The Telegraph Arrives at Brownville

When the so-called Lightning Line arrived in Brownville and connected Nebraska to the world, residents celebrated speeches, a parade, and a wine-fueled afterparty.

Brownville, circa 1870.

The first telegraph connection to Nebraska Territory was completed August 28, 1860, to Brownville from St. Joseph, Missouri. For local residents, it was the most thrilling event of the year. The telegraph wasn’t brand new in 1860, but the western frontier its lightning speed still seemed magical. Until that moment, the arrival of news from the outside world was limited to the speed of a steamboat chugging its ways up the Missouri River, or to the pace of a team of horses pulling a stagecoach overland.

The Brownville telegraph office was housed in an upstairs room of the Hoadley Building at Main and First. The first outgoing telegram went to the Associated Press and read: “Brownville, Neb., Aug. 29, 1860. Nebraska Sends Greetings to the States: The telegraph line was completed to this place to-day, and the first office in Nebraska formally opened. Our citizens are jubilant over the event, and now realize the advantage of being connected with their Eastern friends and the ‘rest of mankind’ by means of a ‘lightning line.’ Onward!”

The first incoming telegram came from St. Joseph, Missouri. Future Nebraska governor Robert W. Furnas, then editor of the Nebraska Advertiser, sent a message to the St. Joseph Gazette: “The ADVERTISER sends greetings. Give us your hand. Hot as blazes; Thermometer 104 in the shade. ‘Whats the News’? R. W. Furnas.”

In reply, the Gazette wired: “We are most happy to return your greeting—The Thermometer is at 100 and is rising like h__l—You ask the news—Douglas stock fully up to the thermometer, and rising as rapidly. St. Joe drinx [sic] Nebraska’s health.”

That first message wasn’t much, but it was instant. That was the important thing. Brownville held a large celebration the next evening, complete with bonfires, music, burning gunpowder, speeches, and toasts. Rounds of ammunition were fired—one for each of the states, one for Nebraska, and one for the telegraph line. Speeches were given by George H. Nixon and Theodore Hill, the mayor. Then came a parade led by the Brownville brass band. This ended the official celebration, but it was rumored that a barrel of wine was carried up to the telegraph office where an unofficial celebration continued.

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