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Early communication

By Myra Lee Adams Goff

Have you ever watched animals communicate with each other? No words, just bark, growl and whine. They get their point across. If they didn’t, they would have invented words. That’s what humans did. Some still bark, growl, and whine, but these sounds are usually accompanied by words.

Early human communication consisted of a system called “tell-a-woman”. Now, don’t get mad at me, ladies, because there was also “tell-a-man” and by the number of saloons in early New Braunfels, I’m guessing that men won out. This ancient form of communication was around long before the telegraph, telephone and tell-a-SKYPE, where you see the person anywhere in the world.

Depending on where you lived and who you associated with, different languages developed. Time went on and there was a need to communicate with people far away.

Someone (or two) developed a system of communicating from hill to hill. Smoke signals. It was too far to yell or growl from one place to another. The English developed the semaphore, a signaling device using flags or lights. On top of the hill was built a contraption with shutters where men could flash signals from one tower to another tower. A message could be relayed as far as 85 miles. This system was obsolete by the middle of the 19th century with the invention of the telegraph. Several systems were invented before the invention of the telegraph.

Samuel F.B. Morse is given most of the credit for inventing the telegraph. This may not be entirely true but Morse did prove that signals could be transmitted by wire. Several inventions led up to the invention of the electric telegraph all over the world. The Morse Code, a series of dots and dashes, was used. Western Union built its first transcontinental line in 1861 following the railroad tracks.

Morse received funds from Congress to install a line between Washington D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland. His idea was to bury wires. This idea failed so he had the idea to hang wires from trees and this also failed. Finally he had the idea to hang the wires from poles. In 1844 Morse stationed himself in the Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol in Washington D.C. He sent the famous message “What hath God wrought” to his assistant, Alfred Vail, in Baltimore. Vail got the message.

By 1846 a new business, the Associated Press, took full advantage of the telegraph to send messages to newspaper offices. What a boom for rapid communication! The national election results of 1848 were sent via wire to newspapers for the first time.

Abraham Lincoln’s State of the Union address was transmitted over telegraph wires to all “loyal states”. Obviously Confederates didn’t get the speech. Lincoln was supposedly fascinated by the technology of the telegraph and would spend hours, even overnight, in the War Department building, keeping track of what was going on during the Civil War. Messages were easily sent to newspapers across the United States but it seemed impossible to send a message by wire to Europe.

An American businessman named Cyrus Field organized a new company called the New York Newfoundland and London Telegraph Co. Field began laying 2,500 miles of cable from Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula. After several failed attempts of the use of the wire, Queen Victoria in England successfully sent a letter of congratulations to newly elected president, James Buchanan, on the advent of his election.

By the end of the 19th century, most of the world was connected by the telegraph.

What was happening in New Braunfels as far as communication? When the emigrants first came to the Republic of Texas, the fastest and slowest form of communication was by mail. It took about three months for letters to arrive from Germany on a ship and then had to be transported overland.

Letters and penny postcards were delivered to stations by stagecoach. The stagecoach stopped at the Schmitz Hotel located on Main Plaza. Throughout the Civil War (ending in 1865), news about the war reached New Braunfels by stagecoach. Then there was the Pony Express. In 1880 the International and Great Northern Railroad came to New Braunfels and mail was sent by rail.

At a special meeting of the NB City Council on May 12, 1865, the mayor gave permission to the Western Union to fix the places for posts with the agent in such a manner that the free passage and use of the streets of the city would not be obstructed. The operator that worked the telegraph had to learn Morse Code. When the message arrived over the wire, it was written down and then hand-delivered to the person it was meant for. In1871 the telegraph office moved from the Schmitz Hotel to August Schmitz’s home on 267 Mill St. It is confusing, but unknown, the relationship of August to Schmitz Hotel owner Jacob Schmitz. In 1876 Charles Schmitz took his father’s place as telegraph operator at the Mill St. home. In 1879 the telegraph office was moved back to the hotel and then moved to the train depot in 1887.

Eventually the telegraph and telephone offices merged. City Council passed an ordinance Dec. 10,1895, granting Southwestern Telephone and Telegraph permission to erect and maintain on the streets, alleys and public ways, poles, fixtures and wires necessary to supply NB citizens with communication by telephone.

The house at 267 E. Mill St. still stands today at the same address where August Schmitz once operated the early telegraph office. The land on which this house sits was originally conveyed to Francis Gilbeau by the German Emigration Company in 1847. The third owner was August Schmitz, the telegraph operator. Until recently the property belonged to the Fuhrmann-Ludwig family and last year the property was bought by Danny and Anna Lisa Tamez. The building actually has two complete rental units. The fachwerk walls are still standing, as are the original floors. The story is that the bricks that line the walls were put together with mud and water from the Comal River a block away. They also bought the Ludwig house directly behind the E. Mill St. property facing E. Bridge St. which they have also restored.

The early home housing the telegraph office and the Ludwig house on Bridge St. downtown have been restored for vacationers to be able to enjoy a little bit of the past in the present. Danny and Anna Lisa Tamez also own the Gruene Estate on Rock Street. This 15-acre B&B was built in 1857 and is the original homestead of Ernst and Antoinette Gruene.

Since change is inevitable, what changes will take place in communication in the future? Will we be communicating only mentally as science fiction suggests?

Restored house on E. Mill Street was the site of an early telegraph office.

Restored house on E. Mill Street was the site of an early telegraph office.