Telegraph Enables More Flexible Train Order Operation

Increasing traffic on single track railroad lines required more efficient operation and flexibility. Use of the telegraph provided the railroad dispatcher with the time each train arrived and departed from a station, allowing him to make and communicate changes to the scheduled meeting places when one train was running late. This also allowed the railroads to safely schedule more trains and to move people and goods more quickly.

Development of the Telegraph

CPRR Telegraph Key, circa 1870, Smithsonian.Samuel Morse, a professor of arts and design at New York University, proved that signals could be transmitted by wire by using pulses of electrical current to deflect an electromagnet, which moved a marker to produce written codes on a strip of paper in 1835. His telegraph was patented in 1837. Morse and his assistant, Alfred Vail, developed the Morse code signaling alphabet which became known as American Morse Code. He gave a public demonstration across two miles of wire in New Jersey in January 1838.

It was not until 1843 that Congress funded $30,000 to construct an experimental telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore, a distance of 40 miles. The message, "What hath God wrought?" sent by "Morse Code" from the old Supreme Court chamber in the United States Capitol to his partner at the old Mt. Clare Depot in Baltimore, officially opened the completed line on May 24, 1844. Morse's early system produced a paper tape copy with raised dots and dashes, which were translated later by an operator.

Samuel Morse and his associates obtained private funds to extend their line to Philadelphia and New York. Small telegraph companies, meanwhile began functioning in the East, South, and Midwest. The device soon changed how distant news was communicated. In 1848, news of the Mexican War was received by anxious North Americans within mere hours of the battles, not weeks later as in the past. By 1850, the telegraph expanded from Boston to New Orleans and as far west as Chicago.

Western Union Telegraph Company was founded in Rochester, New York, in 1851 as The New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company. After a series of acquisitions of competing companies by Hiram Sibley & Don Alonzo Watson the company changed its name to Western Union Telegraph Company in 1856. By forming cooperative contracts with the railroads during the 1850's an 1860's, the Western Union Telegraph Company developed a dominate network of telegraph lines running alongside railroad tracks.

The Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 awarded a contract for $40,000 to build and operate the first transcontinental telegraph link to Hiram Sibley, the president of the Western Union Company. Hiram Sibley contracted with the Overland Telegraph Company to build the line from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. The Pacific Telegraph Company was formed to construct the line westward from Omaha to Salt Lake City, essentially using the eastern portion of the Oregon Trail. The line was completed on October 24th, 1861. Stephen J. Field, Chief Justice of California and brother of Atlantic cable promoter Cyrus Field, sent a cable to Abraham Lincoln stating that this line "will be the means of strengthening the attachment which binds both the East and the West to the Union." The Pacific Telegraph Company and Overland Telegraph Company of California were eventually absorbed into the Western Union Telegraph Company. The original line was operated until May 1869 when the transcontinental railroad was completed and the telegraph lines were then moved to follow its route.

First use of a telegraph to direct train operation

In 1851 Charles Minot, Superintendent of the Erie Railroad, used a recently installed telegraph line to issue the first train order, a message changing the meeting point between two trains. To make this work safely, Minot needed a confirmation that the train being held at the new meeting point had "gotten the word." This alteration to the timetable allowed more efficient movement.

The record of the very first train order sent in the U.S. was documented by Edward H. Mott in his book on the history of the Erie Railroad, Between the Ocean and the Lakes. According to William H. Stewart, a retired Erie Railroad conductor, in the "fall of 1851," Charles Minot was on a west bound train stopped at Turner, N. Y. waiting for an east bound train coming from Goshen, N. Y., fourteen miles to the west. The impatient Minot telegraphed Goshen to see if the train had left yet. Upon receiving a reply of "no," Minot wrote out the order: "To Agent and Operator at Goshen: Hold the train for further orders, signed, Charles Minot, Superintendent." Minot then gave Stewart, who was the conductor of Minot's train, a written order to be handed to the engineer: "Run to Goshen regardless of opposing train." The engineer, Isaac Lewis, refused Minot's order because it violated the time interval system. Minot proceeded to verbally direct Lewis to move the train but he again refused. Lewis then became a passenger on the rear seat of the rear car and Minot, who had experience as an engineer, took control of the train and proceeded safely to Goshen. Shortly thereafter, the Erie adopted the train order for the movement of its trains and within a few years the telegraph was adopted by railroads throughout the U.S.

Timetable and Train Order operation

With the introduction of the telegraph, a more sophisticated system became possible because the telegraph provided a means to transmit messages faster than the trains moved. The telegraph could be used to communicate the arrival and departure of trains at stations along railroad lines. If a train was running behind schedule, the points where it would meet other trains could be safely moved to other sidings, allowing the other trains to continue and avoid long delays, providing more efficient operation along the railroad line. The railroad telegrapher was the eyes and ears of the train dispatcher, who was usually many miles away, enabling him to know the location of trains directly manage train movement. The telegrapher maintained communication between the train dispatcher and trains operating on the rail system. He copied train orders and messages for the train crews, and reported the passing of trains to the dispatcher.

A train order would be issued by the railroad dispatcher giving the train crew instructions and permission to occupy a block or section track. These would typically be telegraphed to the station on the approach to the block where they would be handed to the train crews. Train orders allowed train dispatchers to set up meets at sidings, force a train to wait at a siding for a priority train to pass from behind, and to keep at least one block spacing between trains going the same direction.

Railroad telegraph operator A.L. Krenke at work in the Santa Fe Depot (San Diego Union-Tribune)Train Orders override the timetable, allowing the cancellation, rescheduling and addition of trains, and almost anything else. Sufficient time must be given, however, so that all train crews can receive the changed orders at the next station they arrived at. Sometimes orders are handed up to a locomotive 'on the run' via a train order hoop, a long staff with a loop at one end, or later a the "Y" shaped train order stick with the order in a string threaded around the stick.

Train orders follow a specific format to eliminate any uncertainty as to their meaning and to insure accurate transmission, delivery and observance.

A typical train order might read "NO 1 ENG 10 MEET NO 2 ENG 11 AT PERRIS " or "NO 3 ENG 30 MEET SECOND 4 ENG 40 AT HIGHGROVE."

Telegraphers at most small stations, in addition to their railroad duties, worked for Western Union and at many small stations were also agents for the Railway Express Company. Commissions from Western Union and Railway Express supplemented wages from the railroad.

Today timetable and train order operation has been replaced by radio dispatching on many light-traffic lines and electronic signals on higher-traffic lines. Train movements are still authorized in the name of the superintendent of each railroad division, by the current employee timetable, and by orders issued by the train dispatcher. Rules governing timetable and train order operation include superiority of trains or which train will take the siding at a meeting point, time spacing or the time a train following another must wait before leaving a meeting point, and methods of signaling.


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Pacific Time Photos courtesy (top) Smithsonian Institution, (bottom) San Diego Union-Tribune.
Text by Richard Boehle Entire web site copyright 2002-2015,, Burbank, California.