The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Thirty-Two

September 1-8, 1917

It was September 8, 1917 and Kate Roosevelt was enjoying the last gasps of summer on her farm called Merdlemouth in Hightstown, New Jersey and also time spent visiting her family home, the Anchorage on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Sea Bright, New Jersey.   During this first week of September, some of her travel plans were de-railed and she noted the inconvenience in her diary, “I found out that Olaf, my chauffeur/handyman had taken the Ford out the day I was in Sea Bright and had been neglecting all his work. Decided to dismiss him. He left this morning. Earle Matthews, his replacement, arrived in the afternoon. He was very late as there was a strike of telegraph men on the railroad and very few trains were moving.” In the early 1900s, telegraph workers performed the same job air controllers do at modern-day airports.

Telegraph Lines, Erie Rail Yard, 1869

In 1851, Charles Minot, Superintendent of the Erie Railroad saw the value of the telegraph, using Morse Code in the management of railroads. Before this revelation, early telegraph lines ran alongside railroad tracks inefficiently. Minot’s plan used telegraphers for train routing with operators stationed in individual depots along rail lines to receive train orders from a centrally-located dispatcher and report back on train movements. Telegraphed train orders would be translated from Morse Code, written out on paper and handed up to the crew of the passing train. This method streamlined the running of single track railroads and enabled trains to run safely and on time. The Organization of Railroad Telegraphers was a union established to make sure working conditions and wages were fair.  When workers felt they were being treating poorly, they often went out on strike as they did in September, 1917.

Ola Delight Smith Railroad Telegraph Operator

The union encouraged women to apply for jobs as telegraphers along the rail lines. Ola Delight Smith taught herself Morse Code and was hired as a railroad telegrapher. In 1907, while working at Atlanta, Georgia, she sided with telegraph strikers and was black-listed by Western Union.

Morse Code

Someone who probably should have met the same fate was Thomas Edison. The great inventor’s first job was as a telegrapher operator.  He was only fifteen years-old when he was put in charge of the night shift at a telegraph depot in Canada. He used the quiet time to read and dream-up experiments and in no time had the telegraph machine rigged to do part of his job. He got a little ahead of himself and received a message that should instead have been sent nearly causing two large locomotives to nearly collide. Luckily the experienced engineers outsmarted the over-confident Edison and avoided a disaster.

Thomas Edison as Young Boy

Edison lost his first job but continued perfected ways of transmitting the Morse Code and quickly found employment in another telegraph office which he parlayed into achieving his calling as one of the greatest inventors in history. He and Kate Roosevelt’s late-husband, Hilborne Roosevelt, had collaborated on inventions and when Edison opened his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, Roosevelt presented him with a house-warming gift. It was an original Hilborne Roosevelt Organ, one of the first musical instruments to be recorded. Edison also used it to keep his employees entertained. He often had them working around the clock when a new invention was simmering in the laboratory.  Overworked but most likely not under-paid, Thomas Edison treated his employees with respect and gratitude, unlike his late-friend, Hilborne Rooosevelt’s widow Kate Roosevelt who seemed to think of her employees simply as disposable drudges.

Hightstown, New Jersey Train Station

With her track record for treating servants harshly, I was wondering why they never staged a strike of their own on the demanding dowager, Kate Roosevelt who it seemed had a revolving door policy of hiring and firing.

Poor Olaf had only been working at Merdlemouth since July when he replaced Elmer McCue, who Kate said was “very disagreeable.”  Elmer’s side of the story was that Kate “worked him too hard.” Now I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would take for the latest employee, Earle Matthews, to be shown the door.

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday. 

Photo One:
Charles Minot and staff of Erie Railroad
The story of Erie, 1899
public domain

Photo Two:
Telegraph Lines, Erie Rail Yard, 1869
Public Domain

Photo Three:
Ola Delight Smith Railroad Telegraph Operator
Railroad Telegrapher, 1911

Photo Four:
Morse Code
Library of Congress

Photo Five:
Thomas Edison as Young Boy

Photo Six:
Hightstown, New Jersey Train Station
East Windsor Historical Society