Telegraph Arrangements

NW Mailing List nw-mailing-list at
Fri Jun 19 16:03:48 EDT 2009


These messages about the telegraph and N&W stations, particularly Shenandoah
Div. stations reminds me of a tale that I heard from some fellow N&W
railroaders that involved R. H. Smith when he was coming up through the
ranks and had just been appointed Shenandoah Division superintendent.

His first day there was in the wintertime and he walked into a small station
(obviously not Boyce) only to find the people waiting for a train shivering
because there was no fire in the stove. Smith walked up to the
operator/agent's office window and asked him why he had not built a fire in
the stove. The agent glanced at this stranger and said, "I haven't had time
to build a fire. I have to send this damn stack of telegrams."

Smith jotted down some words on a pad and handed it to the agent saying, "As
long as you are sending telegrams, send this one." The agent glanced at and
noticed that it read something like this:

"To Supt. Agencies. Relieve the agent at ????? station account dereliction
of duties. Failure to build fire in station stove. Signed: R. H Smith,
Supt. Shenandoah Div."

The agent responded, "I can't send this telegram." Smith asked why not, and
the agent replied because I have to build a fire in that damn stove."

Apocryphal or not? Makes a good tale, however.

Gordon Hamilton

----- Original Message -----
From: "NW Mailing List" <nw-mailing-list at>
To: "Nathan Simmons" <ns9521 at>
Sent: Friday, June 19, 2009 12:54 AM
Subject: Telegraph Arrangements


> 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 !


> --adb




> 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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