its affiliate, Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company in early May, 1882.  See Fri., Nov. 27, 2009:  Telegraph Wires Connected Pelham to the Outside World in 1882.  See also COUNTY MATTERS, New Rochelle Pioneer, May 6, 1882, Vol. XXIII, No. 5, p. 2, col. 3 ("The Western Union Telegraph Company are putting up a wire between Williamsbridge and City Island, to connect with the line of the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company.").

A Morse Telegraph from 1872-73 of the Type Likely
in Use at About the Time William Belden of City Island
Had a Telegraph Line Extended to His Residence There.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons.  NOTE:  Click to Enlarge.

It is not certain precisely when the tiny settlement of Pelham Manor was first connected to the local web of telegraph lines.  It certainly seems to have been at about the same time as the extension of the public line to City Island in early May, 1882, about two years before the first telephones were installed in Pelham Manor and on City Island.  A local newspaper reported on July 14, 1882 as follows:


The telegraph office at Pelham Manor will be open hereafter daily (Sundays excepted) from 6 A. M. till 8.45 P. M.

Messrs.  Cochran & Mulvey, the former the telegraph operator, have opened a grocery in the depot building.  The young men have put in a nice stock of selected groceries, and are deserving of liberal patronage. . . ."

Source:  PELHAM MANOR, The Chronicle [Mt. Vernon, NY], Jul. 14, 1882, Vol. XIII, No. 669, p. 2, col. 4. 

Thus, it would appear, by July, 1882, Pelham Manor had a telegraph office that likely was in the Pelham Manor Depot and was operated by one of the two men who operated a grocery in the same depot building.  

At the time these telegraph lines were run in 1878 and 1882, telephones were not yet available within the Town of Pelham.  Only a few years later (by mid-1884), however, telephones were beginning to be installed in the town.   See:

Mon., Mar. 24, 2014:  The Earliest Telephone in Pelham? When and Where Was it Installed?

Tue., Mar. 29, 2005:  The Earliest Telephone in Pelham Manor?

Mon., Dec. 21, 2009:  More on What May Have Been the First Telephone Installed in Pelham.

Soon, with widespread installation of telephones, the days of the telegraph and its utility within the Town of Pelham were numbered.

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