New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Trouble on the Line: The Early Telegraph in New Brunswick

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Trouble on the Line: The Early Telegraph in New Brunswick

The idea of sending messages over long distances using electrical signals was not new. Special keyboards had been devised and systems of multiple wires proposed so that the alphabet could be represented ‘on line’. Most of these systems were only experimental as the world waited for Samuel Morse, or that is the usual story.

But Morse was not alone in the search for a practical technology. One system was developed in Pennsylvania in 1836, a year or more before Morse’s demonstration, for example. Even Morse had a partner, Alfred Vail, who was the one who actually invented the famous Morse code. The Morse system was then tested in 1838, and commercial lines were being funded and actually constructed by the early to mid 1840s. The first commercial line in North America is said to have gone into operation in 1845. Another system by Alexander Bain was also in use around that time, but the Morse system prevailed.

Telegraph notice

The St. John N.B. Observer hears that it is intended to run an Express from Halifax to St. John, by way of Annapolis, on the arrival of every English Mail, to be telegraphed to New York on account of the Associated Press of that city.

This was a modern invention that everyone had to have! It compared with railways as a change-maker, except that the capital costs and construction times were much lower than those for railways. Investors were therefore easier to find, and profits were almost guaranteed.

The British North American Electric Telegraph Association was founded in 1847 with the aim of building a line from Halifax to Quebec. The Nova Scotia Electric Telegraph Company was incorporated to build from Halifax to the New Brunswick border and, in 1848, the New Brunswick Electric Telegraph Company was incorporated to build from Saint John, westward to Calais, Maine, and eastward to the Nova Scotia border to join with the line from Halifax. Other branch lines were also envisaged.

The line to Calais was completed on January 5, 1849, and curious onlookers circled the office in Saint John to witness the marvel. An actual message to Calais was delayed by a technical problem, but this was soon overcome. The first telegraph operator, a Mr. Mount, arrived in the city the next day, January 6, 1849. The line from Saint John to the Nova Scotia border was completed that same year, and the first message between Saint John and Halifax was sent on November 9, 1849.

Telegraph lines were expected to make a profit, and news agencies were important customers. Before the line to Halifax was built, the European newspapers were couriered to Saint John by steamer or pony express on behalf of the American Press, and telegraphed from there to New York via Calais. Later, these transmissions originated in Halifax. The transmissions included commodity prices and led to huge public outcries that access to the news was being monopolized.

The Telegraph Company was attacked in Halifax and Saint John newspapers for giving the American Press exclusive early access to European news and forcing the local papers to wait for other couriers and steamers to bring them the same information. U.S. readers therefore had access to European market quotes and other news before those in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

L.R. Darrow was the Managing Director of the New Brunswick Electric Telegraph Company. He saw the attacks as rude, ignorant and unprincipled. He was probably also concerned that they could damage his Company if they were taken seriously by the authorities. He therefore published a rebuttal to the accusations in December of 1849, where he argued that the arrangements with the American Press were not exclusive. Anyone who wanted to pay for a subscription could receive the same telegraphed reports as the AP. The telegraph Company was also not acting as an agent for the American Press, in the sense that the contract between the two allowed for cancellation at any time by either party. Therefore, he said, there was nothing monopolistic about the arrangement. As for the local papers, they were simply “not liberal enough” to pay the full price of the transmissions and the telegraph Company was not responsible for their lack of liberality.

Darrow went on to say that the Company was aware of the danger that the telegraph could be used to gain unfair advantage and that rules had been set up to guard against this. The American Press and its members had agreed to keep the information secret until publication, for example. And besides, he said, if it were not for the telegraph then the news papers and agencies would set up their own private courier services and find other ways to get the news first.

There was another more specific accusation to be dealt with. Couriered information had been received and, on August 30, 1849, a message was sent to New York outlining European prices for boards, shingles and fish. The message was encoded, and the American Press knew to substitute the words cotton, corn and flour instead. A ship then arrived in port with the European papers, which the telegraph operator should then have sent immediately to New York. He was ‘out to tea’, however, and when he returned he found that the telegraph lines between Saint John and Calais were dead. It was later discovered that the line had been cut near the Reversing Falls and, over the next couple of days there were many more cuts both east and west of Saint John.

Three thousand words of newspaper articles were eventually sent to New York, and the Saint John papers bought a 300 word excerpt. The Saint John papers therefore received incomplete information which was, in addition, late. Darrow repeated that it was not the telegraph Company’s fault that the local papers refused to pay the price of a subscription. He also did not know who was responsible for the sabotage of the telegraph lines; but thought that it must have been someone with a commercial interest. He said that it might, for example, have been agents for the Boston press, who had withdrawn from the American Press and could benefit from a delay in the telegraph information.

A legal historian would be needed to determine these questions of monopoly and insider information. Not only are they legal matters, but legal standards were also different in those days.

By the time Alexander Monroe was writing in 1855, telegraph lines had also been built to Fredericton and Woodstock, and an undersea cable had been installed from Cape Tormentine and Borden, P.E.I. This was surely “the most useful and truly wonderful invention of modern times. By its means, knowledge flies through the length and breadth of our land in the twinkling of an eye; every city, town and village, for hundreds of miles around us, is thus placed in almost instantaneous communication with each other. … And no sooner does a steamer, which left Liverpool nine days before, arrive in Halifax or New York, then not only the news of her arrival, but the affairs of Europe are being spread with lightening speed over the entire North American continent. … And who would not dare to give publicity to the thought, in these days of progress and discovery, that the time is at hand when, in place of the astonishingly short space of nine days now occupied by the steamer … nine minutes may be nearer the time required by telegraph?” (Monroe, page 78)

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Dare I not also give publicity to the thought that the next time I hear a phrase such as ‘information age’ or ‘binary system’ or ‘learning to live with change’; or if anyone mentions the  line-ups in front of the Apple Store I will just reply “and so?”.


  1. Monroe, Alexander, New Brunswick With an Outline of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, , Halifax, 1855.
  2. Archives Canada web site at
  3. The “Nova Scotia’s Electric Gleaner”, their various web sites and pages specializing in on-line information about Nova Scotia.
  4. Saint John, N.B. web site at
  5. Hannay, James, History of New Brunswick, Saint John, N.B., 1909, Vol. 2, page 110.
  6. Wikipedia

Written by johnwood1946

October 16, 2013 at 10:43 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. I enjoyed this article on the telegraph, a wondrous invention in its’ day! I’ve just been watching Lark Rise to Candleford, the main place of action is in the Post Office where the telegraph plays an important role. I like to think that my great-grandmother born in NB in 1855 might have used an early telegraph to transmit some important news!

    Donna van Eeghen

    October 16, 2013 at 8:55 PM

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