A Line Through the Desert

Readers of the New-York Tribune learned on December 1, 1866 that “Matrimonial advices from Utah state that Mr. Brigham Young has just taken a forty-fifth wide: the actual number of his family not being increased, as No. 23 died the other day.”

The story was incorrect. He had married Amelia Folsom in January 1863 and wouldn’t again until he took Mary Van Cott as a wife in January 1868. Many historians sorting through the muddle of Young’s matrimonial history count them as his 50th and 51st spouses. His 45th marriage, to Elizabeth Burgess, had taken place in October 1852. The death of his 23rd recorded wife, Olive Andrews, is unclear.

Utah’s isolation made these erroneous stories about her inhabitants all too easy to spread. But as New Yorkers read about “No. Forty-Five” in the Tribune that lazy Saturday, the territory was taking a leap forward into the mainstream of American life. December 1, 1866 was the first day of operation for the Deseret Telegraph Company, the nation’s first co-operatively owned telegraph line in the United States.

Brigham Young was something of an evangelist for telegraphs, having eagerly joined the push for a transcontinental line in the 1850s and early 1860s. Utah was a major link in the chain, with Salt Lake City serving the juncture of the eastbound and westbound lines. Young himself had been given the honor of sending the first telegraph from Salt Lake City to California in October 1861, concluding “Join your wires with the Russian Empire, and we will converse with Europe.”

In his mind, the next step was a territorial line, linking the Mormon settlements across Utah to Salt Lake and Salt Lake to the transcontinental line. In November 1865, Young sent a circular to the Bishops and Elders of wards across the territory saying “the proper time has arrived for us to take the necessary steps” to build a the line, arguing “we should bring into requisition every improvement with our age affords, to facilitate our intercourse and to render our intercommunication more easily.”

Each ward was instructed: “From settlement to settlement let the men of judgment select and mark the route for the Line to run, so has to have it as straight as possible and yet convenient to the road,” with 22-foot tall poles buried 4 feet deep, every 70 yards. Wire would be provided. Virtually the entire project was funded and managed by the Latter-Day Saints, with each community along the line pitching in the labor and material to get it done.

“Not a man on this line every worked a telegraph line before,” the project director later said, “the line was strung and put into operation in the middle of winter, it about five hundred miles in length; taking all into consideration, please permit me as an old operator to say that I think the working of the same almost a miracle.”

On December 1, 1866, Brigham Young sent the first telegraph to President Lorin Farr and Bishop Chancey West in Ogden, dedicating the line to the Lord God of Israel and “praying that this and all other improvements may contribute to our benefit, and the Glory of our God…” For the next 35 years, the slim Deseret line was the force that knit the Mormon world together and connected it to the world of the Gentiles.

Restored Deseret Telegraph Company office, Cove Fort, Utah. (Source: Wikipedia)

Restored Deseret Telegraph Company office, Cove Fort, Utah. (Source: Wikipedia)

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