Review - "The Brasspounder"

by Jim Haynes

"The Brasspounder" by D. G. Sanders
Copyright 1978, ISBN 0-8015-0881-9
Hawthorn Books, Inc., New York

D. G. Sanders grew up in the little coal mining town of Hemlock, Ohio. At the age of thirteen he got interested in telegraphy by hanging around the railroad depot. "Now be it noted that in that day [1912] telegraphers were a special kind of people. They were thought to be especially talented and their advice was sought. They got notices in the paper now and then, and fables were attached to some. There was one fabulous fellow, never named, who could send a message with one hand while taking down another message with the other hand..." The station agent helped him to learn Morse code. By taking care of horses, and by trapping muskrats, he earned enough money to order a Morse practice set from Sears, Roebuck. A four mile walk took him to a town where the telephone company would sell a used but still serviceable battery for a nickel.

When he was sixteen his family moved to Coshocton, a city large enough to have a bustling Western Union office. Within a few days he had acquired his first pair of long pants and a job as a Western Union bicycle messenger. A fringe benefit of that job was an opportunity to learn telegraphy. After a few months he realized that a career with Western Union would entail working in an office in a city, and that the rural life was more to his liking. A railroad worker friend suggested that he use the railroad telegraph to introduce himself to a supervisor and ask for a job. He was hired by Pennsylvania Railroad and sent to a station to work and be trained on the job. After five months he was assigned to a signal cabin where he would work alone. He was a few months short of seventeen years old - he had told the railroad he was 17 already.

The rest of the book is more about railroading than about telegraphy. There was a close relationship between Western Union and the railroads. He mentions that in small towns the railroad station might also be the Western Union office, and that in larger towns the railroad office might be used for telegraph business outside the hours when the W.U. office was open. On one occasion Sanders' boss from his Western Union days telegraphed him at at his railroad office, offering him a one-night moonlighting job receiving returns from the 1916 Presidential election. He typed these on transparent paper, which was then used with a magic lantern to project onto a sheet attached to a building across the street, where the public was gathered.

He mentions the distinctive style, or "fist", of each telegrapher, whereby he could identify who was sending. The possibilities for ambiguity in American Morse code led to some confusing and amusing messages, as when a bridge inspector's report was copied as "Found a lion under bridge 16..." (the intended message was "Foundation under bridge 16...").

In 1922 he was furloughed because a coal strike left his branch of the railroad without any traffic. He quickly found work as a farm hand, but after a month was called to Akron where the railroad was swamped with telegraph work. He could have remained there after the strike was over, but preferred to return to his former station. In 1937 he was offered the opportunity to become a train dispatcher, but turned it down so that he could remain in the country. In 1938 he got the second-shift operator's spot at Orrville and remained there until retirement in 1965, with 50 years service. He notes that by the end of World War II there were many railroad signal operators who did not telegraph.

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