History: City pioneer claimed communications invention

History: City pioneer claimed communications invention

Editor’s Note: Russell County has a long history that is important to the State of Alabama and its evolvement from an area described in the book “Russell County in Retrospect” by Anne Kendrick Walker as a “barbaric land” to what it is today. Many of the people who set their roots in the county in its early days including the state’s first Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, important Native Americans who paid with their lives to cede land that created the county, a family that started a place of higher learning in south Russell County that later led to the establishment of one of the state’s most known institutions of education today and a former slave who placed a monument to honor his former owner, are very much important to the formation of Alabama. The story that follows is another of a series to inform you – our readers – about the history of Russell County. 

A history of the dams along the Chattahoochee River near Columbus, Ga., tells much of the story of Dr. Stephen Miles Ingersoll – an early pioneer of what would become Phenix City. Dr. Ingersoll was born in Duchess County, New York, on March 15, 1792 to Stephen and Sara Ingersoll. Dr. Ingersoll would become an influential businessman in the Columbus and Phenix City area. After studying to become a physician, Dr. Ingersoll served in the War of 1812 before moving south in the 1820s. He spent some time prospecting for gold in North Georgia, then moved to Bibb County and served in the Georgia legislature. He moved his family to the Columbus area as the city was first being settled, set up a trading post and quickly made friends with the Indians in the vicinity. Dr. Ingersoll was involved with helping to lay out the town of Columbus and partnered with Seaborn Jones to establish a ferry at the southern portion of the town. 

By 1832, Dr. Ingersoll had settled across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus in Girard – later became Phenix City. He built a home for his family on a hill overlooking the river that later became known as Ingersoll Hill and continued his trading post operations. As early as 1839, Ingersoll began operating a saw mill on the river. He situated the mill so close to the water’s edge that one of the mill’s support posts rested in the riverbed. He reportedly had to blast rock in the river bed to make room for the mill’s water wheel. Upstream from the mill, he constructed a wing dam in the river running in a north-east direction to direct water toward the mill. 

Legend has it that Dr. Ingersoll was the true creator of the “Morse Code,” a communication system he used on his plantation. The man credited for inventing the Morse Code, Samuel F. B. Morse, allegedly accompanied a friend to Dr. Ingersoll’s plantation and observed the communication system in place.

In a history of Columbus, the tale of Dr. Ingersoll’s meeting with Morse says the two men met on a stagecoach trip to Montgomery. Dr. Ingersoll told Morse of how he used the system on his plantation. He said he gave Morse the idea that resulted in telegraph and the Morse Code – though obviously it was not called the Morse Code at the time. Morse had been working on a similar device before meeting Dr. Ingersoll and said improvements had been suggested to him during the trip to Montgomery.

A local newspaper gave the following report concerning Dr. Ingersoll’s claim:

“The person who claimed to be the inventor of the electric telegraph was a Columbus man, Dr. Stephen Miles Ingersoll. Dr. Ingersoll was a pioneer citizen of Columbus coming here just as the town was laid out. He bought thousands of acres on the Alabama side and built a magnificent home on the crest of one of the noble Alabama hills. His grist mill on the Chattahoochee river at this point was the first manufacturing industry in what is now justly called the ‘Lowell of the South.’ While history gives Professor Morse the credit of the invention of the electric telegraph, local tradition has given it to Ingersoll. It is said that Dr. Ingersoll gave the idea to Professor Morse while traveling in a stagecoach from here to Montgomery.”

A newspaper quoted Morse years later as acknowledging the idea for the telegraph communication system came to him after visiting a southern doctor, but he did not identify Dr. Ingersoll by name. 

When John H. Howard and Josephus Echols built a dam downstream in the river in 1845, as requested by the city of Columbus, it forced water to back up causing Ingersoll’s mill equipment to become inoperable. Ingersoll’s mill was built between the high and low water levels of the river. In 1848, Dr. Ingersoll sued Howard and Echols in the Alabama Circuit Court and was awarded $4,000 in damages. However, Howard and Echols quickly countersued and eventually the case went to the United States Supreme Court, leading to a landmark decision in 1852 establishing riparian water rights. The Supreme Court ruled against Dr. Ingersoll, deciding that Georgia owned the Chattahoochee River up to the high water mark on the Alabama side. This case effectively prevented water power industry from developing on the Alabama side of the river.

Dr. Ingersoll would later become a director of the Girard Railroad and he also donated land for the construction of an Academy near his family home.

William H. Young purchased Alabama land from Dr. Ingersoll during the Civil War to establish housing for his Eagle and Phenix mill workers. During the Civil War, the mill town of Brownville, which was previously a field belonging to Dr. Ingersoll, was built for Eagle and Phenix workers. It included schools, churches, lodges, and stores. 

Dr. Ingersoll was a pioneer settler in the Columbus area, quickly establishing positive ties to the Native American Indians there. Due to his friendship with the Indians, he was one of the first white settlers in the current day Phenix City area. He served as a physician to his community, provided a place for education, and challenged the powerful businessmen in Columbus over rights to the power the river offered. He died June 5, 1872 in Brownville and is buried beside his son, Dr. William Jackson Ingersoll, in the historic Linwood Cemetery in Columbus.