Friday, March 15, 2013

Telegraph Hill

"View of Boston from Telegraph Hill, South Boston" by Bernard Spindler, 1854.

George Washington famously brought cannon to bear on occupied Boston from Dorchester Heights, and forced the British to evacuate the town.  In the early years of the 19th century, what had been Dorchester land was annexe to Boston, and the district of South Boston came into being. Dorchester Heights, so called, was a pair of adjacent hills,

Dorchester Heights, 1806. The left of the two adjacent hills became Telegraph hill.

This 1839 map (turned 90 degrees from normal orientation) shows Telegraph street, showing the earliest example of the name I can find.

When I decided to write a post about Telegraph hill, I assumed there would be a source giving the origin of the name.  In fact, there is no source I can find that gives the history of the name. Rather, the story comes roundabout from multiple sources. And like all such inventions, many people in many places contributed to what is now called a the telegraph. For our story, we can begin in France, where Claude Chappe developed a semaphore system in 1792 that eventually spread from city to city across the nation. Signals were sent by manipulating two flexing arms that could represent 196 characters. The arms were placed on towers in sight of each other, and could relay messages much faster than a man could travel.

Claude Chappe's telegraphe. Jonathan Grout's mechanism would have looked similar.

In 1801, Jonathan Grout, a Massachusetts, built the first such optical telegraph system in the United States, spanning 70 miles between Boston and Martha's Vineyard, to serve the commercial shipping business. Mechanisms similar to that used in France were built on hills running down the South Shore of Massachusetts and across Cape Cod to Woods Hole. Little is available on the actual system used, but apparently it differed somewhat from Claude Chappe's original design. Grout used the name telegraphe, so he must have known of the Frenchman's work.

Grout's system was not a money-maker, and went out of business by 1807. In 1822, John Rowe set up a similar system in Boston harbor, which remained in operation until the 1850s. The problem is that there is no reference I can find to the use of Dorchester heights in either Grout's or Rowe's system, although it certainly must have been so. There is a reference to Rowe's signals being transmitted from Boston to a harbor island, and from there to Hull, but I cannot find South Boston's Telegraph hill in any of the sources that are online. And unfortunately, the older books that may contain such citations are hidden away in libraries.

Of course, Boston has a place in the history of the electric telegraph as well, but that is a story for another blog post.


  1. I grew up (and still live) on Telegraph Street. I've got the deed to my house, which my parents moved into in 1952, that says it was built in 1846!

  2. Hi Mark, can I ask if you could point me to the original image (uncropped) of the 1839 map of Telegraph St ? Thank you -- not sure how to message you here except to comment