Telegraph Arrangements

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Fri Jun 19 00:54:34 EDT 2009

Telegraph Arrangements
Thursday, June 18, 2009 9:03 PM

Here, following, are some rather universal arrangements, and I was told they were observed on the N&W, too.

1. The "bug" was patented in 1902. If an opr wanted one, he bought his own (it made his job easier, especially on heavy telegraph jobs,) and faster (where he may have been on a "bonus" method of payment for more-than-so-many msgs per shift.)

Some oprs also bought their own portable "mills" (typewriters.) It made copying heavy traffic (e.g. press wires) much faster and easier that taking it with a "stick" (pen or pencil.) In big relay offeces (where speed was of the essence, like GM at Roanoke,) the telegraph company provided the mills.

The telegraphers' union magazines were filled with ads trying to sell both bugs and portable typewriters to telegraphers. The old oprs told me that when they were travelling from assignment to assignment, the Conductors knew them by their typewriter cases and bug boxes, and never asked for a pass or a ticket. Harry Clark, my own telegraph teacher (a 1920 hire brass pounder,) told me this trick even worked for obtaining free transportation over foreign lines !

2. The arrangement of the telegraph companies placing their poles and lines on railroad R/W goes back to the days of Samuel Morse and the first telegraph companies. It was a good, symbiotic relationship. On the N&W, so I was told by the old timers, WU even provided the instruments in the stations and the linemen to maintain things. WU motor cars were used on the tracks, too, for maintenance (the railroad supplying pilots.)

3. Station agents on the N&W got commissions from both Railway Express and WU... a percentage of the revenues. Some of the old guys told me the express commissions were more the salaries paid by the railroads, at certain busy locations. Flip side of the coin was that unless the agent wanted to hustle all the express himself, he had to hire his own hand(s) to do the work. The only one of these hands I ever knew was Buster Parks, who was hired as the helper at Christiansburg by Agent Arnold (???) Overstreet. At Roanoke and other big stations, I think the railroad had regular employees for this job. (I seem to recall they were "Group III" freight handlers and also had seniority at the Freight Station.) As for the Western Union commissions, I specifically asked the old timers if the telegraph operators got a share of the Agent's commission on WU telegrams, and the answer was negative.

If I think of anything else that may be of interest, I'll send the thoughts along to you.

CC to Bill Dunbar, who was out there on the iron long before I !


June 19, 2009

Good morning, Abram:

Your point about express commissions is a basis for one of my speculations about why agent-operators stayed at Boyce station so long, or why someone as far south as Buchanan would want to bid on a vacancy. During the 45 years that the present station at Boyce was open, between 1913 and 1958, there were only four agents.

My thinking is that there were several desirable aspect about Boyce from the standpoint of bidding on that job. One was that it was a larger station with conveniences such as electric lighting, inside plumbing, and central heating. Second, traffic responsibilities were light; there was limited carload (mostly livestock), less-than-carload, or passenger handling. Third, express shipments seemed to dominate the local scene. Any accounts I've gleaned about using facilities at Boyce seem to be related to people sending or receiving Railway Express. Since there were a few active thoroughbred horse farms nearby, loading fancy stock into express cars was likely. I would imagine the rates --and therefore, the commission-- on handling horses was steep.

I've yet to learn anything about Western Union traffic volume at N&W stations. I'm assuming that at smaller stations there were few messages. Boyce had a telephone exchange before World War I and its subscribers were affluent enough to by-pass using telegrams very early on.

Good morning,

Frank Scheer
f_scheer at

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