Keith Meacham

(This was in the Hub City Model Railroaders’ monthly newsletter “The Flimsey”, of October 1996. Keith was the President and editor of this noble tome.)

It will be just about a year ago I lost my late father, Neil. His death was a great shock, although, with reflection, yes, there were signs Dad wasn't himself, but that's water over the dam. I miss him, as do many here in the Hub City Central. Thus, a little about Dad's favorite aspect of his job, and a little about the job.

Dad loved Telegraphy, period. He kept an electronic practice set right up to the time he died, sending pointed messages at Mom or myself when he wasn't happy. His two brothers, Keith and Dean, did the same, puttering with these practice sets in times of wistfulness for the old ways or just to fill up a couple of spare minutes. Although I was around Railroads all my life, Telegraph was a thing of the past on the Chicago & North Western by the middle 1960's, and I had just begun as a small boy to recognize Marshfield's call letters of "SF" when the Soo Line pulled out all the Telegraphs in the early 1970's. I have had a passing interest in telegraphy since, learning a minimal amount of characters over a period of several years, "SF" being part of that study.

I'm quite sure you have heard the story of the development of Railroad Morse Code. (There is an International Morse Code also, one is called Morse Code to differentiate the two) Morse Code came into being in the early stages of the last century and was named af-ter it's developer, Samuel F.B. Morse. It was on the Erie Railroad in the days before the Civil War that the first Train Order was sent and copied miles away by Telegraph. The rest, they say, is history.

Morse code uses a series of dots and dashes for the letters of the English alphabet. The character 'A', for example, looks like thus: .- Morse isn't read like a book, rather, it is heard, listened to like, as Dad put it, good music. There is a rhythm to each and every let-ter, much like a drum beat. Marshfield's call letters "SF" look like this on paper: . . . .-. but sound like this off the telegraph: DITDITDIT DIT DAH DIT. Junction City for exam-ple, had call letters of "JO"(and Junction City is STILL referred to by Railroad men as J-O, or "Jay oh") and the letters on paper look like this: -.-. . . and sounds thusly: DAH DIT DAH DIT DIT DIT. To hear these coming off the sounder in the Depot had an entirely different effect, letters became quite recognizable, again, much like "good music".

Dad hired out as a Telegrapher one week to the day after he turned 16. He origi-nally had wanted to "go firing" as a Fireman on the Soo, but the Roundhouse Foreman at Stevens Point took one look at Dad, laughed and told Dad, "Come back when you're a Man!" Stung, Dad became a Telegrapher, with the intent to hire on as a Fireman as soon as he turned 21. Of course, W.W.II and Korea changed that, and Dad stayed as a Telegrapher until he became Traveling Agent No. 10 in the early '70's. Dad, of course, worked just about everywhere on the Eastern Division of the Soo Line as a Telegrapher, and came to appreciate jobs that were, to quote Dad, "All wire work", a term applied to a job where you spent two-thirds of  your time working with, and off of, the telegraph.

Dad like working at CF Yard in Chippewa Falls, as this was a "Wire Job', and the pace there wasn't the same as, say, Neenah, where the Telegrapher had several City phones ringing almost constantly, and where the "Op" dealt with THREE Dispatchers almost at the same time. Every station job had it's "quirks", which is to say they were all dif-ferent, although the sign hung on the outside proudly proclaimed "SOO LINE". Each Station took on the personality of the agent - and every one had his own way of doing things. Hence, the reason Dad liked a Station with lots of Telegraph work. The Telegraph, in it's own way, was somewhat above all the foolishness both necessary and otherwise. Telegraph was no-nonsense, it made sense.

There were some stations where most of the Telegrapher's work was on the General Message wire---the wire used for work other than Railroad related or Western Union work. One such Station was Plainfield, on the long since abandoned line to Portage, WI. The telegrapher spent a large share of his day copying Commodities quotes for the Co-Operatives in the Plainfield area. Although this is true in many Soo stations, Plainfield had a large share of interested parties that came in all through the open hours of the office to collect the most current copies of prices from the Chicago Board of Trade. Again, Dad liked working at Plainfield, due to the amount of wire work performed there.

Working on the Telegraph was unlike using the Dispatcher's phone; people left you alone to complete your work, whereas with the phone, you were more apt to be disturbed because people could hear the conversation.

As I mentioned previously, that although every station proudly proclaimed "SOO LINE" on the end, each station had it's own "quirks", that made each unique, although for different reasons. Junction City, for example, was considered to be a "Meat Grinder", as the load on the Telegrapher was quite heavy. You dealt with two dispatchers there; one Soo and one Milwaukee Road. Each road's Dispatcher had his own ideas as to who had su-periority on the crossing there, and the woeful Telegrapher was caught in between. Junc-tion city sold an abnormal amount of Passenger train tickets, due chiefly to the unadvertised connection of Soo trains with the Hiawatha-Northwoods service. The Telegrapher was responsible for selling these tickets, as they were at most all Soo stations, and that added a great deal to the work load there. In addition, the Telegrapher at Junction City was required to do all the Express and parcel transfer between the Soo and Milwaukee; this constituted much moving of overloaded baggage wagons

Again, every station had it's quirks. They had followed the Soo west. West of Chippewa Falls, many Soo depots still used kerosene lamps--both inside and outside--for lighting. One such station was the lonely outpost of Glenwood-Downing. The lamp at the top of the Train-Order signal was still kerosene--and the duty of filling it back up with fuel and keeping it lit fell to Dad, who forever hated heights. That was another duty deftly slung onto the Telegrapher, maintenance of the Train Order signal.

Glenwood-Downing is a laughable example of the quirks of each station. The Agent and regular Telegrapher at this station mistrusted each other to the point of hating the sight of one another. Such was what Dad walked into on a Friday evening. Both men had left, the depot was dark and locked up tight. Dad, like all Soo employees, had a brass Ad-lake switch key to allow access to any switch stand or depot. When inside, Dad found EVERYTHING locked in the company safe---including pencils! Knowing the no-nonsense nature of Soo Line Train Dispatchers, I can well imagine the reply if Dad had had to copy a Train Order - “Sorry, can't copy. No pencils!"

Dad always said that he hired out on the Soo to watch trains--and found cut quickly that there was little time to do that. At Marshfield, the pace was such that the Telegrapher sold tickets right through arrival and departure of the passenger trains. Of course, it was the Telegrapher here at Marshfield that also had to receive the car reports from off of the Nekoosa Line and from on the Greenwood Line. Marshfield had baggage handlers here to handle the transfer of goods, but it fell to the Telegrapher to record and separate express and less-than-carload traffic for transfer into either the freight room or the warm room. Dad's account of the kinds of Commodities dropped off and picked up at depots reads like a novel devoted to farming: Baby chicks, baby ducks, etc. Here at Marshfield, Dad remembered a crate of Honey Bees, but for an alarming reason; while awaiting pick-up in the Warm Room, the Bees, which were shipped in a state of suspended animation, (Not dead, not alive but not really sleeping either) came to life! He had heard an awful racket coming from the Warm Room, and when he opened the door, he quickly shut it again! No, the Bees hadn't gotten loose, but the noise created by a mad swarm of crated up Bees was enough for Dad, who hated Bees from the first time he had been stung.

Dad pulled the relief job at Exeland, Wisconsin shortly after being discharged from the Navy. Exeland was a crew change point in the days of steam on the Superior Line. Dad recalled he was the most popular gentleman in town for the few days he was there. The lo-cal female populace had found out that there was a young man from out of the area working there! The veritable parade of love sick females past the Depot was a source of both amusement and embarrassment for the young Telegrapher from Dale, Wis., who had never experienced such attention.

In addition to sundry duties of book work and yard checks, the most exciting part of being a Telegrapher was copying train orders. Most Soo Line Dispatchers had their pre-planned meets between trains go sour long before a meet took place, and the Dispatcher had to change the meets quickly--and that meant via the Telegraph. Soo Dispatchers had a predilection of ringing up a depot at the last possible minute to dictate train orders. In the days before most people started to battle stress, it must have been horrid to see a headlight bearing down on you at 65 per and trying to pound out a train order and get it into the "Hoop", outside and to the Train Crew--just as the engine thundered by the Depot! Dad never missed a train in this manner, but I'm sure it led to tattered nerves trying to spell everything right on the order, and still have enough presence to run outside and get the order handed up to the train. One such station that had more than it's share of last minute orders was South Oshkosh, Wis. Dad hated that frantic pace.

Some Soo Line Telegraph jobs compensated the employee for room and board where none was available. Such was not the case at Trevor, Wis., the very first telegraph job Dad held after high school as relief help. Trevor is the last Soo station in Wisconsin--or the first out of Illinois. Dad slept in the Trevor Depot, as Trevor was a station open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Dad climbed up on the Telegraph desk to sleep. About 3 a.m., a Thunderstorm thick with lightening charged through the area, and hit the Trevor Depot with a lightening bolt! The effect was thus: the lightening followed its way into the Depot via the telegraph wires, whence it hit the grounding board, blowing out all the telegraph wires - and blowing Dad off the desk!  Dad came to on the floor - in a cloud of blue smoke! It was two days before Soo line crews worked their way into Trevor to repair the storm damage. Trevor wasn't the only station hit, but, without instruments, Dad had no way of knowing this.

When the Soo Line resorted to Dispatchers phones in the 1940’s, most telegraphers and older Train Dispatchers still preferred to use the telegraph. It was fast, no-nonsense, not cluttered with unnecessary talk. Soo disposed of the Telegraph about 1972, and, Dad would say, it was a good thing they did. Many of the newest Telegraphers were slow and "Ham fisted" that is, sloppy in their sending of the code. By the time Dad took over Traveling Agency No. 10, he himself had done little Telegraph work for a while. Most Soo Telegraphers had been turned into Computer Clerks in the 1950's.

The Soo Line wasn't quite so ignorant about what combinations of station call letters could spell out funny or derogate four letter phrases. Such was the case with Ladysmith, Wis., whose call letters were “FA” and Rugby Junction, where the call letters were "RT". Rugby never had to communicate  with Ladysmith, and for a good reason. However, it is interesting to ponder the predictable results if the Telegrapher had had to call Ladysmith: “FA FA FA ............."...............and you can guess what happens! As Dad said, the wire would “Come Alive" with both bemused employees and those not so amused.

Another such combination was Owen "OW" and Manitowoc “WO” never needed to talk to Owen, but you get an odd combination that could have made the wire "Come Alive". Dad learned Telegraph from my Grandfather, Archie Meacham. Dad never attended the Gale Institute like many other Telegraphers. He and his two brothers were around Soo Line as much as I was a child, and picking up code came naturally to all three boys. Consequently, long before any of the three went to work for the Railroad, they were sending Morse messages to one another across the house, which could be in a Depot, depending where Grandpa was stationed at the time. Grandma once told me that it could sound almost as bad as the interior of a busy station when all three boys were sending to one another! She was hardly amused by the fact that most of her clean silverware was requisitioned as telegraph keys in the process!

Whenever Dad and his brothers got together, invariably one would bring up the loss of the Telegraph as the beginning of the end of the romance of Railroading. All three would agree to this. I, too, have to agree. I can recall walking into the Operator's Bay in the Marshfield Depot and hearing the relay sounders clicking away with messages not concerned with Marshfield. Something WAS lost when it all came out in the early '70's. With relay sounders clicking away, there was always a sense that the railroad was alive. It made the office sound important. Marshfield had 8 relays here, and about half would be clicking away with some traffic of  import. There were 12 wires strung into the Depot at Marshfield; one for the Greenwood Line, one for the Nekoosa line, one General Message Wire, the Superior Line, the Ashland Line, the wire to the C&NW in Marshfield, the Dispatcher's circuit, which the Depot was always plugged into, and the remaining wires called by Soo men by their numbers “34”. Dad told me what the remaining wires were for at one time, but I’ve forgotten. All were connected to and wired into the resonator box with a selector jack box where the wire could be isolated from the others by moving the plug to the corresponding hole.

Perhaps the romance of railroading was lost with the loss of the Telegraph. I can attest, that the offices got much quieter, and it seemed something was missing, something the radio chatter between crews and the constant chatter of the Dispatcher to other offices couldn't quite replace.

'Till Next Time


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