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TELEGRAPHY - Early Railroad Careers for Women

The Telegraph Invention

Most people today are unfamiliar with the telegraph, nor do they know how it worked or why it was so important to a country as vast as the United States. In America, prior to the mid-nineteenth century a message or letter could not travel any faster than a rider on horse back or by a sailing vessel until Samuel F.B. Morse's telegraph system, an electronic highway of dots and dashes flashed along copper wires strung on poles. The telegraph was then what the internet is to us today.

On February 21, 1846, two years after Morse's telegraph was accepted, an historic event for women passed with little notice by local newspapersin Lowell and Boston, Massachusetts. The first known woman telegrapher,Sarah Bagley, sat down at her telegraph key to tap out messages for the newly formed company, -- the Boston and Lowell Magnetic Telegraph. Up until then, Sarah was better known as a "mill girl" and labor organizer, so her qualifications and business connections to get the job at the Lowell Mill railroad depot manager can only be presumed. What is known however, is she took her new occupation seriously and diligently prepared for it by studyingat Morse's telegraphic school to learn the difficult code alphabet.

She worked at the depot and on mill labor reform for several moreyears, but then disappeared from record books. But as authorMadeleine B. Stern wrote in We The Women, Career Firsts ofNineteenth-Century America, "... this was a drama that was to revolutionize the country and ... for its women a new declaration of independence." Shirley Burman ©2007*

For further reading about women and telegraphy:

Ma Kiley:The Life of a Railroad Telegrapher, Thomas C. Jepsen,Texas Western Press 1997
My Sisters Telegraphic:1846-1950, Thomas C. Jepsen, Ohio University Press2000
American Telegrapher:A Social History, The 1860-1900, Edwin Gabler, Rutgers University Press, 1988
We The Women:Career Firsts of 19th Century America, Madeleine B. Stern, University of Nebraska Press/Bison Book, 1962/1994

"Op" killed in an accident...
To read the newspaper


(above) Women telegraph operators usually worked in smaller stations, especially in the West. Occasionally, a mountain pass would be home while working in a snow shed office, one of many scattered throughout Southern Pacific's Sierra Nevada route in the 1900's.

left) The operator is on the ladder hanging up train orders on a staff hoop. The orders gave the engineer permission to pass through the snow shed knowing that no other train was coming the other way.

Operators or station agents generally handled baggage, ticket sales, and book-keeping. During the 1930's many states passed legislation called, "women's protective laws," that prevented women from working at jobs that required overtime or lifting more
than 25 pounds.

Obviously, women were able bodied
enough to move heavy baggage with
the use of a cart just as the men
would have done. The Civil Rights Act was passed in1964, but the state
discriminatory laws were not over-
turned until a law suit brought on
by a railroad woman in 1967.
(Details in forth coming book)

At the turn of the century, women station agents were in charge of the entire railyard, handling freight shipment billing, keeping track of train schedules, accepting letters and packages tobe put on mailcars. Many were also employed by Western Union and Wells Fargo shipping at the same station. Women often feminized their offices with pictures and plants. The local railroad depot or station was often the gathering place for locals to catch up on the latest gossip.
Images left & right R.Steinheimer ©2010
(No enlargements)
By the 1920's, many railroad "ops" communicated by telephone
as the telegraph was passing into disuse. The "Milwaukee Road"
operator (above) at Avery, Idaho takes time out to play with a
puppy brought in to the office by her trackman husband.

The operator to the right hangs up train orders in an isolated
area of Cajon Pass, CA in the 1970's. The upper order will be
picked off by an engine crew member while the conductor
traveling in the caboose grabs the lower message.

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