Along the smooth and slender wires, the sleepless heralds run,
Fast as the clear and living rays go streaming from the sun;
No pearls of flashes, heard or seen, their wondrous flight betray,
And yet their words are quickly caught in cities far away.
It’s amazing how you can get an idea for a blog entry, thinking it’s going to be an easy one. Then you begin writing. Oh, my. This was supposed to be just a short little romantic entry about how my maternal grandparents met. As I started writing I started realizing how little information I really had on the subject. It could have been written in one line. One line does not a blog make!
I suppose I could fill in the blanks with some made up fun stuff or take the time to research and read about places and things related but then I would be writing fiction. My plan is to write about some of the few things I know about my family history. And that’s not supposed to be fiction.
My mother once told me that her parents met when they were both telegraphers for the railroad. That has really piqued my interest and I wanted to learn more. I had never thought of my grandmother as a working woman. I wish I still had some relatives around that could tell me the whole story.
The story I have is that it all began in a little town called Kilgore in Boyd County, Kentucky. My grandmother, Julia McNeal, was born in 1879 in Kilgore, Kentucky. My grandfather, John Chase Hatcher, was born in 1874 in Louisa, Kentucky and later moved to Kilgore.
Sometime in the 1890’s (ah, Victorian times), John went to work as the agent for the railroad station in Kilgore, Kentucky in his early 20’s. Coal was very big in Kentucky and it brought the rails through Eastern Kentucky to haul it across the country. He worked there as station agent and telegraph operator for about 20 years. The Kilgore railroad station was located about half way between Kilgore and Rush, Kentucky, both small towns being located in Boyd County (the next largest town would have been Ashland).
I had never really thought about women of the 19th century working regular jobs outside the home. They always seemed to be portrayed as stay-at-home wives and mothers. I was surprised to learn how many young women worked as telegraph operators. Why, they even operated during the Civil War. But, why not? Women have always stepped in when the men were called to fight. The work had to continue. And I kept running across references to that age-old adage that women were cheaper to hire than men because they were only going to work a short time anyway before leaving for marriage and family.
I’m surmising when I make the statement that my grandmother probably learned Morse Code and how to be a telegraph operator from her father, Andrew Creighton McNeal, since he, too, had worked as a telegraph operator. Click here for more information on Andrew Creighton McNeal. In her late teens, she went to work as a telegraph operator at the Kilgore station. I don’t know if she worked for my grandfather or with him at that time. I would hazard a guess that she worked for him as the telegraph operator while he ran the depot but, as I said, that’s a guess. But what I don’t have to guess at is that because of that telegraph, my grandparents met and fell in love. They were married in 1899 when she was 20 years old and he was 25. Of course, she added to the statistics that the young women only work a year or two before getting married!
When I decided to write about my grandparents meeting, my hope was that they had actually worked as telegraph operators at different locations and that they “met” and their love blossomed over the wire. Ah, the forerunner to internet dating! I thought that sounded much more romantic! But because they both lived in Kilgore and didn’t have automobiles, I have to go with the most logical conclusion that they met while working together.
This plate from Harper’s Weekly puts women at the center of telegraph operation. Men and women working as operators often “talked” during down time and romance ensued. Sort of like Internet dating for the 19th century. “The Telegraph,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (August 1873), 332.
As a side note, I found so much information about telegraphy in the 1800’s and women’s part in it. Most people today are unfamiliar with the telegraph, not knowing how it worked or why it was so important to a country as vast as the United States. Prior to the middle of the 1800’s the fastest way to send a message or letter was by a rider on horseback (Pony Express) or by ship. Samuel F.B. Morse’s telegraph system brought an electronic highway of dots and dashes traveling along copper wires strung on poles. The telegraph was definitely the precursor to our internet of today.
As Carolyn Marvin observed in When Old Technologies Were New, there are some surprising parallels between the experiences of nineteenth century women telegraphers and the twentieth-century story of women in the field of computer programming. Some of these similarities are technically based; the telegrapher’s work, like that of a modern computer programmer, consisted of translating English-language instructions into machine-readable codes. Morse Code is, in fact, a direct ancestor of the ASCII codes used by software programmers. The computer itself is the direct descendant of the telegraph. In a historical sense, the computer is no more than an instantaneous telegraph with a prodigious memory, and all the communications inventions in between have simply been elaborations on the telegraph’s original work.