A Boomer KOB Set by Ed Trump

Engine 463 exits Rock Tunnel on the D&RGW Narrow Gauge Railroad
Photo by Greg Raven on C&TSRR Excursion July 1995

By L.E. "Ed" Trump, SX 2907 S. Kobuk Ave. Fairbanks, AK 99709

(First appeared in the Oct-Nov-Dec 1992 issue of DOTS & DASHES, publication of the Morse Telegraph Club, Inc.)

On my journeys I haul around a KOB set for use in Dial-Up telegraphing. Actually it isn't really a pocket set as such, but one built out of junk parts back when I was working a traveling telegraph engineer's job on the D&RGW. [Using this set, Ed has surprised Dial-Up operators with calls from NM Nome and JU Juneau, Alaska, as well as from points in the Lower 48]

In about 1966 or '67, I was given the task of traveling over the remaining portion of operating narrow gauge trackage between Alamosa, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico, for the purpose of evaluating the condition of the pole line and to recommend necessary repairs to keep it going until the railroad discontinued operation. This line was subsequently sold to the states of Colorado and New Mexico, who operate it now as a very successful tourist and historical attraction.

I was staying in a motel in Pueblo one afternoon, working on the finishing details of another job, when I got word on this forthcoming task. There were no roads in the territory where this line went (still aren't) and I would have to drive to Alamosa, at the beginning of narrow gauge track, and use a motor car to make the trip.

The tracks had a pole line paralleling it all the way, with a dispatcher's phone pair and two Morse wires on it. All the wires were No. 8 iron on one 6-or-8-pin crossarm. The DS phone terminated in a carrier channel from Denver, where the Dispatchers were located. The telegraph wires took main battery at Alamosa and at Chama - the line west of Chama to Durango had already been cut and abandoned. The distance is roughly 100 miles and the route goes over Cumbres Pass at an elevation of about 10,300 feet. There were open train order offices at AS Alamosa; JR La Jara, a small town about 20 miles south of Alamosa; NA Antonito and CH Chama. It is about 40 miles from Alamosa to Antonito, the end of dual-gauge trackage from Alamosa and "jumping off" point of the narrow gauge.

I knew I'd have to use the Morse wire to call in along the route, as the DS didn't want us yakking on his phone since it was bridged with the DS phone along the main line between Pueblo and Alamosa and was fairly busy. So, I'd use the Morse wire to work with Alamosa and relay via the operator to the head office in Denver. The op was a fat little Italian we all called by his last name, Ficci. He was a good-natured sort and I telegraphed with him often. I don't remember who the operators were at Antonito and Chama.

I needed a portable set to pack along and couldn't find anything around the Tel & Tel maintainer's shop in Pueblo, so I dug through the junk box and came up with an old 15B main line sounder and most of the parts of a pole-changer key. I also found a chunk of 3/4 inch bakelite paneling large enough to cut for a base. The sounder's wood base was all broken. It was in pretty terrible shape and missing some parts but these also turned up in the junk box. I had nothing to do that evening so set to work in the shop there using a drill press and other tools to build up a little portable set. I cut the bakelite about 5 by 8 inches and mounted the sounder on it. Luckily, the windings in the coils were O.K. I had to splice some wire on the pigtail leads but that was no problem.

The old pole-changer key yielded a trunnion and screws, plus the key lever and its screws. I mounted these on the base with the sounder and cobbled up a circuit closer for the key out of parts of the original pole changer switch. I found an old key knob that was broken off on one edge, leaving about half of it, and fitted it to the key lever with a special washer so that when it was turn down tight the broken edge was parallel to the edge of the base. It came out nice so I just left it that way.

With the addition of a couple of binding posts, I was in business. In a couple of hours I had a nice, compact portable set that would fit nicely into the top of my leather tool case. I fixed up some leads with alligator clips, the big square kind, and took the set to the switchboard and put it on a wire to check it. As it turned out, the sounder had a beautiful tone and was very pleasant to copy. The key was nice, too.

This assignment was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something like this and I fully intended to have a good time while at it. The section lineman had a huge territory, of which the narrow gauge was but a small, distant piece and he generally regarded going over there as a pain in the behind. He never went unless he absolutely had to. Being a young squirt and full of enthusiasm, I was rarin' to go. The lineman said he didn't care if I bent the union contract and did any necessary repair work I felt I could do while over there, either, so I had pretty much carte blanche for the trip. The boss was only interested in the results and it was left up to me how to get the job done.

Next day I set out. After about a three hour drive over to Alamosa, I got a room and then went down to the motor car shed to check out the narrow gauge putt-putt. It was a little Fairmont AA double-cylinder model that Western Union turned over to us there. It was in good shape and would go like hell. I spent the rest of the day lining up tools, wire, glass, splicing sleeves and all that sort of stuff.

Early next morning I got a line-up form from Ficci showing that the only thing on the road would be a work extra, working near Osier, about half way up the east side of the pass. I told Ficci to keep the wire on the "slim gauge" side plugged in and I would check in with them from time to time so they would know I hadn't killed myself or got lost. Ha! Fat chance - I knew the road well because I had fired engines all over it just a few years before [See Bad Day at Big Rock, D&D Oct-Nov-Dec 1991]. I also knew where all the break irons were cut into the line. We had these at fairly regular intervals, to facilitate troubleshooting wherever the line cut across country, away from the tracks. There were also closed telegraph offices at Sublette and Cumbres Pass, where I could cut in on the wire.

So, I was off. The little motor car ran well and I made good time as I was able to run quite a little faster than the freight trains. Had to watch the road crossings, though, not only for cars but for gravel in the flangeways, which would put me off the track and into the ditch very easily. I didn't write up much between Alamosa and Antonito as it was all easily accessible by road and the lineman didn't "have a problem" working on that stretch.

After lunch (dang...that chili was hot!) and a break at Antonito, I set out westbound toward the pass. The Morse wires hadn't been working well west of Antonito and I determined to find out why. There were two wires and I figured they were probably crossed, but without getting in there, there was no way to test and find the trouble.

Continuing along, I wrote up the leaning poles, broken glass, floaters and all the other things I was supposed to be doing. As I rode I enjoyed myself, as it was a nice day in the mountains. Nobody, but nobody was around, anywhere. Next water tank past Sublette is Osier and I encountered the work train in the clear there, eating lunch. I knew most of the crew and spent an hour or so shooting the bull with them before setting out again.

At Toltec I stopped to eat and make a test for the crossed wires, and to cut in the portable set and call in. Toltec was one of the break iron test points and I had to climb a pole to test. I got Ficci on the wire and had him open the other wire to see which way the cross was. My voltmeter swung to zero when Alamosa took battery off the other wire, so I knew I was still east of the cross. I checked the phone pair with the DS and told him where I was. He said the Denver office wanted to talk to me so I told him I'd check in with them. Ficci called the head office and got the chief engineer, who said to call him on the other phone so we could talk direct.

I don't believe he understood just where I was - there wasn't a message telephone within 100 miles of the place! We couldn't use the DS phone so we ended up relaying thru Ficci what he wanted; he needed to have some transpositions checked in a particular section, which I told them I would do.

Anyway, I put everything back together and headed on up the pass. An hour or so later I got to Cumbres Pass and went into the section house to check in and make another test. The section man's wife, a nice Mexican lady, was a little leery letting me in. Not used to visitors there, I guess, especially strangers. The telegraph table was still intact over in the corner of the room and the place had Fahnestock unit switchboards for each of the wires. The sounders were all there as was the master set, jack box, resonator, etc. The only thing missing was the Morse key, which someone had swiped. (To this day, I'm sure it was my boss who had swiped that key - he was known to do such deeds.)

So, I had to go outside and get my portable set in order to call in. Ficci told me it had been years since he had heard "CU," the call for Cumbres Pass, on the wire. It had been closed as a train order office long before my time. Another test showed me to be still east of the crossed Morse wires. The DS phone and local batteries were o.k. so I loaded up and set off downgrade toward Chama. Nothing was coming east so I had the railroad to myself. It was also getting late in the afternoon and I didn't relish the thought of banging along in the dark without lights on that motor car. I'd be sure to lose the battle in a collision with a stray heifer or deer.

Somewhere below Cresco tank I stopped and climbed another pole to make a test. I cut in my set and got the night man at Alamosa to open the other wire; I had it open where I was and had the voltmeter on it. With the wire we were using closed, I could see positive battery on the other wire, on the east side of my open. Aha! Now I knew I was west of the trouble.

If the wire had been clear to the east, I should have seen no battery when Alamosa took off his terminal battery. There was an obvious cross between the Morse wires, east of me, somewhere between Cresco tank and Cumbres Pass. I watched the voltage fluctuate on the opened No. 2 wire while I worked the key telling Alamosa to close up the wire. They used negative 160 volts and worked to positive 160 volts at Chama, so I knew pretty much what I had at that point. I closed up everything and ran in reverse a couple of miles back up the hill, taking a good close look at the wires. Sure enough, I soon saw a wrapped span down in a gully where I hadn't noticed it the first time by. A quick climb up the nearest pole and a good shake or two, and the wrap came free. I wrote up the spot as needing the slack pulled and was on my way.

Since I had to return the same way next day, I didn't stop any more on the way into Chama. The office was closed but I let myself in with my switch key. A quick test showed both wires to be clear, so I had fixed the problem. I put the motor car in the shed and headed up the hill to the local hotel and beanery to tie up for the night. (All the railroaders stayed at the Foster Hotel. It was quite a place, worth a story in itself.)

After a good night's rest, following supper and a few beers in the cantina, I headed east the following day, retracing my way back to Alamosa. I never got to make the trip again.

But that one time was sure fun. I'll never forget it.

L.E. Trump at telegraph office FB in Fairbanks Alaska in 1997

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