The mustached fellow looking at you from inside the museum building “depot” outcrop is an operator. His job was to receive and send dispatches, train orders and their confirmations, and communications to and from the dispatcher and other operators along the line by telegraph, and later on, telephone. In the days before A T C, or Automatic Train Control, and C T C -- Centralized Traffic Control, he was also responsible for issuing orders regulating all movement on the line to the engineers and conductors of passing trains.
The train order system was in general use by railroads throughout the United States by 1874. Train order forms consisted of pads of very thin paper called “flimsies”. A stylus was used to write the orders, with two-sided carbon paper inserted between each sheet and below the last sheet against a piece of tin, so the carbon transferred to both the front and back of each flimsie except the top copy. This method was used so the order could be read by holding it up in front of a kerosene lantern.
For a “19” order, the train did not have to stop. The order could be passed to the engineer in the cab of the passing train and then to the conductor in the caboose, “on the fly,” through the use of a hoop or fork – types of sticks or wands to which the orders would be attached. Examples of these can be seen on the wall above the windows inside the operator’s position. A “31” order required that the train intended to receive the order be stopped, as the order had to be signed and read back by the train crew personnel. To accomplish this, the operator would set a Train Order Signal, or Order Board, to the “Stop” aspect. This type of signal can be seen extending from the outside wall over the windows of the operator’s position, with the red “bowtie” perpendicular to the tracks, indicating “Stop.” A Burlington-type Train Order Signal can be seen across the tracks, in front of the Library, and its horizontal semaphore blades are indicating “Stop” in both directions.
Train orders were initially disseminated from the dispatcher to the stations along the line by telegraph. Samuel F. B. Morse first demonstrated a successful telegraph line in 1844, and a railroad-owned telegraph system was first used exclusively for dispatching trains by the Pennsylvania Railroad in Pittsburgh in 1854.
The telegraph system used by railroads required the use of only one wire running from station to station. The circuit return was earth ground, and the entire circuit was powered by batteries. An operator sending a message would make and break the circuit with his telegraph key. All other operators’ keys would be short-circuited to complete the series circuit and only one operator could send at a time.
Sounders at each operator’s location along the line would chatter with the keyed circuit interruptions caused by the sending telegraph key, and the information was coded into short “dots,” long “dashes,” longer “dashes,” and timed space intervals. This was the original American Morse Code, used by the railroads, and it differs from the International Morse Code commonly used in radio transmission… so if you’re familiar with the ‘radio morse, you may have some difficulty in deciphering the clicks heard emanating from our operator’s location.
In addition to maintaining communications with the dispatcher and the train crews, the operator was also required to set the station clock. At a prescribed time each morning, the dispatcher would send, to each station on the line, the exact correct system time, to the second. Every operator would then set his station’s clock’s second hand to reflect that time. It was the responsibility of every train crew member then, as he came on duty, to set his “railroad approved” open-face, twenty-three-jewel, lever-set pocket watch to the station clock time.