Sibley’s Genius

Hiram Sibley didn’t invent the telegraph. But he invented the first industrial monopoly in the United States — around the telegraph.

The Western Union Telegraph Company was founded in Rochester on April 4, 1856. Sibley’s partners included Isaac R. Elwood, a prominent Rochester lawyer, and Henry O’Reilly (author of the Sketches of Rochester, published in 1838), who had, after he lost his job as Rochester postmaster, met Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, and turned into Morse’s strongest promoter. Sibley linked O’Reilly’s scattered telegraph lines into one organization which dominated the industry.

At the time when other industries were expanding, including the capabilities of new railroad lines, the Western Union brought Rochester to prominence in the communication industry by establishing control over most of the U.S. telegraph lines. Sibley and the other investors had formed the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company in 1851, which transformed into the Western Union.

The Reynolds Arcade became the location where the Western Union established its office when it chartered in 1856, and grew rapidly to 1866. The Arcade, on Buffalo Street (now Main Street), was clearly the communication and information center of the City at the time. It housed the post office and was the gathering place for business people and, with the entrance to Corinthian Hall, which was directly behind it, served as the cultural center of the town during that period.

Thanks to the Western Union, local baseball fans could wait in the Arcade for inning-by-inning scores and highlights from out-of-town games. The telegraph also became a police and fire system, which allowed citizens to send an alarm in case of a fire.

Sibley’s vision to consolidate several smaller telegraph companies not only increased their efficiency but also unquestionably connected Rochester with the importance of the telegraph to progress. Western Union changed the country dramatically. The single company helped enhance the communications during the Civil War. Spurred by a federal contract, he organized the Pacific Telegraph Company in late 1860, permitting the building of lines across the country within a few months of the outbreak of the war and adding greatly to the value of the interior telegraph lines. Rival telegraph companies in the South and along the Atlantic coast were partly blocked or cut off.

Telegraph

An unidentified man stands in a demonstration booth in 1918, he is demonstrating a police and fire telegraph system. From the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center Rochester, N.Y.

The original cover sheet for a telegraph message

Interior view of Reynolds Arcade filled with people in 1877

(Click on images for a larger view.)