Midnight & 60 Second From Becoming One squished Telegrapher.
The balance wheel of my telegraphers pocket  watch (formally my Grandfathers) was ticking off the last few seconds of my shift and  the start of  a race to my home and a warm bed, or being mangled under  a 50 car freight  train wreck.  Three million pounds of steel and wood  piled into a mess  only 8 cars long.                    Jim Morris K1ugm

Telegraph sounder and Pocket watch

My 50 Car Train Wreck


Here is aShort Summary:

The Grisly details  and time line follow  below with a view of the secret life of a telegrapher.

The picture below shows my tower and office which was the starting point of the race.   I had  started off walking down the track next to a 85 car freight train pouring along  at about 60 mph. It was a pitch black and foggy night.  I didn't have a  light.  It was  dark and noisy I didn't have a clue of what was happening around or ahead of me.  I just blindly kept walking the track towards home and  into  pile of freight cars crashing into each other just ahead of me. I had no idea this was going on  until I started  stumbled into wreckage and total havoc. The wreck had begun pilling cars up on each other starting on the left side of the picture just about the time.  I started walking from the tower toward and into the wreck from the right. When I and it stopped I was only about four cars from the center of the mess and what a mess it was. I didn't appreciated its magnitude  until the next morning when I returned with my camera and took the pictures above.

A more detailed time line as best I can remember a half a century later. I've also included some snippets of what Telegraphers did during the quite moments on the job.

A few minutes to midnight on a Tuesday summer moonless foggy  evening I was finishing the last trick of the week as 2nd shift telegrapher/tower man on the good ole EJ&E Rail Road. My relief had just arrived to take over the midnight shift. He was a very large unshaven mean looking fellow, who wore  bib overalls, wore no  shirt, had long fat hairy arms that almost touched the ground as he sauntered about the office. He smoked the biggest  vilest  cigars when he wasn't chewing tobacco and spitting at the coal bucket usually missing it and hitting the coal burring stove next to it filling the office air with the stench of  a dead skunk on  a hot summers day. Late at night he  lead a secret life.  In the tower isolated by height from the rest of the world, between the hours of midnight and sunrise he could be found, if you caught him at the right moment, hunching over a large brown paper bag crocheting  doilies. It was rumored that  he sold them at the local craft shop under the assumed name of Mother Goose's Goodies.

He had another interesting quality, He  was insanely strict about starting and quitting times, to the second that is. Telegraphers and trainmen were required to carry accurate pocket watches, accurate to few seconds a month  We  were required to compared them daily  to  the station clock which was reset remotely through the telegraph lines every day at noon by the master clock at headquarters.

So this night we happened to be  on the ground giving a visual check of an 85 car train  going by the tower.  Telegraphers  were required  to inspect  passing trains for hot boxes, and loose equipment hanging down from the  train. In this case  we each had our pocket watches out  comparing them for the trick change.  I was tired and wanted to get home to bed so when the second hand of my  watch hit the magic time 12 midnight  I started trudging  down the track next to the train on my way home and bed.

It was pitch black and  I had forgotten my lamp. I was cursing that and preoccupied with troubles going on with my girl friend of the week. Down the track few hundred feet from me  a  solution to all my problem especially future ones was beginning to form. 

A single loaded freight car close to the engine had just jump the track, swerved sideways, and started rolling down the track being pushed by  60  or more loaded freight cars going  50 plus mph.. The 60 or more cars began smashing their  way  into the mess, cars began tumbling  end over end, rolling,  twisting,  throwing  tons  of freight, dirt, railroad rails, ties, any thing in its path It just kept piling and stacking cars on top of each other.

This pile of cars was growing back toward me at an alarming rate. However all this  drama was  completely lost on me  I couldn't see a thing it was just too damn dark, I couldn't hear anything either surrounded by the racket of  the train going by me. I just kept blindly ambling along toward the chaos and the chaos was smashing its way back towards me. Them miraculously  the whole thing just stopped literally at my feet. 

My imagination probably wouldn't have  grasp the significations anyways. I hadn't even noticed that  train was slowing until I began  to hear the coupling between cars clicking taking up slack. The breaks began throw sparks along with a bit of  jerky motion going on  then everything just  came to a stop.

Suddenly it was dead quiet. The usual ringing and hissing of the ears from the loud  train noise was all that was left and some of that could be air still escaping from the break system. I kept walking on. like robot set on a simple mission home to bed.

There  seem to be a bit of light up ahead but I couldn't make out anything. Suddenly I tripped over something less than knee height falling on one shoulder and face. I thought when I get back to work let me get at the track crew for leaving stuff around the road bed . I got up started off again but more carefully. I stumbled over something else. It felt like chunks ice and or  like cold corpses. It scared the wit's right out of me.  I couldn't recognize a thing it was so dark.  I  stumble  even deeper into the wreck not knowing that it was a wreck. The further  I went the worse it got. I started to feel my way back  grouping, stumbling back and out of weird world I had found my self in trying  to figure what in hell was going on.

By this time The train's conductor was walking up from the caboose carrying his lantern. He presented a weird site  silhouetted against a red signal flare which had broken  out  at the rear of the train announcing its unscheduled stop. The conductor like myself  seemed confused about what all this mess was about. His unspoken attitude at first was that I must have been the cause of what ever had happened to his train or what ever these twisted structures surrounding us were. Certainly I must have fit the villains part, a wild eyed terrified villain with a bloody nose from the fall, lurking about in the shadows of all this destruction.

The conductor struck a red flare also and suddenly out of the darkness leaped the weirdest scene ever. It was like  a modernist  show  of Impressionistic Sculptures. There was all sorts of almost recognizable  things, everywhere we looked in this eerie red light  from the flare. The sharp red light  caused black sharp shadows to dance about from everything as the conductor moved his flare  about searching  through  this erie world for anyting that made sense. Their were  vertically oriented railroad cars acting like 40 foot high out houses, loose railroad wheels joined by their  axels, split timbers, air tanks  twisted  pipe lying around . Neither  conductor  nor I  still seem to really grasped what had happened. was there a head on collision, where were the fireman and engineer.  It must have taken almost an hour for all the train crew my self and a few on  looker to  sort out  a " real" picture of the magnitude of the disaster around us and what had happened.

The next day the picture was much clearer  in the bright sunlight
Looking at the scene before me I felt that there must have been a 100,000 missiles in flight with my name  on a modest share of them  yet some how they  had ultimately  missed me.

So if it hadn't been for my grandfathers trusty pocket watch and a grizzly mean ole  doily making bear of a  telegrapher who insisted that a I stay that extra few second I would have been right in the middle of the wreck instead of taking pictures of it.

The stench of rotten meat stayed with us for days after the clean up so I had a pretty good idea what  the pieces of me would have smelled like if I had left the tower a few second earlier or if the train had crashed  60 seconds sooner right at the tower I was leaving.

p.s. I later found out that the cold corpses were sides of beef from crashed freezer cars.

Background info & one of my union cards.

My  Tower office.

Note the several telegraph sounders on the small shelf just above the desk top and the one on a swinging  arm.

There were a total of 15 or more telegraph line into this office. I probably put  the typewriter under the desk. 

My midnight lunch and  thermos. When it wasn't busy I'd sleep on the desk top. Or study my physics etc.. When the kids were up with me they slept in back of the  switching levers.


Telegraphers & Their Job Responsibilities

A 19 year old Telegrapher/Tower-man, Jim Morris, on the day trick of a swing shift. This at the head of the stairway going up to the tower The office is behind me.

Railroad control towers were usually very busy with a variety of railroad business. This one was no exception  being at the junction  of two major railroads. We controlled the movement of the trains  passing through the station, and trains in and out of the connecting yards.  In the tower were a  dozen or so 5 foot steel levers  for controlling switches. We even handled some remote  switches a few miles away. In addition we handled all the communications via telegraphy, the inventory records, the  track workers,  car inspectors, work orders, and  western union messages.

The pay was good. I would be expected to be able to buy a modest home raise several children. Not a bad job for a kid just out of high school.

Instead of a house I bought a college education.

When I finally graduated after 5 years as a telegrapher I had 3 kids and no debts, but  took a 15% cut in salary to become an assistant physicist at The Illinois Institute of Technology.

A few years later when Kennedy decided to take us to the moon physicist salaries jump several times that of  telegraphers and telegraphy died. It died a quiet and to some of us a sad but natural death.

But in the background roar of the digital age if you  slow it way  down and put a speaker to  it you can---if you listen carefully--- still hear the dots and dashes ,the 1 an 0,  singing their songs that  in the past only a few of the elite( the telegraphers)  had the pleasure to listen to and make a comfortable living from.

Maybe  the best  way to look at it  is that today everyone using a computer or digital phone is a telegrapher. They just don't chew tobacco, wear green eye shades and  carry big fat pocket watches.


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