‘First flash of lightning’: Telegraph reaches Springfield

Edited to add Hat Tip (see below)

In 1848, only four years after Samuel F.B. Morse famously sent the message “What hath God wrought!,” Springfield became linked to the rest of the world via telegraph.

The Illinois State Journal’s story on the arrival of the new technology – published in an extra edition May 31, 1848, and again in the regular weekly newspaper June 8 – carried a vividly accurate headline: “First Flash of Lightning.”

The story was partly self-congratulatory and partly newsy. Among events reported with what must have seemed to Journal readers astounding speed were the arrival of the steamer United States in New York, the beginning of peace negotiations between Denmark and the German duchy of Holstein, and an abortive people’s rebellion in Paris.

Probably more germane to most of the newspaper’s readers, however, is that the dispatch also included up-to-date Liverpool prices for cotton, wheat and cornmeal.

S.J. Smith, superintendent of the telegraph line, added a note of congratulations:

My compliments to the corps Editorial, and citizens of Springfield in general.

Glad the “Lightning Has Struck” the capital of Illinois.

You are now in telegraphic communication with the commercial world, and the advantages are fast being given to your brethren of the North.

I am happy to be informed by our operators here that never did line work better than this during the hour it has been open. It argues the future usefulness of the line to all classes who will avail themselves of its advantages.

Your’s (sic) truly, S.J. SMITH (Sup’t.)

The first regular weekly edition of the Journal to carry telegraphic news was published June 1. Among coverage provided by telegraph was a detailed report on the Democratic National Convention, held in Baltimore, Md.., the previous week. (Lewis Cass won the Democratic nomination; he would go on to lose the general election to the Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor.)

The telegraph line to Springfield was owned by a family named O’Reilly, one of whom, Capt. J.J. O’Reilly, was based in St. Louis. Shortly before the telegraph reached central Illinois, the O’Reillys apparently had cut a deal with a rival telegraph developer, Kendall & Smith, that had threatened to delay the spread of telegraph wires to the west and south.

Hat tip: To Joe Armstrong and Mitch Hopper of the Sangamon Valley Radio Club, whose dual presentation to the Sangamon County Historical Society in September 2015 was a great help to researching this topic. 

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.



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