Memories of a Hojack Telegrapher
The following newspaper articles discovered by Richard Palmer give us a unique insight to life on the Hojack--the old Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg line of the New York Central. Bertrande Snell was a telegrapher in several locations on the line between Niagara Falls and Watertown and appears to have been somewhat of a boomer. The tales have a universal ring of railroading the its hey day.
Biographical Sketch of Bertrande H. Snell
Bertrande H. Snell, author of the following articles, was a telegrapher all his working life. For many years he was employed by the New York Central Railroad, and for 33 years was a telegrapher for Western Union in Syracuse. One of his columns, dated Jan. 30, 1949, outlines his career in a way only he could write it:
"The first person singular pronoun, is going to come in right handy during today's blast, because I am minded to discourse to you a little on a very uninteresting and pallid theme - myself. You see, something happened to me last week which changes the complexion of many familiar things around and about me.
"A few days ago my Western Union boss called me into his office and recited a few salient facts of which I was already aware. 'The old Morse code,' he remarked, ' is all shot to hell. In almost no time at all, we're not going to have any. Our modern system of telegraphy has given Mister Morse the final coupe de grace; he is now defunct, obsolete, and completely knocked for a loop. So, arrives now the moment when some of you old-timers who have stuck so closely to your key and sounder will have to go way back and sit down.'
"Then, in a few (but not few enough) well chosen phrases he offered me a voluntary retirement from the vanishing field of dot-and-dash. As the solemn tones of John's voice fell upon somewhat deafened ears, the walls around me seemed to fall away, the speaker's voice faded, the rushing years tumbled backward - and I stood, once more, a teen-age youth in the office of the railroad depot at Parish.
"It was in the late winter of 1899. I had graduated from Parish high the year before; and now I had come to the depot to see genial Bill Shaver, the station agent, in regard to matriculating as a telegraph student. Bill grinned widely at my request and freely admitted that he could find room for one more.
"At the time, he already had three students - Roy Nutting, Burnell Miller and Loyal McNeal - but he was the kind of man who dearly loved to lead the helping hand. So the next day I started on my careen (I mean career) as a telegrapher - and now, 50 years later, almost to the day, I have come to the end of it.
"After graduation from Bill Shaver's "School," I worked on the Hojack for a few years; but a certain irrepressible restlessness, combined with the fact that Trainmaster Jimmy Halleran tied a can on me, set me to wandering from one railroad to another, looking for "something new." From the east to the west, so far as Wisconsin, and south to the Texas borderline I traveled, working on no less than 14 different railroads in a span of two years.
"It was a great life, my friends, a wonderful life, but you gotta be young to fully appreciate it. That's why I'm free to tell you that I'll do it all over again the very next time Mister Morse and I come back!
"In 1905 I kinda 'settled down' on the Pennsylvania division of the New York Central, where I spent 12 happy and carefree - if not profitable - years in and around Williamsport, Pa., and the adjacent county of Lycoming. Coming to Syracuse in 1917, I threw in with Western Union and here I have been ever since.
"I have learned to love Syracuse and its people. The passing years have only served to increase that feeling to the point where it is hard for me to imagine a better community in which to spend one's days (and nights).
"Thus I sat and dreamed as the Boss finished the details of his gentle heave-o; and behold! I awoke to find myself a pensionaire. Or, as Bill of Avon puts it, "A lean and slipper pantaloon." Come to think of it, my good, old dad had a phrase which carries the idea to its ultimate. He used to say:
'Generally speakin', a man don't know how much until he's 60 - and by that time, it's too darn late."
But let's not dwell upon that just now; because if the good Lord and you readers spare me for another two years or so, I intend to come up with a diatribe on "How It Fells to Be an Unrepentant Failure." So stick around, folks - the worst is yet to come!
"To say that I am leaving my old organization without regret would be untrue, but this same regret is thickly studded with the jewels of happy remembrance. I have tried to make as few enemies as possible; and as for myself, I hope no slightest thought of enmity or envy toward anyone in Western Union (Or anywhere else, for that matter.). They're a fine bunch of boys and girls, all the way from superintendent to caretakers. May they all live long and happy and flourishing as the evergreen tree in the vale of happiness."
Bertrande Snell commenced his column in the Syracuse Post-Standard on Jan. 13, 1945 and continued it until shortly before his death on June 26, 1949. For years his column was expanded from four to six days a week. The weekly columns were of a light-hearted nature, making note of birthdays, anniversaries, etc. His Sunday columns were primarily of a reminiscent or historical nature, which included railroad stories.
His writing days ended on the morning of June 25, 1949 when he suffered a stroke at his home at 326 S. Crouse Ave. in Syracuse. At the time he was stricken he was working on his column and a partially typed page was still in his typewriter when he was taken to the hospital. Also beside the typewriter were his notes he had written with a soft pencil on news copy paper. He died on June 27, 1949 at the age of 67.
Mr. Snell was survived by his wife, who he always referred to as "Milady Helene;" two sons, Harold of Syracuse and Gerald of New Brunswick, N.J.; a daughter, Mrs. George Booth of New Hartford, N.Y.; three step sons, J.H. Huff of Toledo, Ohio, Elmer Huff of Syracuse and Dorman Huff of Holland, Ohio; seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Following funeral services Mr. Snell was interred in Pleasant Lawn Cemetery, in his hometown of Parish.
Syracuse Post-Standard, Aug. 17, 1947
Just Around the Corner by Bertrande Snell
(Excerpt from an article essentially about the intensity of the heat wave at the time).
"Whatdaddye mean - hot?" snorted Denny Haley, the erstwhile, politically minded Hojacker. "Boy, when I was alderman, I could make the north side (of Syracuse) hotter'n this right in the middle of a blizzard. Why, look, son; when I was railroadin' on the Hojack - that was when they used to have the hot days - and I don't mean of course."
"Why, I remember one day in late August of 1904, I was flaggin' on the local freight from Salina to Richland; and when I hopped the caboose at 6 a.m. it was already so hot you couldn't put your hand on the grab iron without raisn' a blister. By the time we got to Central Square that mornin', Barney Fidler, the fireman, didn't have much to do after he banked the fire."
"He took on a full tank o' water at Brewerton and the sun beat down on the engine tank so fierce that by the time we got through Hungry Lane cut, she was bilin' like all get out. All Barney had to do was set there an' work his injector, lettin' the water run from the tank into the boiler. Yep, that sure was a hot day."
"Why, when we got to Richland, old man Butts an' his clerk, Schwartz had organized a picnic. There they set, in the shade of th' ash pit, stuffin' themselves with grilled frog-legs, by Judas!"
"Where'd they get'em, Denny?" I foolishly asked.
"Well, I just been tellin' you how hot it was, and in them days there was considerable of a yard at Richland, with a lot o' switches to throw; an' I'll be teetotally swizzled if the sun hadn't roasted every frog on every switch in th' yard...Yep, that was a hot day, son - so long call me again."
And I softly and reverently laid the receiver in its cradle and walked away on tip-toe.
Syracuse Post-Standard, Oct. 12, 1947
Just Around the Corner by Bertrande Snell
Ah, but there's bad news in the North Country! Through the outer fastness of Daysville, in the farm-homes of New Haven; among the denizens of the pretty village of Mexico, and deep in the hearts of North Scriba's strawberry growers there's a pulsing sadness and a feeling of bitter anguish.
Fate, in the form of an official order, approved by governmental sanction, has struck at last...And there will be no more passenger trains on the Hojack between Pulaski and Oswego. October 1 was the fatal day - a day which may be appropriately draped in somber black on future Oswego calendars.
Old-timers, who have been watching developments were not too much surprised at the culmination of this tragedy - they had seen it coming - but when, at last, the blow fell, they were none the less saddened and disgruntled.
For many years there have been no passenger trains on the west end of the Hojack from Oswego to Suspension Bridge - a mighty long stretch of rails. More and more curtailed has become the service on other Hojack divisions - and now this, the latest and saddest blow of all!
Why, I can recall when there were eight passenger trains puffing daily between these two points - and they carried a lot of passengers, too. In the early 90's, you could stand in the window of Trainmaster Jimmy Halleran's Oswego office and see a whole lot of railroad activity. to the west where the big railroad yards, the roundhouse and the shops, presided over by Pete Lonergan, and to the east you could watch the trains rolling in over the bridge - practically one right behind the other!
That, folks, was long before they started to grow greensward between the rails for decorative purposes. That was the day when railroaders were salty and sassy, locomotive smokestacks long and bell-crowned; and every other brakeman you met was short his right thumb as the result of a losing battle with a recalcitrant coupling pin. Badges of honor we deemed these foreshortened digits - symbols of service and guardians of grim accomplishment.
At the turn of the century you could leave Pulaski by train for Oswego at 7:30 a.m., 11:20 a.m., 3:15 p.m., or 7;05 p.m., as your fancy might dictate - and there were four other trains leaving Oswego, eastbound, at appropriate intervals. In those days, Pulaski depot was a busy place. Agent Austin was in charge, with a telegrapher, a clerk and a baggage man to assist him. Later, Harry Franklin took over the agency, to be succeeded by Earl Benson, who in turn gave way to John Benedict.
On your way to Oswego in those days, your first stop was Daysville-there's not even a depot there now - where you would see Agent Marty Sampson (or, perhaps, Bert Shear) hustling out to the baggage car. After no undue hesitation here, you chugged on to Mexico, where presided the veteran Matthewson, who adorned that one depot for more than 50 years. Then on to New Haven, whose station agent was another old-timer even then, Ed Prior, who still lives there, was in charge of the New Haven depot from 1895 until 1941 - and I have never heard of his growing old!
The last stop, east of Oswego, was North Scriba (Lycoming), where the big strawberries came from. Here labored George Murphy as the Hojack representative. In the same capacity, George went later to Parish, and still later to Phoenix, where he continued as agent until his retirement, some three years ago. He still dwells in Phoenix and he'll feel sorry, too, about those ghost trains that no longer haunt the rails.
There are still three veteran station agents left on the Pulaski-Oswego line: Ray Geer at Pulaski, Ed Dayton at Mexico and Charlie Lodge at Lycoming - but any one of these will freely admit that "she ain't what she used to be" - and they won't be referring to the "old grey mare," either!
Well, the fast trains are going faster and faster - and the slow trains are going fast, too. The sturdy hands that gripped the throttles of the big, old steam hogs are, one by one, growing pulseless and cold; the keen eyes that peered ahead from the cab windows have closed in their last long sleep, and the rusty, grass-grown rails vibrate no more to the impact of the big drive wheels - except when the tri-weekly local freight goes plodding by!
In the old days, railroading was a rugged job and railroaders were a rugged company. They were rough, they were ready,. And not so very steady - But they got there just the same.
I recall a favorite story that Barney Fidler, Hojack fireman for many years, used to tell with great glee. Barney claimed his uncle Mort was the best locomotive engineer that every yanked a throttle on the Hojack or any other road. He sat on the right side of the cab for more than 40 years - and then, all of a sudden-like, he took sick, and died at the age of 71.
There was a big funeral. Everybody for miles around came to pay their respects to the memory of the old man, for he had been a friend to everybody and everybody's friend. After the services, they loaded uncle Mort into the open hearse and started for Little France burying ground. Everybody went along in their buggies and their "democrat' wagons. Barney claimed it was the longest funeral procession ever seen in Oswego County. As the cortege approached the cemetery gate, the deceased pushed up the casket-lid with a powerful hand, and leaned on one elbow, gazed back at the long, apparently interminable string of carriages.
"By Jumpin' Jickety," shouted the old hogger, "She's sure a mighty long drag - betcha the drinks we have to double into the graveyard."
Anyway - that's how Barney used to tell it.
Syracuse Post-Standard Nov. 16, 1947
Just Around the Corner By Bertrande Snell
Fifty years ago, the lowest-paid railroad traffic employee was the telegrapher. The section hands, unshaven and unshorn, were just a notch ahead of the professional brass-pounder in point of salary. On most eastern railroads, a half century back, the average telegrapher's pay was $30 a month - and, in those days, a month's work meant 30 or 31 days of 12 hours each. Did I say 12 hours? That, friends, was the minimum.
At one-man stations, your agent-telegrapher
was lucky if he ever got away from his job with less than 14 or
15 hours behind him. Let's take the Syracuse - Watertown division
of the old Hojack as a pertinent example. The agent at Mallory
was required to be on duty there at 6:30 a.m. - a half hour
prior to the arrival of the first passenger train. He was then supposed to be constantly on duty until the departure of westbound No. 8, which was due there at 8:40 p.m. (and was generally from two to three hours late).
It is a fact that the regulations permitted our hero - that's what he was - time off for lunch or dinner, but this period. Its time and its duration, was strictly up to the Oswego train dispatcher, who allowed him to eat "whenever it might be most convenient for the company's interest." And right here was another catch - if it happened that the dispatcher had miscalculated and really needed the services of the agent during the time he was absent, said official, in his explanation of whatever delays may have been caused, always solemnly averred that he had granted no absence permission to the agent.
Now, please don't assume that this diligent employee's troubles were all over for the day when he locked up and went home about 10 p.m. Not so - the rulebook, under "Duties of Station Agents," contained the following paragraph:
"On closing the station at night, the agent in charge will post a card in the office window where it will be plainly visible from without. This card shall give complete information as to where the agent may be located during the night, in cases of emergency."
And such occasions, Mister, were by no means uncommon.
During the whole of a 12-to-14-hour day, the gentleman I am describing had been more or less actively engaged in a whole galaxy of jobs - agent, telegrapher, baggageman, express agent, Western Union manager, ticket agent, accountant, bookkeeper, cashier, janitor, and roustabout - to mention a few.
He was required to wear his pretty, blue uniform, with the brass buttons at all times, while on duty, and the "tailor car came through twice a year to take his order for a new suit. As these outfits set him back 19.75 apiece, there were always two monthly paydays during the year when he walked into the paycar and drew the princely sum of $10.25 for 30 days of toil.
Yes, friends, we had to have a sense of humor in those days. However, it was well to keep most of this strictly under your hat - as witness my own experience in 1904. For my own amusement, I concocted a set of "Rules," and distributed them rather widely among my associates. I will bore you with a few fragments of this masterpiece, just as illustrations:
Rule XII - Telegraphers and Station Agents report to and receive their instructions from the superintendent, the chief dispatcher, the section boss, or any one else who pretends to have any authority.
Rule XVIII - Telegraphers will receive sufficient remuneration to purchase uniforms and chewing tobacco. If they have families, they must remember that the Lord will provide.
Rule XXI - The Company as such, has no conscience and cannot, therefore, be responsible for that of any employee.
Some of the boys got a big laugh from this bit of persiflage - but me - I stopped laughing when trainmaster Jimmie Halleran came down from Oswego and fired me for "insubordination."
Why, then, you may well ask, did anyone ever become a railroad telegrapher? The reasons varied, I suppose, according to the characteristics of each individual; but there's a certain fascination about the business that gets you, even before you start. The great majority of the old-time telegraphers were graduate students of certain veteran station agents who knew a good thing when they saw it.
Take, for instance, Bill Shaver of Parish. He was Hojack station agent there for some 12 years prior to 1900. Bill was a great fellow - a pleasant, jolly man with a great fund of humor and a ready, infectious laugh. He always managed to have three students at the office in the following order: No. 1 - pretty well trained in office work and a fair telegrapher; No. 2 - intermediate in these subjects and supposed to be under the tutelage of No. 1; No. 3 - a "freshman" just starting in, who was also the janitor and errand boy. No. 1 was never certified to the Superintendent as ready for work until Bill had a prospect ready to take No. 3's place. You see, No. 1 was the man who took over the job when Bill wanted to go uptown for an hour, or so - which happened not infrequently.
Shaver kept this up for many years, and turned out a large number of telegraphers, among them I might mention: Loyal McNeal, at present a Hojack train dispatcher in Watertown; the late Earle Benson of Pulaski; Frank Alsever, now with the N.Y.N.H.& H. at Worcester, Mass.; Roy Nutting and Burnell Miller, both now deceased; and a host of others, including this scribbler.
Bill was just one of a great many who made use of this plan to render life a bit easier for themselves, while at the same time offering the youth of the community an opportunity to learn a profession. Yes - a profession that exerted a strange, not always beneficent influence on its followers. A profession that wound its magnetic tentacles around the very hearts of the old-time brass-pounders. You will note that I here use the past tense; since the key and sounder of the Morse code are now in the very last process of becoming museum pieces.
It is related that, after a long life spent amidst the clickety-clack of the busy sounder old Hermann Veeder died, and his soul was wafted through the ether in ever-widening concentric circles of light, which finally dumped him gently at the Pearly Gates. As he gazed upward where the shining towers gleamed in the supernal glory of Heaven's eternal light, his courage almost failed him and he felt a bit sick. But at last he made shift to knock gently, Oh! So gently, on the gold-and-nacre panel of the closed door.
At his second or third timid attempt, the mighty gate opened a mere crack to reveal the severe features of St. Peter, who gruffly demanded:
"Who are you; and why come ye here?"
"I'd like to come in, please, if you don't mind," quavered Hermann, "I just died, you know."
"Your name," snapped the Guardian. Hermann gave the required information and another question followed instantly:
"I was a telegrapher, your honor, and I've come up here for my overtime - you see, I -"
With a mighty heave of his sturdy shoulders, the good saint opened wide the massive twin-gates so swiftly that their gem-studded surfaces shimmered like flying rainbows in the ineffable radiance of the sun of Paradise.
"Enter, my good man, enter," he
invited as a broad smile illumed his features, "long have
we waited for one of your tribe to seek admittance here - and,
verily, you are the first of them all. Come, friend, you'll enjoy
it here - for it is written that, on earth, you surely led one
hell of a life."
Syracuse Post-Standard, April 11, 1948
Just Around the Corner By Bertrande Snell
O harken, now, to my saga of the Hojack - a song of the days, long gone, a song that I sing from the heart and a tale that I tell from the soul. And, listen too, ye modern Hojackers; for you, also. O fledglings, when twilight comes, will have a tale to tell and a song to sing of these, your days. And the gist of it and the swing of it will be even as this of mine. For as long as a man shall live, Age will sing of Youth and Youth will dream of the future.
Hope for the young; memory for the old - what a blessed thing of life!
Ballad of the Hojack
Come, all ye old-time railroad hams,
And listen now to me;
I'll sing you a song of the Hojack days
In nineteen-two or three -
Before the rails got rusty;
When the safety-valves were tight -
And a "day's work" meant you worked all day
And most of the blasted night!
When you pounded brass for thirty-a-month
And your uniform of blue
Made you pals of the village gals,
Who always fell for you!
You took your rest in the waiting-room
When the morning hours were small
And you slumbered away till the break of day;
Nor heeded the frantic call
Of the sounder, there on the office desk
As the train dispatcher tried
Make a meet for twenty-one
Ere her running time had died.
You carried your lunch in a big tin pail
Whose top was a coffee can;
And you raided the freighthouse for beer and gin
Like a regular railroad man!
The clickety-clack of the sounding brass
Was music to your ears
And you laughed aloud in the joy of youth
Not rocked of the fleeting years.
Now, these were the boys in the days of
Who gave us their Morse-code skill
From West Shore crossing, just out of the yard
To Richland, over the hill
There was Jimmy Duell at Liverpool
At Woodard were Foster and Maine.
And every day you'd see at Clay
Charlie Zoller and Billy McCane.
At Brewerton station, all the Rogers' relation
Could handle the telegraph key -
Old Charlie was agent, and "Coon" was the clerk,
With others in close harmony.
From there you would fare to old Central
Where Covell and Sprague did their stunts;
Then came this old-timer, the "Mallory rhymer,"
(Who wasn't an old-timer, once!)
At Hastings, John Benedict labored
And as onward to Parish we flit,
We greet George Murphy and Frank Haynor, too -
Both men of good humor and wit.
Fred Nicholson next, at old Union Square;
And at Fernwood we noted Bert Shear;
While Pulaski had Austin and handsome Will Pond
To keep all the business clear.
Too many, too many of whom I rhyme
Have gone where there's no overtime;
Where clicking sounders don't intrude,
But we who wait the Super's call
(Which comes to one, which comes to all).
Forget them not - for they were men
We fondly hope to see again!
No more the singing wires sing,
No more the "bugs" their message fling.
Thru all the world's expanse
They killed the Morse code and they trod
Upon the corpse, all prone.
"For now, you see," they yelled in glee
"We run the trains by phone!"
As o'er the Hojack's rusty rails
The few sad drags still go,
The roadbed cries in agony
Beneath the weight of woe.
And from the churchyard, near and wide
We hear a low, sad moan:
"They're runnin' the trains by phone, me lad.
"They're runnin' the trains by phone."
Now this is my song of the Hojack,
And this is my bid or fame -
That, among the old-time Hojack hams,
You'll find my written name:
That I knew these men and loved them
And that I'm proud to say,
"I too, worked on the Hojack,
When the Hojack had its day!"