Telegraphers celebrate Samuel Morse’s birthday

Hello, California: Greenfield resident Larry Card, secretary and treasurer of the Terre Haute Chapter of the Morse Telegraph Club, communicates with a person in Bishop, Calif., on Saturday at the Wabash Valley Railroad Museum.

Morse Code invented for telegraph in 1840s

By Brian M. Boyce
The Tribune-Star April 26, 2008

 TERRE HAUTE — A train rambled north on tracks beside the Clee J. Spague Memorial Platform as Bill Foster and Dave Mason tried to guess its length.

“A mile?” Mason guessed.

“Probably more,” Foster said.

Longer than they used to be, but not as long as the history of railroads and the telegraph, celebrated Saturday afternoon at one of Terre Haute’s well-hidden secrets behind 1316 Plum St.

“Most people don’t even know we’re here,” said Foster, president of the Haley Tower Historical and Technical Society as well as the ongoing project that is the Wabash Valley Railroaders Museum.

Today is Samuel Morse’s 217th birthday, and each year retired railroaders and Western Union Telegraphers across North America celebrate via the Morse Code Telegraph Club by setting up keys, sounders, relays and sending code the way many did for their 30- or 40-year careers.

“I used to run up these stairs,” one retiree shouted from the top of Haley Tower. “I don’t do that any more,” he laughed, going inside with several others to demonstrate the code which served as America’s communication network before email and cell phones had been invented.

Morse Code, invented for Samuel Morse’s electric telegraph in the 1840s, is a series of taps which can be felt as electronic pulses when sent along an electric line. The short and long taps stand for various letters and numbers, and organizations ranging from military to business used that code as a means of transmitting messages anywhere the lines could reach.

“Most of us, we’re getting to be an extinct breed anymore,” remarked Xon Hanna, president of the Morse Code Telegraph Club’s Terre Haute Chapter.

Hanna, a St. Elmo, Ill. resident, was hired on to the Illinois Central Railroad in 1951 before switching to the Gulf Mobile and Ohio, and then the Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad.

He had learned the art of telegraphy on the railroad, so in 1953 when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, he took what seemed to be an obvious job in radio communications aboard the U.S.S. Rochester.

Hanna spent 42 of 48 months on that ship before his discharge in 1957, when he went back to the railroads for a while.

But the jobs worked by men like Hanna simply don’t exist anymore, and the small group gathered for the annual event were almost exclusively retirees and Korean War-era veterans.

“They’re zilch,” Hanna said, comparing the railroad jobs of today with those of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

“They’ve really cut back on manpower,” he said, noting that dispatch is now done from locations such as Jacksonville, Fla. or Omaha, Neb., whereas stations such as Plum Street’s Haley Tower used to bustle with people.

Mason named off the different cars hauled by the northbound train; one was carrying automobiles, another coiled steel, another refrigerant gas.

“It was my job to see all those lines worked,” the Western Union Telegraph Company retiree said.

The Seelyville resident and 50-plus year club member said he never learned much Morse Code himself, but joked that without him the other guys would have been clicking into the wind.

“Back in my day, the lines were all open wires,” he said of the No. 9 copper Morse lines that ran across the country.

An “open wire,” he explained, means they were not insulated, so the bare copper wires strung through the outdoor leads and arms and into switchboards at every railroad station and in many area businesses.

In the winter, “cold weather breaks” would occur, where the wire would draw up due to dropping temperatures. The breaks would occur in weak spots, and Mason would have to figure out where they were in the distances between St. Louis, Chicago, Indianapolis and Evansville, and get linemen out to fix them.

Heavy winds could cause the wires to “cross” after smacking together, and un-insulated, they’d short out, he said.

But from the hot days of many summers, he still remembers the taste of copper in his mouth after crawling up in the air over dozens of lines in the crossarms, finding an occasional bee’s nest, to repair one break that was keeping the Morse code messages from transmitting station to station.

“That was no fun,” he chuckled.

Foster, who works at Pitney Bowes, finds satisfaction in restoring the past.

“I like fixing up the old stuff,” he said. “Working on the buildings, saving a piece of history.”

The Wabash Valley Railroaders Museum, has among other things, the remains of the Turner Depot from Clay County.

“They used to run lines through all of these small towns,” Hanna said, noting the number of people working in each, all connected by the series of taps issued in a code form made famous by Samuel Morse.

But as Mason remarked on the length of the trains today, “they’re getting longer and longer and longer all the time it seems,” pointing out that longer trains are more profitable to operate because they mean less employees.

Mason went to work for Western Union on July 17, 1947, just 15 days after he turned 18. He worked there 40 years before retiring in Terre Haute, where he’d spent the latter part of his career as an electronics technician.

“As the industry progressed, the knowledge was changing all the time,” he said, recalling two Western Union services he used to oversee in Terre Haute.

One was a “Time Service,” where about 300 local businesses had Western Union clocks set in their facilities, all set to a “master clock” back at his station, which was in turn set to national “master clocks” all tuned to “Naval Observatory time” which is set by the Time Service Department of the United States Naval Observatory’s Atomic Clock.

Another service was for messaging and provided a blue box with a turn-key which allowed workers in office to have a “message boy” run telegrams from office to office downtown, he said, adding that Western Union created one of the first versions of what is now known as voicemail.

Mason said the Morse Code Telegraph Club formed in 1957, at which point they asked him to set up a “round-robin hook-up” for their annual event. In doing so he became an honorary member and served as the group’s secretary and treasurer for more than 25 years.

“I did a lot of work here,” he said, standing on the Clee J. Spague Memorial Platform by Haley Tower.

Spague, according to the plaque located on the large wooden observation deck, was the Haley Operator between 1960 and 1989.

“Yeah, nobody’s learning telegraphy anymore,” Hanna, also an amateur radio operator, said.

But Saturday’s event had a family reunion atmosphere, and as participants began to leave around 4:30 p.m., many told each other they’d see them “next year.”

And the train which had traveled by at a fortuitous moment for photographers was long down the tracks toward Chicago by that point.

Mason asked again how long some thought it was, and at their guess said, “Oh, a lot longer than a mile.”

Brian Boyce can be reached at (812) 231-4253 or brian.boyce@tribstar.com.

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