RECOLLECTIONS OF A NARROW GAUGE LIGHTNING SLINGER
by Gregory S. Raven
As a Narrow Gauge rail fan, I am fascinated by the sight, sounds, and smells of the engines that can still be seen on today's Cumbres and Toltec and Durango and Silverton railroads. Being an electrical engineer employed in the field of communications, I have wondered what equipment and methods were used to communicate on the D&RGW.
Writings on this subject seem to be scarce. Fortunately I was able to correspond with an expert who has extensive historical data and stories of how communicating was done on the Narrow Gauge. I have since learned that efficient communications was the key to making the railroad a safe and productive operation.
John B. Norwood is well known among aficionados of the Narrow Gauge. His 39 year career with the D&RGW spanned a time when the Narrow Gauge was still using steam engines from the 1880s, to the era of modern railroading with diesel engines, and centralized dispatching with computer control. He rose to the position of Assistant Vice President of Operations from the telegrapher ranks.
The following is the result of asking Mr. Norwood a few questions about how things worked on the railroad with regards to electrical communications, particularly on the Narrow Gauge. John's sharp memory was able to recall in great detail his experiences as a telegrapher and dispatcher. Here are his recollections.
Telegraphing on the DRGW Railroad
The ad for telegraphers was bona fide with some hidden bait in it. What made it necessary was results of the Big Depression lay-offs and the unanticipated length of it.
When I made my date at Romeo, I was only four places behind Dad on the telegrapher's list, Alamosa Division.
The Rio Grande did not hire any telegraphers between 1930 and mid-1937 except on the Narrow Gauge; three were hired in 1936. W.D. Baker: both Morse and International, about 1940 or so quit and returned to first love as purser/wireless operator on an excursion ship line operating between Alaska and California ports. W.B. Stackhouse - he stayed and was the only man left between me and my Dad's seniority date; W.C.Buckley, the crazy galoot who stuck his arm thru the glass and tore the door of the toilet off its hinges at Marshall Pass. He left the D&RGW and went to Southern Pacific in Arizona.
As a result of the no-hire policy (automatic if no need for telegraphers), by the time of the ad we were in dire straits. We especially needed good, fast clean sending operators for our Relay Offices who were also competent receivers of daily reporting information entered directly on often complicated forms and other reports - plus excellent teletypewriter operators. A few were hired able to copy Morse at 25 words per minute, but the real drive was for a few scarce experts. Only the elite of the elite, la creme de la creme of Morse telegraphers could handle report jobs where information sent was directly entered into blocks of sections designated by title. Some of the forms were as much as 3 feet by width of a table top.