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Looking Back at Samuel Morse and the Telegraph in the Hudson Valley

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Photos courtesy of Locust Grove

We rewind to May 1844, the year in which former Poughkeepsie resident Samuel Morse first demonstrated his telegraph system.

Samuel F.B. Morse was already an internationally renowned painter when, in 1832, he met a man named Charles Thomas Jackson while sailing home to New York from Europe. Jackson was working on electromagnetism, and he invited Morse to observe his experiments.

Samuel Morse with his telegraph.

Seven years earlier, Morse’s wife had become ill and passed away while he was abroad, but he hadn’t received news of it until after the fact because the mail was too slow. He vowed to find a way to make long-distance communication faster, and after meeting Jackson he traded his canvases for magnets that, he believed, could instantly transmit electrical messages over a wire. He patented his telegraph system in 1840, and first demonstrated it on May 1, 1844, when he wired news to the Capitol that the Whig Party nominated Henry Clay for President. A few weeks later, Morse opened this first telegraph line with a message sent from the Supreme Court to the B&O Railroad’s Mount station in Baltimore. That first telegraph was his own famous query, “What hath God wrought?”

In 1845, Morse established his Magnetic Telegraph Company, laid telegraph lines from New York to the rest of the country, and became very wealthy.

Two years later the former starving artist used some of his earnings to buy a farmhouse in Poughkeepsie, which he transformed into an ornate, Italianate-style estate he named Locust Grove.

Today, Locust Grove is a popular tourist spot, even though Morse never spent much time there. He resided mostly in New York City, fighting legal battles to prove that he was the rightful inventor of the telegraph. He won his patent case in 1853.

The elegant exterior of Locust Grove Estate

When he was at Locust Grove, Morse enjoyed gardening. He was also quite involved in philanthropy. As a friend of his neighbor Matthew Vassar, he served on the founding Board of Trustees of Vassar College. He also donated to the Children’s Home in Poughkeepsie (and provided produce from his farm) as well as the First Presbyterian Church. And he campaigned unsuccessfully to represent Poughkeepsie in the House of Representatives in 1854, as an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, pro-slavery nativist. He lost. Morse passed away in 1872, in New York City.

Interior of Locust Grove Estate

Locust Grove Estate, at 2683 South Road in Poughkeepsie, is home to a permanent exhibit that showcases Morse’s careers as an artist and as the inventor of the telegraph and Morse Code. It is open for tours starting this month. There are also gardens and five miles of hiking trails on the property.

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