My Love Letter to Telegraph Operators and Their Heartbreaking Tragedies

I live in a house built in the 1890’s. I spend a lot of time thinking about the people who lived here before me. What did these people know about their own world? What tragedies did they see and explore?

My husband, Jonathan, purchased our house a year before I met him. I had never actually been to New Kensington until I met Jonathan. Jonathan moved to New Kensington when he was in the sixth grade because his grandparents already lived here. That’s why he later decided to buy a house in the Parnassus neighborhood here.

Parnassus borders the Allegheny River. This is important for part of my story.

The Alter family originally owned my and Jonathan’s Victorian home here in Parnassus. This same family is now buried in a churchyard down the street from this same house. I speculate that some of them still reside in the home with me and Jonathan.

Jonathan researched the Alter family. He told me about the Alters when he first showed this house to me.

Let’s start with the family patriarch, Frank Alter Sr.

Alter was born in 1871 in Pittsburgh.

Alter’s father fought in the Civil War. Alter’s father then maintained a long career with the Allegheny Valley Railroad Company.

Frank Alter Sr.’s own professional life began at age 17 with his own job at the Allegheny Valley Railroad Company as a telegraph operator.  Four years later, he was appointed station agent at New Kensington.

Now, shortly after Alter assumed his first job with the railroad, the Johnstown Flood killed over 2,000 people, in May 1889. A privately-owned dam on a private lake upstream from Johnstown failed. The wall of water demolished the communities that sat between the lake and Johnstown, and then the water hit Johnstown and destroyed it as well.

The flood occurred upstream from New Kensington as well. It occurred on a tributary to a tributary of the Allegheny River. According to the book “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough, flood debris washed downstream from Johnstown, eventually into the Allegheny River, on to Pittsburgh and points beyond. McCullough wrote that somebody plucked a live baby out of the Allegheny River in Verona, which is downstream from New Kensington. McCullough wrote that onlookers stood on the banks of the Allegheny, watching the results of the flood flow past them. Some even plucked souvenirs from the river.

Did Alter first learn about the flood during his duties in the telegraph office? Did he join the crowds which lined the Allegheny River’s banks?

Now, I grew up an hour’s drive south of Johnstown, and my sixth grade class studied the Johnstown Flood. We read excerpts from McCullough’s book.

McCullough acknowledged at the beginning of his book that “most” of the dialogue in Chapters 3 and 4 of his book had been taken directly from a transcription of testimony taken by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the summer of 1889. The railroad’s tracks lined the tributaries hit hardest by the flood. The railroad’s telegraph system documented events leading to the moments before the flood wiped out the tracks and the telegraph lines.

McCullough’s book noted that in the moments before the Johnstown flood happened, a railroad telegraph agent communicated the impending dam failure to Hettie Ogle, who ran the “switchboard and Western Union office” in Johnstown.

McCullough identified Ogle as a Civil War widow who had worked for Western Union for 28 years. The book noted that she was with her daughter Minnie at the time. She passed the message on to her Pittsburgh office. McCullough noted that the two perished in the flood and their bodies were not recovered.

When I was in the sixth grade, I was told that Hettie Ogle faithfully stayed at her telegraph post and relayed river gauge data until at last she wrote:

THIS IS MY LAST MESSAGE

The story haunted me.

Based on how this story was presented to our class, I was under the impression that Hettie Ogle was trapped in the telegraph office with just her daughter. I assumed that Hettie Ogle and her daughter were “rare” because they were women who also worked outside the home at the telegraph office.

Now, here is something that McCullough’s book did NOT tell me, and that I learned instead from the website for the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA): Ogle was actually trapped in that office with her daughter Minnie, “four other young ladies” who were named by the JAHA website, and also two named men. When I read the website, I understood this to mean that all eight of the named women and men who were trapped in this telegraph office worked in the telegraph industry. They all perished.

I didn’t realize until I first read the JAHA website that Hettie Ogle actually managed an office full of staff. I also didn’t realize that many of the employees in Johnstown’s Western Union office in May 1889 were women.

I have since figured out that if Hettie Ogle worked for Western Union for 28 years until she died in 1889, that means that she started her Western Union career in 1861. The Civil War also started in 1861. As I noted above, she was identified as a war widow. Did she have to take a job with Western Union in order to support her children when her husband went off to war? Did she do it out of a sense of duty for the war effort, and then she stayed with it because she enjoyed the work? I speculate now about the circumstances that led her to her “duty” operating the telegraph.

Now, I speculate about many things. I speculate that since Frank Alter Sr. got his start in the railroad industry as a telegraph operator, the tragedies of the Johnstown Flood would have impacted him personally. Perhaps he even knew some of the telegraph and / or railroad employees who died that day in 1889.

The telegraph industry of the 1800’s fascinates me because I think a great deal about my own dependence on technology.

I first realized how much I – or at least my sense of well-being – depended on being able to keep contact with others and with information on September 11, 2001. I lived in the family home in Somerset County. I worked in downtown Johnstown. Flight 93 crashed between these two points while I was at work that day.

After I and my co-workers watched the twin towers burn live on television, our employer’s co-owner told us to “go back to work.”

However, a few minutes later, this same co-owner’s daughter rushed through the office to announce that a plane had crashed in Somerset County. (This plane, we later learned, was Flight 93.) We learned that we – along with every other worker in downtown Johnstown at that time – were being evacuated because a federal court building existed in downtown Johnstown. I couldn’t reach my family who lived with me in Somerset County on the phone. I attempted, and I had no connection. I then learned that we were being asked to stay off of our phones in order to leave the lines available for emergency crews. I also learned that a portion of Route 219 – the main highway that I used to drive to my family home in Somerset County – was closed due to the morning’s events. I was being forced to leave downtown Johnstown due to the mandatory evacuation, but I had no information about whether I would be able to get back to my home in Somerset County.

I made it home to Somerset County without incident. However, this was the first time that I remember feeling confused because all of my decision making instincts depended on information that I couldn’t access.

More recently, I thought that I was so slick because I specifically curated my Twitter feed to follow the feeds for Pittsburgh’s transit agency, the National Weather Service, and several other emergency management agencies. I worked in downtown Pittsburgh by then, and I commuted home each weeknight – usually by bus – to New Kensington. I reasoned that with my specially curated Twitter feed, I would have available all of the information that I needed to make informed decisions about my commute home if I were to be in Pittsburgh and a natural disaster – or another terrorist attack – happened.

However, on the day that Pittsburgh and its surrounding region had a major flash flooding event, Twitter broke. I had based my entire theoretical emergency plan on having up-to-the date tweets from all of the sources that I listed above. I had access to no updated information from any of these sources.

Once again, I felt completely betrayed by technology at the moment when I felt its need the most.

Now, for another story that I have about being dependent on technology:

I read part of “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant).” Julia Dent Grant (JDG) was born in 1826. In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the United State’s first telegram over a wire from Washington to Baltimore. (Congress partially funded this.) In 1845, JDG’s father, Frederick Dent, travelled from their home in St. Louis to Washington for business. He sent a telegram to Baltimore. JDG wrote that her father received an answer within an hour and that “it savored of magic.” The event was such a big deal that Frederick Dent brought the telegraph repeater tape back home to St. Louis to show the family.

Now I’m going to skip ahead in the memoirs to 1851. At this point in the memoirs, JDG is married to Ulysses S. Grant and they have an infant son. Julia visited family in St. Louis while her husband was stationed at Sackets Harbor, near Watertown, in New York State. JDG planned to telegraph her husband from St. Louis, and then travel with her nurse to Detroit. Then, she would release her nurse and meet her husband in Detroit. Finally, she would travel with her husband from Detroit to Sackets Harbor. I am under the impression that the trip from St. Louis to Detroit to Watertown was all by train.

Well, JDG telegraphed her husband in St. Louis per the plan. She left St. Louis and travelled with her nurse to Detroit. She dismissed her nurse and waited for her husband in Detroit. Her husband never showed up. JDG eventually travelled alone with her baby to Buffalo, hoping to meet her husband there. Her husband wasn’t in Buffalo, so she continued on the train to Watertown. From Watertown, she had to hire a carriage (the Uber of the 1800’s), and travel to Madison Barracks, the military installation at Sackets Harbor. The entrance to Madison Barracks was closed, so she had to yell to get a sentry’s attention.

The telegram that JDG sent to her husband from St. Louis arrived at Sackets Harbor IN THE NEXT DAY’S MAIL.

That’s right – at some point in the journey, the telegram failed to perform its basic function as a telegram. The telegram became snail mail.

After JDG’s husband was promoted during the Civil War, he travelled with his very own personal telegraph operator. (In fact, the Grants learned about President Lincoln’s assassination through a personal telegram received by the personal telegraph operator.)

By the end of the Civl War, the Grants had come a long way since their days of “snail-mail telegrams.”

Other people have actually written entire books about how telegraphs and semaphores affected the Civl War.

Here’s one of my favorite parts of JDG’s memoirs: At one point during the war, JDG asked her father, Frederick Dent, why the country didn’t “make a new Constitution since this is such an enigma – one to suit the times, you know. It is so different now. We have steamers, railroads, telegraphs, etc.

I just find this so fascinating because JDG witnessed her country’s tremendous changes that resulted from Technology. She wondered how all of these Technology changes affected her country.

I, personally, spend a lot of time wondering about how Communication Technology in general – the telegraph, the internet, whatever – changed our national culture and also changed each of us as people.

I Helped to Win a Music Award on a Technicality.

This photo is NOT a photo of the Mighty Marching Mountaineers.

This post is in honor of the postponed Grammy Awards.

When I was in high school, I played the clarinet in the high school marching band.

I was really bad at playing the clarinet because I very rarely practiced on my own initiative. One time, our band director, Mr. B., listened to me play and then all that he said was, “I am losing patience.”

I was really bad at marching because I am uncoordinated.

However, I showed up for every band practice. (Well, except for that one time when I decided to go to Pizza Hut in Somerset with my mom instead.) My rural school district was three buildings connected by a tunnel. My high school graduating class had less than 100 students. The band needed every warm body willing to show up.

Just for the record, my K. sister was much more dedicated to the marching band than I was. She started off in the fourth grade playing the clarinet. However, in high school, K. switched to the trumpet because our band desperately needed members for its brass section. Our school’s music department lent her a trumpet rent-free for several years. Mr. B. gave her special lessons so that she could learn the trumpet from scratch. K. actually practiced the trumpet at home a great deal. She was one of the band members who played “Taps” at a local cemetery every Memorial Day.

Since I was in the marching band, I attended every single home and away football game in which my high school participated for 4 years. So, that was 40 football games.

So, at one of these 40 football games, a bunch of us got bored or something. My sister and my best friend weren’t around. I sat with a bunch of kids that I had known since elementary school but with whom I didn’t have a close relationship. We decided to make fun of the cheerleaders. We made fun of the cheerleaders loudly. We had a pretty loud discussion about how terrible the cheerleaders were at being cheerleaders.

Well, here’s the thing:

One of the cheerleaders had a father who sat on the school board.

And this father who sat on the school board happened to sit pretty close to the band that night. He sat close enough that he could hear us.

It doesn’t help at all that I, personally, have a pretty loud voice. Pre-Covid, my husband Jonathan used to have to tell me to use my inside voice in restaurants. Back in high school, I didn’t have my own personal Jonathan to remind me to use my inside voice. I also didn’t have my own personal Jonathan to remind me not to talk trash about Somebody when that Somebody’s influential father was sitting next to me.

So, from what I understand, this father of a cheerleader who was also a school board member asked our high school administration why the Berlin Brothersvalley Mighty Marching Mountaineers looked and sounded so terrible.

The next week, the entire band and the band director, Mr. B., had to meet with our principal and explain to him why the school board now complained about how we looked and sounded.

We had to come up with an action plan for how to better represent our community. We had to have extra practices in order to improve our marching.

I think that the administration or the school board also told Mr. B. that we had to participate in a band competition in the next season. They might have even told Mr. B. that we had to win a trophy in at least one competition.

So, when we showed up for band camp that next summer, we had to prepare for football games, parades, and also for a band tournament.

Now, this band tournament was held about an hour or two north of our high school. Mr. B. scheduled extra practice sessions for this tournament.

When we arrived at the tournament, we learned that all of the bands were grouped into classes based on either the total population of our high schools or else the sizes of our bands. Either way, our band qualified for the class designated for the smallest schools. We learned that there was only one other high school band that would compete with us in our class. The competition awarded 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place trophies to each class.

So, regardless of our final score at the end of this competition, we would take home at least a 2nd place trophy for our class.

We took home the 2nd place trophy.

Our only real “competitor” – the school that took home the 1st place trophy for our class – had a marching band so small that we joked that they could all fit on one of those miniature school buses. Looking back, I think that this school’s entire marching band was about the same size as Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

I don’t know if Mr. B. entered us into this particular competition knowing that we had an excellent chance of bringing home a trophy. Maybe this was just a lucky break.

The morning announcements in school that next Monday included our “second place trophy at a band tournament.”

For every performance for the rest of my career in high school marching band, we marched in to the introduction of the “Award-Winning Mighty Marching Mountaineers.”

For the rest of my high school career, every time that I applied for something – be it a scholarship, college, etc – I mentioned my involvement in an award-winning marching band.

I don’t know if this “achievement” actually helped me to get accepted to college or to win any of the scholarships that I won. But, it sure as heck didn’t hurt me.

So, the pissed off school board member actually did me a favor when he decided to teach us a lesson.

I was supposed to learn not to talk about other people in public. However, I learned instead that many “professional achievements” are actually the result of dumb luck.

Gingerbread House Demolition Day

Gingerbread House Slated for Demolition. January 3, 2021. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

I woke up this morning and realized that today was THE DAY. Today was Gingerbread House Demolition Day.

Here in New Kensington, officials mark unsafe and abandoned buildings with a red “X.”

Upon inspection, I was forced to mark the Gingerbread House with a red “X” for the following Code Enforcement violations:

1.) A critical load-bearing wall leaned.

2.) The structure had no actual means of ingress or egress. I noted that all “doors” and “windows” were actually painted on by icing. This presented a fire hazard.

3.) It appeared that the lower body of Santa Claus was stuck in the chimney.

4.) The Gingerbread House was constructed in mid-December 2020. Since today is January 3, 2021, the Gingerbread House was at increased risk for hardening and cracking. Thus, it was imperative that the Gingerbread House be demolished this weekend.

The demolition crew arrived in time for an aerial photo. Flying conditions in the Gingerbread House’s neighborhood were NOT optimal for drone photography. So, I had to improvise for the below photo:

Gingerbread House Slated for Demolition. Aerial View. January 3, 2021. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

Now, literature and folklore claim that the fork ran away with the spoon. I maintain that the fork did NOT in fact run away with the spoon. The fork participated in the Gingerbread House demolition crew.

Gingerbread House Demolition. File Photo. January 3, 2021. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

As we removed the roof, we confirmed our statement that a load-bearing wall leaned.

Gingerbread House Demolition. File Photo. January 3, 2021. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

Unfortunately, upon the removal of this same load-bearing wall, we discovered the decapitated remains of a missing local Gingerbread Man.

It was necessary for us to summon the coroner of North Pole County. An investigation determined that the Gingerbread Man suffered decapitation when Jenny Woytek accidentally dropped him.

Gingerbread House Demotion. Coroner’s File. January 3, 2021.

After we completed the demolition, we took a final aerial photo of the site.

Gingerbread House Demolition. January 3, 2021. Jenny Gaffron Woytek Aerial Photography.

This dining room table real estate is now available for a new project. Contact Jenny Woytek. Serious inquiries only, please.

January. And the Plague. And Ice.

London, 2009. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

So, here’s a fun fact that I found on Wikipedia: In January 1863, the world’s first underground railway opened in London. It opened between Paddingdon and Farringdon. We call it the “London Underground.”

If you Google “London plague pits underground,” you can read all about the urban legend on this. Local lore claims that the detours that the workers had to dig for the London Underground’s path so that the train didn’t barrel through the mass graves of Bubonic Plague victims from 1665. (One of the articles visible to me on the first page of my Google search questions the “research” used by the author who claimed this as fact in her non-fiction book, but it makes a cool story.)

On this week in January 2020, I went to an author visit for a New York Times bestselling author at a Barnes and Noble near Pittsburgh. The author promoted the release of her newest book, a novel about a prominent person in London during both World Wars.

As I stood in line waiting for the author’s signature, I heard a man identify himself as a reporter from our local Pittsburgh “newspaper.” (I say “newspaper” because it’s not available in print form in many Pittsburgh area locations now; it’s online.) The reporter said that THE AUTHOR had reached out to the “newspaper” and asked them to cover the event.

Again, this was a New York Times bestselling author. She had several successful books under her belt. She had to contact the Pittsburgh media on her own and ask them to cover her event at Barnes and Noble. So, if you dream about writing your own book, and about having your publisher (or Barnes and Noble or whomever) market your book tour for you, think about this again.

I have a final story that mentions London. It has absolutely nothing to do with January, but it involves ice, so close enough. My husband is a huge fan of iced beverages. Before I met my husband, I always ordered “Diet Pepsi with no ice” at Subway or Burger King or whatever so that I could get “more bang for my buck.” Then, I met Jonathan. He turned me on to the joys of drinking beverages with ice.

When we went to London, we learned that we wouldn’t get ice in any of our drinks unless we specifically asked for it. It was a hot-ish week in September. We stayed in a hotel directly across the Thames from the Tower of London. Even better, the hotel had a working ice machine on our floor, directly across the hallway from the elevator!

As soon as we checked in to our room, I grabbed the ice bucket. I headed for the ice machine. As I filled our ice bucket, the elevator opened, and a woman stepped out.

The woman said to me, “You’re an American, aren’t you?”

How did she know? I hadn’t even spoken. Did I make a gaffe that only an American would make? Did I wear the wrong thing? OMG, did I drop my passport on the floor for her to find?

I said, “Yes.”

The woman said, “I could tell because you are getting ice. I’m from Texas!”

“Hamilton” -Adjacent: Friendship Hill

Friendship Hill, Point Marion, Pennsylvania. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

I found an article titled “Who Was Alexander Hamilton’s Real Nemesis: Aaron Burr or Albert Gallatin and the Jeffersonians?” by Christopher N. Malagisi, dated August 30, 2018, on the Townhall website. This article referenced the book “Jefferson’s Treasure: How Albert Gallatin Saved the New Nation from Debt,” by Gregory May.

The idolized and fabled Alexander Hamilton served as our first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton rival Albert Gallatin served as our fourth Secretary of the Treasury.

Thomas Jefferson was the President of the United States who appointed Gallatin as Secretary of the Treasury. Aaron Burr was elected as Jefferson’s Vice President in the election of 1800. So, these guys all knew each other.

Now, my brain totally shut off about one paragraph into reading about the subject matter. Just as it did when I had to learn about the Federalists and the Whigs and the Jeffersonians in high school. So, I don’t have my own fully-formed opinion about whether Albert Gallatin was Hamilton’s real nemesis. I do think that if Lin-Manuel Miranda had rewritten the Hamilton musical so that it was just a bunch of guys arguing about whether Hamilton or Gallatin made a better Secretary of the Treasury, it would not still be on Broadway.

Albert Gallatin owned an estate in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Gallatin’s first wife, Sophia, is buried on the estate. The National Park Service now runs the estate as Friendship Hill National Historic Site. There is no admission fee to visit.

Part of me wishes that Miranda had at least written Gallatin into his “Hamilton” musical – even in a tiny role – so that Point Marion could use it to lure tourists there.

If you want to sight-see while also social distancing, you may want to check out Friendship Hill. Here is my prior blog post about Friendship Hill.