wild women of the west

Twenty-eight-year-old Elizabeth Cogley sat at a small desk in the Pennsylvania Railroad ticket office in Lewiston Junction, Pennsylvania, on April 16, 1861, frantically writing down the message coming through the telegraph.  The neatly dressed woman wore a serious expression; the message she was transcribing was vital and history making.  The day before, a similar wire had reached Elizabeth.  She carefully noted its contents and passed it along to the ranking military official in the area.  It was from President Abraham Lincoln, and it read, “I appeal to all loyal citizens to favor, facilitate, and aid this effort to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union, and the perpetuity of popular government; and to redress the wrongs already long enough endured.”  This was Lincoln’s first call for troops.  He asked for 75,000 volunteers.  

The following day, Pennsylvania’s first war governor, Andrew G. Curtin, sent a telegram to Captain Selheimer, commander of the First Defenders Association in Lewiston, to rally his men together to report to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as soon as possible.  After delivering the message to the captain, Elizabeth was instructed to respond to Governor Curtin with news that he and his troops would “move at once.”  The railroad telegrapher dispatched the important information quickly and accurately.  Little did Elizabeth know the event would be remembered as the first telegraph exchange of the Civil War.

Born on November 24, 1833, Elizabeth learned telegraphy in the office of the National Telegraph Company.  She entered the service of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company on April 13, 1856.  She was stationed in the Lewiston office until the beginning of the Civil War.  She remained with the railroad company for more than forty years.  

Some of the earliest women in railroading can be found in telegraph stations.  The job of the telegrapher was to transfer information between the train dispatcher and the train operator.  A telegrapher copied train orders and messages from the train crew and reported the passing trains to the dispatcher.  They also received and sent Western Union telegrams.  Most learned the trade from another operator.  Some attended schools such as the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York and the Pittsburgh Female College in Pittsburgh.  

The qualifications needed to be a telegrapher were to be well read, to know how to spell, and to be able to learn Morse code.  According to author Virginia Penney’s book written in 1870 entitled How Women Can Make Money, a good lady telegraphist could make between $300 and $500 a year.  With that in mind, many women with some knowledge of electricity and good penmanship decided to pursue a career in the field.  

In the beginning, a woman’s presence in the railroad telegraph office was not readily accepted by the public at large.  The common perception was that the job was too difficult for women to handle.  Rail lines were persuaded to challenge the notion as rail stations increased across the country and more telegraphers were needed.  Not only were there women willing to fill the open positions, but also railroad executives found they could get away with paying women less to do the job than men.

The average work day for a lady telegrapher was more than ten hours long.  The location of the telegraph offices could be difficult to handle as well.  A number of the train stations where the telegraph offices were located were in desolate spots along the line.  Alone for days with just the electromagnetic telegraph apparatus, operators struggled with the isolation.  The job could be dangerous, too.  If the equipment was not properly grounded an operator ran the risk of being electrocuted.  Such was the case with Lizzie Clapp on July 11, 1876.  The eighteen-year-old woman was the operator for the Boston and Providence Railroad at Readville, Massachusetts.  She was sitting at her desk, staring at a storm rolling through when a bolt of lightning struck the telegraph wire leading to the station.  The strong current traveled through the open wires to the gold necklace Lizzie was wearing.  She fell to the floor dead.  

Shortly after Lizzie’s passing, steps were taken to address safety issues in telegraph offices across the country.

Among the other occupational hazards associated with being a telegraph operator in the late nineteenth century was the possibility of contracting tuberculosis.  The long hours on the job were oftentimes spent in offices that were poorly ventilated.  Coming in contact with someone in the office who had tuberculosis was problematic because poorly ventilated buildings allowed the disease to incubate.  The water supply in rural areas where stations were located was the source of sickness as well.  Some operators contracted typhoid fever after drinking contaminated water.  

For many women, the advantages of being a telegraph operator far outweighed the drawbacks associated with the position.  Catherine “Cassie” Tomar-Hill, telegraph operator for the Southern Pacific Railroad in Placer County, California, considered the job a blessing.  Cassie came west from Iowa in 1859 in a covered wagon with her family.  The Tomars eventually settled in northern California where Cassie’s father worked as a miner.  In 1876, Cassie married George Washington Hill.  George, a native of New York, had come west with his family when he was a young boy.  The Hills ran a grocery store in Auburn, California.

According to the April 30, 1999, edition of The Press Tribune, Cassie and George moved to Vina, California, where George had been hired as a railroad agent and telegraph operator for the Southern Pacific.  Cassie learned the job of telegrapher while maintaining their modest home.  

Within the first five years of their marriage, the couple returned to Placer County, California, and George took over the Roseville depot and became the station’s telegraph operator.  In addition to his duties as telegraph operator and railroad agent, George became the Wells Fargo and Company’s representative in Roseville.  

The family lived at the railroad depot with their five children.  Cassie would assist George in sending and receiving messages over the telegraph.  When George died unexpectedly in 1883, Cassie was appointed the Wells Fargo agent.  At the time of her appointment, Roseville was a small agriculture town with about four hundred people.  It sat at the junction of the Central Pacific and California Central Railroads, which ran from Folsom to Lincoln.  

While serving as the Wells Fargo agent, Cassie faced the challenges of holding down her job while raising her children alone.  She remained at her post as a railroad telegrapher and Wells Fargo agent for twenty-three years until her retirement on March 1, 1907.  

Women proved to not only be able to adequately handle the job of telegraph operator, but, in the case of Abbie Gail Struble, to be more than capable of tackling the dangers that occasionally arose with the position.  Abbie and her sister Madge were employed as operators by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1862 and worked at a station in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, called Port Penny.   

One bitter cold winter’s evening, Abbie received a message that a locomotive pulling a single car had thundered out of Pittsburgh carrying a load of Union Army officers bound for Washington, D. C., and an emergency conference called by President Lincoln.  At the same time, a west bound freight train pulled into a depot fifteen miles east of Port Perry.  The conductor of the west bound train entered the telegraph office and asked for track clearance to Pittsburgh.  The message was relayed to the train dispatcher, and the “all clear” reply came back.  

All was as it should be until the freight train left the depot heading toward Port Perry.  As it continued along its way, it picked up steam.  A frantic message came through the telegraph from the train dispatcher who had issued the “all clear”.  

“Stop that freight!” the dispatcher’s message read.  “There’s a special train bound for Washington heading into it.”  Abbie was the telegraph operator on duty who translated the dispatcher’s plea.  She immediately leapt into action.  

Abbie peered out the station window and saw she had only seconds to act.  There were no signals at that time to flash a warning.  She raced into the freezing night just as the oncoming freight was passing and lurched toward the grab iron (or hand hold) of a boxcar.  She hung on, kicking frantically as she jerked about.  The frosted rungs and frozen iron running bars along the top of the cars stripped the wool from her mitten as she stumbled and crawled toward the locomotive and an unsuspecting crew.  

Reaching the coal car, she was knocked back by a blow to the leg by the knotted end of a rope swing from a tunnel entrance.  She managed to get to her feet again and attract the attention of the train’s crewman shoveling coal into the furnace.  Once she let the crewman know the problem, he brought the train to a stop and quickly threw the train into reverse.  The crisis was averted, and the freight crew was eternally grateful to Abbie for her heroic actions.

Abbie Struble was born in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, on April 22, 1845.  She and her sister, Madge, were two of the first women telegraphers to learn to receive messages by sound rather than by sight.  The early telegraphers deciphered the dots and dashes of Morse code stamped onto paper strips.  The ability to translate the sound of the Morse code being tapped out was crucial for routing trains quickly.  It took time to convert the code stamped onto paper strips to the actual words.  Being able to hear the code as it was transmitted and promptly relay the message was much more efficient.  

On May 24, 1866, Abbie married John Vaughan.  John was a telegraph lineman who learned from his wife how to operate a telegraph by sound.  The couple moved a lot during their marriage, working for rail lines from the Texas and Pacific to the Mexican National Railroad.  The Vaughans had five children, all of which worked as telegraph operators at one time or another.  The family eventually settled in Long Beach, California, where Abbie taught telegraphy at a local school.  She retired in 1913 but was persuaded to go back to work in 1917 when the United States entered World War I.  There was a shortage of trained telegraphers, and Abbie was called upon to teach the profession to recruits.

Recognized all over the country as “Mother Vaughan,” Abbie passed away in the summer of 1924 at the age of seventy-nine.

Jane Denny McDowell was a skilled telegraph operator with famous ties.  She was married to composer Stephen Foster and was the subject of the song “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.”  Jane was born in Pittsburgh in 1829.  Her father, Dr. Andrew McDowell, was one of the city’s leading physicians.  She was the second in a family of six daughters.  In her girlhood she was a renowned beauty, having a rare shade of hair with eyes almost matching that attracted attention everywhere.  

Jane was nineteen when she married the promising songwriter who was working as an accountant in the summer of 1850.  Foster abandoned the accounting business shortly after the pair wed and moved to New York.  His ambition was to support himself and his bride with his music.  His gift for harmony and poetry led to the creation of such well-known tunes as “Camptown Races” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”  Although his songs were produced and well received, the couple realized very little financially for his music because Stephen did not demand proper compensation from the music publishers.  Multiple publishers often printed their own competing editions of his songs, paying him nothing and eroding any long-term monetary benefits.

Stephen and Jane’s relationship suffered because of the financial issues.  It did not improve with the birth of their daughter.  The couple separated often, and Stephen began drinking.  Jane left for good with the child when Stephen refused to give up alcohol.  Jane and their daughter moved back to Pennsylvania where Jane studied telegraphy at the Pittsburgh Female College.  Shortly after graduating she took a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad as a telegraph operator.  

Stephen sank into a deep depression and continued drinking.  He spent all his income on alcohol, and, when he ran out of money, he sold his clothes to buy more to drink.  He wore rags and went days without eating.  On Saturday evening, January 9, 1864, the thirty-seven-year-old man passed out in a drunken stupor in his hotel room.  When he awoke, he was violently ill from liver failure, and in his weakened condition he fell and hit his head.  He died shortly thereafter.  Jane returned to New York to claim her husband’s body from the hospital.  Nurses gave his clothes to her along with thirty-eight cents that was found in his pocket and a scrap of paper upon which he had written the words, “Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts.”  

Jane continued to work as a telegraph operator at the railroad depot in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.  She eventually remarried in 1869.  Jane died a tragic death in her home in January 1903.  While reclining in a chair in front of an open grate, her dress caught fire.  Screaming, she threw herself on her bed.  The entire bed then caught on fire.  Jane was seventy-four when she passed away.

Mattie Kuhn rose through the telegraphy ranks to become one of the most well-known telegraph operators in the railroad’s early history.  She performed a number of heroic acts working for the railroad, and her escapades on the job in the early 1900s reflect the difficulties women experienced in assuming such an important position.

Mattie Collins Brite was born in Atascosa County, Texas, on March 1, 1880.  Her parents divorced when she was seven, and she and her sister were bounced back and forth between her father and mother’s homes until 1891 when her mother remarried.  Mattie’s stepfather, Daniel G. Franks, ran the Pecos Land and Cattle Company near Meyers Spring, seven miles east of the railroad station at Dryden in south central Terrell County.  Mattie’s mother, Alva, managed a boarding house.  As the house was located close to the railroad station, many of the boarders were employees of the railroad.  Some were responsible for pumping water into the boilers of steam locomotives; some were station, ticket, or freight agents; and some were telegraph operators.  Mattie’s contact with telegraph operators was what left a lasting impression and inspired her to pursue the career.  

A governess provided Mattie and her sibling with their primary education.  By the time she was sixteen, she had completed what little schooling had been offered and was residing in Eagle Pass helping her mother and stepfather run the Dolch Hotel.  It was there she met her first husband, a thirty-six-year-old executive with the Mexican International Railroad named Paul Frieson.  The two were married on December 23, 1896.  By their second anniversary the couple had a son.  Before their third anniversary the pair had divorced.  Alone with a baby, Mattie returned to her parents’ home in Eagle Pass and began the process of finding work. An acquaintance suggested she consider learning telegraphy.  Mattie remembered the telegraph operators she met at her mother’s boarding house but wasn’t certain what the job entailed.  She learned a telegrapher sent and received messages using Morse Code.  Telegraph operators were in high demand and had the opportunity to move from place to place and job to job to achieve a higher salary.

Mattie was a quick study and in a short time had mastered Morse Code and practiced sending messages with a homemade machine.  One day while she was practicing, a guest at the Dolch Hotel overheard the tapping and questioned Mattie’s stepfather about it.  The guest turned out to be the superintendent of telegraphers at a railroad station in New Orleans.  The superintendent was informed that Mattie was learning the profession on her own.  The man was impressed with her ability to grasp the code and offered to help.  He made arrangements for Mattie to sit in the train master’s office at the local railroad depot and listen to the messages handled in the telegraph office.  Mattie admitted in her memoir that learning to concentrate on one wire while several others were going was difficult, but she finally managed to focus and practiced sending messages on her makeshift device.  “I learned to copy figures from hearing the lottery lists being wired from New Orleans to San Francisco and the railroad work and Western Union right there in the room,” Mattie noted in her biography.  

Mattie’s first telegraphy job was in Sabinas, Mexico.  The first train order she received and copied read: “August 22, 1902.  No. 2 run ten minutes late Diaz to Sabinas.  Signed J. F. Dickey, Supt.”  Mattie’s average shift was twelve hours long.  When she wasn’t working, she was caring for her son in the modest hotel where they lived.  Although she had trained and worked hard to acquire her first job, Mattie was fearful of losing the position and wouldn’t even take off when she was sick.  During the first month she was at Sabinas, she contracted typhoid pneumonia.  She remained on the job until she collapsed.  A train crew found her unconscious in her office and helped her to her bedroom.

From the station in Sabinas, Mexico, she was sent to a depot in Durango, Mexico. Mattie and her son lived in a back room where she worked.  It wasn’t ideal, but they were together.  In March 1903, Mattie joined the union ORT or the Order of Railroad Telegraphers.  The union promoted professionalism, negotiated for higher wages, and demanded better working conditions.  The chairman of the Durango ORT informed Mattie he didn’t want any women in his local union, but she couldn’t be intimidated.  Being a member of the ORT was a source of great pride for Mattie throughout her career.

Mattie married a second time in late 1903, but the marriage was short lived.  She was pregnant with another son when she filed for divorce.  She returned to her parents’ home in Del Rio and stayed until her baby was born.  Shortly after her son’s birth, she went to work at the Western Union office, not far from the hotel her parents operated.  She learned quickly the difference between a commercial telegram and a railroad telegram.  According to Mattie’s autobiography, “The commercial message shows the number of words in the body of the message, in what we call the ‘check’.  After calling your relay office, or direct office, you give the receiver the number, each message is numbered, then the number of words in the body, meaning the message without the address, addressee, and signature.”  At various times in her career, Mattie would work for Western Union.  She preferred working as a telegraph operator for the railroad.  It was much more exciting to her.

By 1907, Mattie was living in Austin, Texas, still working for Western Union.  The superintendent at the location offered her a salary of $40 a month.  Men doing the same job were earning $65 a month, and Mattie knew that.  When she questioned the executive on the matter, he informed her that he believed women couldn’t do the job as well as men.  Attempting to prove his point, he sat Mattie in front of the telegraph and challenged her to quickly copy multiple incoming messages.  Mattie’s abilities were recognized both by the superintendent and by the other telegraph operators working at the office.  After the demonstration, Mattie’s pay was set at $65 a month.

Mattie was exceptional at her job; so much so, she was sent to work in other offices around Texas.  It was a difficult venture each time because she had two children to care for and get settled.  Prior to traveling to Amarillo on a ten-day assignment, a woman operator suggested she leave her boys at the Episcopal Home for Children.  Mattie had misgivings but agreed to place the children in the home’s care for the ten-day period.  During her absence her three-year-old son became sick with a fever.  Mattie returned to find the boy’s health failing rapidly.  He died from an unknown illness and was buried in Oaklawn Cemetery in Dallas, Texas.

Mattie’s next job was at the railroad depot in Waurika, Oklahoma.  She had been hired via the telegraph.  She sent a message about her background to the depot agent, and he messaged her that he desperately needed an operator.  He hired Mattie sight unseen.  When she arrived to begin work, the agent was shocked to see his new hire was a woman.  Mattie assured him she could do the job and that her gender shouldn’t matter.  The agent was in no position to argue the point and put her to work.  

A third marriage proposal came while she and her son were living in Oklahoma.  Mattie accepted, but that marriage didn’t last any longer than the others had.  From Waurika she moved on to work at depots in El Reno, Oklahoma; Kansas City, Missouri; Leavenworth, Kansas; and St. Paul, Minnesota.  In 1910, she signed with the Southern Pacific Railroad and was stationed at Marmarth, North Dakota.  From there, Mattie worked at a station west of Marmarth called Dodge.  After Dodge, there was the station on the Northern Pacific called Landslide in North Dakota, then onto a depot in Houston, Minnesota Falls, back to North Dakota to Grand Forks, and on to Rosebud and Helena, Montana.  

Telegraph operators who changed jobs as frequently as Mattie did were called Boomers.  Every job she took added to her rich experience in the field.  

No matter how extensive her work history, Mattie continually encountered shortsighted managers who refused to hire women.  She was greeted by such a man when she reported for work for the Oregon Short Line in Pocatello, Idaho.  

“I arrived there about seven in the morning,” Mattie recalled in her memoir, “and went directly to the telegraph office, and when the manager, A. W. Stoker, came to the counter I told him I had come to relieve Operator Fitzsimmons.  Stoker’s eyes bulged out and he almost swallowed his tongue.  ‘Why you can’t work here,’ he said.  ‘We don’t hire women!’  I said to him, ‘You may not, but your superintendent did.’  Once the matter was settled, Mattie was allowed to do the job she was hired to do.  

While working in Tulare County, California, between 1911 and 1912, the chief operator asked Mattie to travel to Sacramento, the state capital, to protest against the eight-hour law for women.  Mattie was taken aback by the request.  The idea of protesting legislature that would benefit women didn’t sit well with her.  She quit and went to work for the Western Pacific Railroad at a station in Gerlach, Nevada, one hundred miles west of Winnemucca, Nevada.  An appendicitis attack took her out of commission for a time.  She recuperated at her parents’ home in Texas, and, as soon as she was back on her feet, she was on the move again.  This time Mattie traveled to Canada to work for the Canadian Pacific Railroad.  From Canada she went to Sacramento and then to Marshfield, Oregon, and on to Austin, Nevada.  

On July 5, 1916, Mattie signed on again with the Southern Pacific Railroad and assumed a permanent position as telegraph operator at a station in Sparks, Nevada.  Her son, now fifteen-years-old, was hired by the rail line to maintain the signals at Parran, Nevada, seventy-six miles away from his mother.  In 1926, Mattie became reacquainted with Albert Kuhn, a telegraph operator she had met in 1891 at her parents’ boarding house in Texas.  He was working at a station in Placer County, California, and heard her voice on the telephone repeating train orders.  Albert asked if the voice belonged to Mattie, and, when it was confirmed it was her voice, he sent her a message.  After a lengthy courtship the two married on May 2, 1931.

Mattie and Albert lived happily for more than a year.  The couple purchased land in Reno and were making plans for a long life together in northern Nevada.  On February 27, 1933, Albert had a heart attack while on the job.  He was taken to a hospital in San Francisco and died four days later.  Several weeks later Mattie returned to work at a station in Fernley, Nevada.  Mattie retired in 1942, after forty years as a telegraph operator.  Mattie wrote a book about her life and work that was printed in the April, May, and June issues of Railroad Magazine in 1950.  Mattie Kuhn passed away in July 1971 at the age of ninety-one in Reno.  

The telegraphers played a significant role in the history of the railroad.  They were essential for increasing traffic on single track railroad lines, communicating the train’s arrival and departure, and for making the movement of people and goods safe.  Skilled women operators proved they were just as capable as men to transmit the messages necessary to make operation along the railroad lines efficient.