Learning Telegraphy

Learning Telegraphy by Dr. James R. Brown

The Cincinnati Northern was a two hundred eight mile railroad running down the western side of Ohio from Jackson, Michigan, to Carlisle Junction where it joined the Big Four’s main line into Sharonville yards in Cincinnati. It was a single track, manual block road and had a division

point at Van Wert, Ohio. As a wet behind the ears, sixteen year old, it was exciting when I passed the tests and became an apprentice telegrapher in the summer of 1945. My being considered was in no small part due to the fact that my Dad was a car knocker at the Van Wert Yard. Railroading always was a family affair.

I was assigned to the first trick operator at the yard, and quickly began my learning experience. Sweeping the floor, emptying the trash baskets, washing the windows, sharpening pencils, arranging the forms and polishing the stove, all were a part of the training. It was some weeks later that I was allowed in the telegrapher’s cubicle, and then only to dust the desktop.

The yards were busy with two locals and two scheduled freights in each direction as well as numerous extras. I was allowed to act as yard clerk and break down the consists, and card the cars for switching. The two mile walks certainly kept me in fine shape. I began to figure it out. I was doing all the grunt work and running myself ragged, while the operator, as he was called, sat with his feet on the desk and directed my efforts. I finally confronted him and said that I was an expert in yard work, now when would I learn telegraphy? He consented to write down the code for me and told me to memorize it. Later, I found this was a big mistake, for I would listen to the sounder and try to equate the sound to the written dots, dashes and pauses, and then to the letters. The best way was sound directly to letters. The following half hour sessions were brutal. I felt like a dunce and I suppose I acted like one as well. There was a tobacco can placed in the sounder, and I was told that they used Union Leader cans only on first trick as they wouldn’t work on second, and that a Prince Albert can was used when you wanted to listen in German.

I did learn the code and was allowed to sit, on occasion, at the desk and handle train orders and OS trains. I even had my own signature. As the summer progressed, I would spend more time in the office handling trains, while the operator slept in the rear of his car. I knew about Rule “G”, but was smart enough not to mention it to my teacher. When summer drew to a close, and I was preparing to go off to college, someone had a talk with someone, and magically, I was promoted to telegrapher/operator and placed on the seniority list. At the bottom.

I was to find out this is life’s lesson. You start at the bottom and work your way to the top, only to find yourself at the bottom of another ladder and again, have to work your way to the top. In High school I was a big senior, and in college I was a lowly freshman again. Fortunately for me, I had a few friends. The Assistant Chief Dispatcher had been working as a dispatcher when I was apprenticing, and he knew I was going to college, so he set it up for me to work second or third shift as a boomer operator, while I was in college. My seniority carried over on the Big Four as well, so I was able to work the entire system, as long as I could get to the job and back in time for class.

Between what my folks could spare, and the help of a friendly, understanding Assistant Chief Dispatcher, I was able to complete college. As Wittenberg was in Springfield, I worked out of there for 4 years, more or less. Anywhere a motorcycle could take me unless it rained or snowed.

R&LHS Newsletter 20-3 Page 9

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