Volume IX, No. 1, Fall 1981



Several people sat in the waiting room of the railroad station. The heat of a summer afternoon could be felt everywhere. A couple of women fanned with cardboard fans which advertized the local funeral home. A small child sleeping on the slats of the wooden bench stirred slightly as a fly landed on his face. His mother waved it away and it flew through the open door to the brick platform outside. Two railroad employees went about their duties behind a long counter. The faint clicking of the telegraph could be heard in the background. Suddenly the telegrapher walked swiftly to the telegraph equipment. The faint clicking became a sharp clickety-click. The telegrapher swiftly copied the message on a piece of paper. When the message ended, he walked into the waiting room and went to a large board showing the train schedule. Several columns showed the expected and actual arrival times of the trains. In the column beside the 3:45 p.m. train, he chalked in 5:10. As several people grumbled, he turned and said, "Sorry, folks! There has been a delay on a section of the track about forty miles down the line."

A scene from an old movie? No, a scene from the Lebanon railroad station in the 1940s when Farron Atkins was a telegrapher for the railroad. Farron began when telegraphy was used extensively by the railroad, but during his career he saw the use of telegraphy decline to nothing as it was replaced by more advanced methods of communication.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s just as people used trains as their primary means of transportation, the railroad companies used the telegraph as their primary means of communication.


The telegraph was the first invention which greatly speeded up man's communication. Before the invention of the telegraph, messengers were the most reliable means by which men could communicate with each other from a distance.

Although several men in England developed types of telegraphs, Samuel F.B. Morse is credited with the invention of the telegraph used in America. His system was based on what is called the Morse Code, a system of dots and dashes, sent by electrical impulses over a wire to a receiving point where they were deciphered into a message. Morse secured his patent in 1840. However, it was 1844 before the first test line was constructed. On May 24, 1844, Morse sent his first message by telegraph--"What hath God wrought."

By the late 1800s telegraphs were in widespread use in the United States. Telegraphs were used by newspapers, private businesses, and especially by the railroads.

In the 1900s as technology improved other sources of communication such as the telephone and teletype, the telegraph's importance diminished. It remained in use, however, by the railroads for many years.

Farron Atkins was a telegrapher for the Frisco railroad for thirty-eight years. His first job was at a small station where the telegraph was the only method of communication. "Telegraphy was used for the movement of trains, copying train orders and sending messages,'' Farron explained. "The reason the telegraph was used was that it was the most reliable and safest communication we had. There are too many things that sound alike over the telephone.


When they started out, they didn't have telephones, they just had telegraphs. During my lifetime, they always had telephones. You could call your messages."


I grew up with the telegraph. My father was a telegrapher and my mother had two sisters and one of them married a telegrapher. My grandfather was a telegrapher and he was killed by a train. My grandmother then married another telegrapher. At one time they were all at the same station which had three different tricks. Each man worked a separate trick. That was one of the first places I can remember. My grandmother's brothers and sisters were either telegraphers or married to telegraphers--all but two. My father was the only telegrapher on that side of the family. It was kind of a family tradition.

I started to learn when I was about ten or eleven years of age. When I was learning how, I believe we had three houses that we had a telegraph line hooked to. It was very reliable and we didn't have much problem. All you had to have was a good metallic circuit or a good grounded circuit and a battery on it, and it worked.

I really didn't get serious about it till I was a little older. I was about twenty-one when I became a telegrapher--I didn't really intend to make it my profession but fate just turned out that way. I enjoyed it very much.

When I first started work as a telegrapher, I worked extra for the pipe line division of the Gulf Oil Company. I also worked for the railroad company as an extra telegrapher at the same time. Gulf Oil had a telegraph line that ran from Houston, Texas, to the East. I made the decision that I would stay with the one that gave me a regular job first, and the railroad was the one. I'm glad because the oil company did away with the telegraph several years before the railroad.

Before the railroad hired you they gave you an examination. They expected you to carry on your work with a reasonable speed. They were very strict. Most of the people, when they were first starting out, were very slow on the telegraph, didn't have anything to do with your ability. You could work for Western union or the oil company and still be color-blind.

For many years Farron Atkins was a telegrapher for the Frisco Railroad in Lebanon, Missouri. His family for three generations was associated with telegraphy. "When I was in high school we were studying this type of thing in physics class," he said. "One of the girls wanted to know where the receiver was. I got quite a kick out of that because the receiver is your ear. I told my daddy about it and he said, 'If she would take you down on her farm, you would be just as ignorant of farm life as she was about this telegraph.' I always remembered that." Photo by Carmen Broyles


The telegrapher's most important responsibility was the movement of trains. Most of the jobs that I worked were in stations that had a lot of other duties that we had to perform like selling tickets and handling various other duties that would normally be handled by the railroad.

My first regular job on the railroad was in a little town south of Kansas City by the name of East Lynne. On this line in East Lynne we didn't have telephones. The only thing we had was the telegraph. Any communications that we had with any other station was by telegraph.

I was there only a few months when I came to the station at Conway. I was there a short time and then I came to Lebanon.

You bid on the job according to your seniority. The day and hour you went to work determined your seniority. For example, someone might go to work at seven-thirty and the next man might go to work at eight on the same day but the man that went to work at seven-thirty had seniority over the man that went to work at eight. You were assigned by the chief dispatcher according to designation. He had control over the area. You bid on the job and asked for the position according to seniority, and if you were qualified for the job and had the most seniority, you were assigned the job. The rate of pay was already established at different stations, and the bid on the job had no effect on the job's rate of pay.

When I came to Lebanon, there was an agent and three telegraphers. The agent was also a telegrapher but he didn't do any telegraph work. I worked what they called the second trick. A trick is the tour of duty that you are on during one day. There were three eight hour tours of duty or tricks. I worked from three-thirty in the afternoon until eleven-thirty at night. I was relieved by the man that worked until seven-thirty in the morning. The other man worked from seven-thirty in the morning until three-thirty in the afternoon and then I relieved him. We worked seven days a week. We didn't have any days off. We didn't have paid vacations--year in and year out we worked seven days a week. You could have a leave if you wanted to, but you weren't compensated for time off. They had extra telegraphers that would relieve people that wanted off, but you lost that time. You didn't have any compensation for it. No holidays, no vacation. I worked awhile from seven-thirty to three forty-five in the morning when a cut was made to two tricks. The last twenty years I worked the day trick, six forty-five a.m. to two forty-five p.m.

Each station had a different call which was usually two letters. MS was the yard office in Springfield, and SP was the passenger depot and S office was the relay office. Lebanon was NA, Phillipsburg was RG, Conway was CO, Niangua was NG, Strafford was SF, North-view was NV and so on. When you were calling a station you'd repeat those two letters, or the station call, and then the station letters at the station that you were operating in. For instance, if you were going to call the passenger depot in Springfield (their station call was SP and Lebanon was NA), you would make SP three times and then NA and you repeated that until he answered.

If he didn't answer in a few minutes, you knew he was busy and you would call him again. Most of the time he would call you when he wasn't busy to see what you wanted. When he answered, you would tell him what message you had, how many copies you wanted and if he should give them to a trainman. A passenger train needed three copies and a freight train needed two. Or if the same message was going to two or three different people, you would tell him how many different copies you wanted him to make. He used a piece of carbon paper--you didn't rewrite. He would write the message down or use a typewriter. I usually used both. If it came in faster than you could write it down, you opened the lever switch on the key. As long as the switch was open, no one could use that line. When you were ready to receive the rest of the message, you would make GA--go ahead. We had a lot of abbreviations--GN, goodnight. TNKS, thanks. GM, good morning. ET for and--I think that is Latin. SX was dollar, DX was dash. I can't remember what all we did use for abbreviations but we had lots of them.


You would hear the message at every station. There wasn't any secrecy about it. Every station that had that line in it, the telegraph would operate.

Each person has a little different touch. You got to where you could tell who the operator was when you heard him calling--just a little different touch, just like when a person talks they have a different voice. You learn to recognize the voice and you learned to recognize the touch. When somebody would be sending on a line, you wouldn't really be paying any attention or concentrating at all until something would be said that would draw your attention to it. When somebody was calling you, it was almost like they were calling your name.

The telegrapher's major responsibility was the movement of trains. The regular trains were on schedule. The extra trains were not. That's the reason they called them extras. There were delays for various reasons and they weren't always on schedule. For instance, if they had a portion of track that they needed to reduce the speed, or if trains were going to meet other trains, train orders were used. The train dispatcher gave the telegrapher the order, and he, in turn, gave it to the train. You copied that on a train order form. Then you handed that up to the train or stopped the train depending on the type of order. When the order or message was handed up to the moving train you handed it to the trainmen on the engine and caboose. The trainman took the message from the hoop which the telegrapher held up to him.

The old time hoops were made of bamboo. There was a straight staff and then the bamboo made a loop. You held the end of the staff and the trainman jerked it out of your hand. There was a little metal wire clip that held the order, and he would take the order or message out and then drop the hoop on the ground. You would have to pick it up. The later ones, the kind they used when I retired, were shaped like a V with a staff on it. A metal clip at the point of the V held a string which was stretched across both ends of the V. The message was tied to the string between the two ends of the V. You held it up and the trainman would run his arm through the string loop, and that's how he got his orders. If the trainman failed to get the order he would stop. We had a semaphore order board that showed a red light. If he missed the order, he had to stop. He came back to the station, and he wouldn't leave until he got an order or a clearance.

Hoops like the two illustrated above were used to give messages to trainmen.

Most of the railroad stations handled Western Union in addition to the railroad business. At Lebanon there was a separate Western Union office, but when it was closed, the railroad handled the Western Union business. The railroad and Western union had an agreement.

Western union usually stayed open from around eight o'clock to around four-thirty. At one time they had two tricks--until about eleven at night and then they closed. But most of the time they worked about eight hours and we handled the business after they closed.

We accepted telegrams to be sent and also received them. Western union was for the public to use. It was a public utility, actually, like the telephone company, only they charged you so much for sending telegrams and delivering them. There was a published tariff just like the telephone rates. The messages varied and the tariff was set up for different types of messages. Straight messages would be first priority. There was a minimum charge for ten words. Anything over that cost so much a word extra. You would be surprised what you could say in ten words. Also you had night rates.


During the war, you could send a message about traveling, when you were leaving and when you would arrive. These were called tourist messages. When you would send one of those, it was thirty-five cents any place in the United States. A night rate telegram you wouldn't expect to be delivered until the next morning, but straight Western Union, you delivered as soon as possible.

After I got the message I would phone it depending on the type of message. They could instruct you as to how they wanted it delivered. The sender could authorize delivery in person and guarantee the delivery charges. We had several of those but we generally phoned them if we could. If we couldn't phone them we would mail it. We didn't deliver it in person, though there was an exception to that. During World War II, we were authorized to call a taxi to deliver a military message, for example, a soldier's family being informed that he had been killed or was missing in action. That had to be delivered personally during certain hours of the day. I don't remember exactly but like seven in the morning until eight in the evening.

There were a lot of things that determined how busy we were with Western Union--elections, the time of year. Much of the extra Western Union business had to do with Congress, elections and so forth. People would wire their congressman which was more impressive and quicker than letters. There were a lot of people wanting civil service appointments.

When I first started, some of the old timers tried to have a lot of fun which is embarrassing to you. For example, you would forget to tell them to make the number of copies you were supposed to. Then they would give you a hard time. Like any other communication as long as you are nice to people, people will be nice to you.

One experience that I remember was that a man who had been drinking came in one night to send a telegram. While he was writing the message, I was selling tickets. I heard somebody sending a message. I turned around and he had come in the office and was sitting at the telegraph desk and sending his own message. I had no idea how long it was going to be. I knew I would have to pay for it if he didn't. It turned out that he lived near here and had worked for the railroad. But that's the first time I had seen the man and it was a queer feeling to hear somebody sending a message when you were supposed to be doing it.

One time I had orders for the train and I turned my ankle just before I got on the platform between the two tracks and fell and rolled down next to the rail. I tried to get down as low to the ground as I could. The train stopped as quick as it could. I was really lucky.

Seeing the train hit people was a frightening experience. Sometimes it would be fatal but not always. One time I believe there were six people in the car, and it didn't kill one of them. One time, a man put his arm on the rail and as the train pulled out, it cut it off. I'm confident he did it to get out of the army. He ran to the Homer Thomas drug store. They wrapped something around his arm and took him to the hospital. They stopped the bleeding and sent him to Fort Wood Hospital. That was during World War II.

They were training a lot of troops at Fort Wood at that time. Occasionally troop trains would be loaded at Lebanon. They loaded their equipment on baggage cars, and then they got in formation on Madison Street and boarded the train. I saw them carry some of the men on who apparently didn't want to go.

In the later years when they put in teletype machines and took the telegraph out, all of our messages were handled by teletype and radio. They later cut the night telegraphers on account of modern technology. With centralized train control they didn't need as many telegraphers. When I came to Lebanon, there were fourteen employees at the depot but they weren't all telegraphers. When I retired, one other man and myself handled all the business between Springfield and Franks, which is just east of Dixon. So there was quite a lot of change in that time.

Also, they've done away with most of the train orders. The movement of trains is all handled from a central point by remote control.

A short time before I retired the use of telegraphy was discontinued. They don't have telegraphers now. On January 1, 1979, the clerks and telegraphers were consolidated as one craft.


Part of the equipment I have I purchased from a friend who was a former employee of the telephone company several years ago. I have been trying to find two more keys and sounders. I wanted :to give them to my sons as souvenirs because it's an art. As such, it will never be used again. It's a lost art.


The telegraph equipment used by the railroad fifty years ago was relatively simple. The equipment basically consisted of a source of electric current, a circuit for the current to travel, and apparatus for receiving and sending messages.

Relay stations contained electromagnetic generating equipment and provided the source of electric current. Lines strung from station to station formed the circuit through which the electric current passed. There were three basic pieces of equipment the telegrapher worked with, two for receiving messages and one for sending. The telegrapher received the messages aided by a relay and a sounder. The relay repeated the message for the local circuit (powered by two local batteries) which amplified the impulses of current for the sounder. The sounder then transformed the impulses of current into a sequence of clicks from which the telegrapher read the message. The sending key transmitted the messages by a system of dots and dashes known as the Morse Code.

Relay stations were set up at certain distances with equipment that boosted the current through the wire because in rainy or damp weather conditions, electrical leakage of the wire greatly decreased the distance a message could travel. In good weather a single telegraph line could carry a message about 400 miles. Messages were resent at the relay stations or rerouted on a different circuit. Lebanon was located on the line that had relay stations at Springfield and St. Louis.

Telegraph lines strung between relay stations operated all the telegraph equipment in the railroad stations between the two relay stations. These lines formed a circuit. The circuit was completed between relay stations as the current traveled through metal plates placed in the ground and returned through the earth to the relay station where the circuit originated.

An incoming message to the railroad station would pass through a local line relay in the station. This local line relay repeated the impulses received from the outside circuit through a local circuit to operate the sounder. The relay operated on the principle of the electromagnet. The current flowing through an electromagnet produced a magnetic field which attracted a metal bar or armature. As the circuit was opened and closed by sending dots and dashes, contact on the armature made and broke a local circuit so that a strong current, duplication the feeble impulses received, carried the message to the sounder. A local battery was used to make the local circuit.

"The relay could be adjusted to pick up impulses of weak current caused by adverse weather conditions," said Farron. "The magnets were moved closer to the armature to make a better contact."

From the relay, the electrical current traveled to the sounder. The sounder worked on the same principle as the relay. An electromagnet attracted the armature according to impulses of electric current. The armature was adjusted so it struck with a click. The telegrapher read the message from the sequence of clicks.

"If everything was quiet, you could listen to the relaY. It was audible enough to hear the message," said Farron. "Of course, the sounder made a louder sound.

"A resonator was usually used on the sounder to amplify the sounds. I used a tobacco can for the resonator. You can tell the difference in the sound. I started out with a tobacco can, and in every station each operator had his own arrangements. The sounder sat in a resonator box. It was a three sided affair on a stand."

The battery that provided the current for the local circuit was called a gravity cell. There were two batteries, each producing about 1.1 volts in series which doubled the voltage.

"The local circuit used a gravity cell because it has a longer life," Farron said. The gravity cell is a closed circuit battery. On the gravity cell you can leave the circuit closed all the time, and it doesn't have as great an effect as on the dry cell battery. This battery would last six months even with the circuit closed.


Farron used the sending key to send messages.

The relay relayed incoming messages to the sounder. (Photos by Chris Cotrel.)

The telegrapher received the messages from the sounder. (Photo by James Heck.)

"The gravity cell batteries were made with a stone or glass jar. In the bottom were three copper plates riveted together which formed one electrode. You filled the jar with copper sulfate, commonly called blue vitriol or blue stone, level with the top of the copper plates. That took a pound or so of copper sulfate. The other electrode of the battery was what we called a crow's foot. This was made of zinc. The crow's foot rested on the rim of the jar with the foot portion extending down on the inside of the jar. Then you filled the jar with about a gallon of water covering the foot pad of the crow's foot. You put oil on top of the water to inhibit evaporation and corrosion.

A wire ran from the zinc crow's foot, conducting the current from the battery to the relay and sounder and then back to the copper electrode in the bottom of the battery which completed the local circuit.

Messages were sent by the sending key which simply opened and closed the circuit. When the key was pressed down, the circuit was closed and when the key was released, the circuit was opened. As the circuit was closed and opened, the current flowed and terminated causing the magnets to attract the armature on the relay. The length of time the key was held down determined whether the character was a dot or a dash. The sequence of dots and dashes determined the letters, numbers, and characters.

In the railroad stations, the key was on the telegraph line. The circuit ran from the key through the relay to each station along the line. The key had a lever switch which opened and closed the circuit. The lever switch was kept closed so the current could flow through the circuit except when the telegrapher wished to send a message.

"In other words, as long as the lever switch was closed, the other stations could use the line," Farron continued. "When it was open, no one could use that line between St. Louis and springfield except the man who opened it.


The battery is a stone jar, copper electrode (1) , zinc electrode (r), and copper sulfate. Photo by Gina Jennings.

"We also had a semi-automatic key. You moved the key to the right and it made dots. When you moved the key in the opposite direction, it made dashes. These were personal. The railroad didn't furnish them like the other instruments. The trademark of the semi-automatic was BUG. They were a delicate piece of equipment and got out of adjustment fairly easy. I don't know when they first started using the semi-automatic keys. It w s before my time. They were in use when I went to work.

"When you did a lot of telegraph work, the semi-automatic key saved you from getting cramps in your arms. It was faster because, instead of making an up and down motion as on the regular key, you pushed it to one side and held it to make the number of dots you wanted and then you released it. You moved it in the opposite direction to make dashes.

"When you press a regular telegraph key down, the length of time you hold it down determines a dot or a dash. A dot would be real quick and then a dash would be longer. There's three different lengths of dashes in the regular Morse code. T is a short dash, L is a longer dash about the length of two Ts, and a

zero is about the length of three Ts. But they usually didn't use a zero--they would use an 0 which is a dot, space, dot for a zero and an O, too.

"You actually spelled the word out, a letter at a time. Each letter had its own nature of characters--impulses on the sounder. There was a space between the letters and there was slightly more of a space between the words. You finally got to where it's almost like carrying on an ordinary conversation. Of course, you don't think of it as being letters, you think of it as words.

"You memorized the code of the letters, the figures, the abbreviations, and so forth and then you just practiced. You don't ever forget. Your touch may get a little slow but you don't ever forget. Just practice over and over. It is just like learning a language.

"I didn't worry too much about speed. I concentrated on being very uniform and accurate in my trying to transmit. Of course, you can make mistakes but when you made a mistake, you just made a question mark and went back and repeated the last word."

At one time Lebanon had four telegraph lines coming into the railroad station. Each line was used for one message at a time. "For instance, I would be sending to Strafford on one," Farron explained. "Somebody from springfield might be sending to Rolla on another line. On the other line somebody in Springfield could be sending to St. Louis.

"You would hear a person calling you on the relay usually. There was only one sounder. There was several different lines with a relay on each one of those. But you had only one sounder and one battery, and you had a jack box that you could connect to your sounder on whichever line he was calling you. The jack box had a plug in it for each line that you worked with and whichever one it was, you could plug that in.

"Telegraph equipment on the whole was very reliable. In fact in some of the ice storms, they strung wires on fence posts, just tied the wires with a piece of insulated wire to a fence post and used them like that until they could get the line repaired. There were few mistakes made on them. Either you got the message or you didn't get it."


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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