Vestiges of Western Union


This utility-hole cover sits at the foot of Washington Street where it was placed by the Western Union Telegraph Company. Western Union was once the king of American communications, a colossus like the phone company used to be.

Oakland’s Telegraph Avenue got its name from a telegraph line that once ran up Claremont Canyon over the hills. That wasn’t Western Union’s — the Alta California Telegraph Company built it, in 1859. But soon enough Western Union subsumed Alta California and other local telegraph firms as part of constructing the transcontinental telegraph line in 1861. The story was compelling enough that Hollywood adapted Zane Grey’s fictionalization of it in the 1941 movie “Western Union,” directed by Fritz Lang and starring Robert Young.

This lid looks like it dates from the early 20th century. Western Union completed its monopoly in 1943 when it acquired the Postal Telegraph company (more on that firm in this post).

How did telegrams work, you ask. You would bring your message to a Western Union office and pay them to transmit it in code over a landline to its destination city, where another Western Union office would decode it, print it out and deliver it by messenger the same day. You paid by the word — and punctuation counted too. If you had to use a period, you paid for the word “stop”.

Today all that seems as lame as classified ads in a newspaper, but once upon a time it was a killer app. Telegrams were still a big deal when I was a child, in the 1950s and 1960s, but the only thing today’s Western Union transmits is money.

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