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.

Who Remembers Fashion Bug?

Christmas tree decoration at former Hornes department store. NOT Fashion Bug. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

When I think of Christmas-time, I think about my times shopping at Fashion Bug.

Fashion Bug started as a women’s clothing store in Eastern Pennsylvania decades before I was born. I think that all or almost all of the stores were located in Pennsylvania.

By the time that I was in junior high school, we had our own Fashion Bug in a strip mall in Somerset. I lived in Berlin, which was about ten miles from Somerset and 30 miles from Johnstown. So, we did most of our shopping in Somerset. I was so excited when I saw regular advertisements for Fashion Bug in “Teen Magazine,” and then I realized that we had one of our very own in Somerset. I believe that this was the only time that I ever saw an advertisement in one of my magazines for a store actually located in Somerset.

I remember that the Fashion Bug ads included coupons for $10 off of a $30 purchase. The coupon was one big reason why I was permitted to purchase my eighth-grade winter coat from Fashion Bug in Somerset instead of from Kmart in Somerset. (Kmart and Fashion Bug shared the same strip mall in Somerset. Come to think of it, every single Fashion Bug at which I ever shopped was located in the same shopping center as a Kmart.)

After I outgrew “Teen Magzine,” my favorite thing about Fashion Bug was the adrenaline rush that I got from thinking that I saved a TON of money from shopping there during a “sale.” Everything that I ever purchased from that place included a price tag that indicated a significant price reduction. The store printed this same price reduction on the LONG receipts that I received with every bag of clothing. Every single item on my receipt would say something to the effect of “Full Price: $59.99. New Price: $14.99.” Then, the end of the receipt would say: “Total: $34.99. You Saved: $2,999.”

I once purchased a pair of sandals from Fashion Bug’s clearance rack for a college function for $6.99. Unfortunately, the shoes were so uncomfortable that I only wore them one or two times.

By the time that I graduated from college, I purchased most of my office “work clothes” from Fashion Bug. Twinsets, turtleneck sweaters, etc.

One time, I watched a “Saturday Night Live” skit in which a contestant on a fake dating game show identified herself as a Fashion Bug employee. The punchline was that the contestant didn’t have an opportunity to find love because she was too busy with her entry-level retail career at Fashion Bug. (I’m not laughing at retail employees. I worked in fast food next to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I worked a low-paying retail job at a non-Fashion Bug clothing store. I worked in the shoe department at Walmart. I am sure that the “Saturday Night Live” show writers did similar.)

What does this have to do with the winter holidays? Well, I bought SEVERAL of my winter coats from Fashion Bug. I Christmas shopped there. I bought a New Year’s Eve dress for my friend’s 21st birthday party there.

I miss Fashion Bug.

Bonkers Political Story Out of Johnstown, Pennsylvania

I lived in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for a few years out of college. I graduated from high school in a tiny town about one hour south of Johnstown. After college, the very first job that I found that included health insurance was in Johnstown. So, I stayed there for a few years until I was able to find a much better paying job in downtown Pittsburgh.

I actually went to Johnstown about once a month each month or so while I was growing up. Johnstown had the closest mall and the closest new release bookstore. We couldn’t order books off of Amazon because that’s how old I am. So, my mom drove me to the bookstore in Johnstown every time that a new Baby-Sitters Club book came out. I was in my high school’s marching band. We travelled to Johnstown to perform at football games and at the Halloween parade. My sixth grade class visited a bunch of the famous sites connected with the 1889 Johnstown Flood for our spring field trip. (You know – the site where the South Fork Dam burst, the flood museum in Johnstown, and of course, the cemetery where many of the flood’s over two thousand victims were buried.)

This story isn’t about all of the people who died in the Johnstown flood. This story is about ANOTHER calamity in Johnstown that killed a bunch of people in the 1800’s. I just learned about this particular calamity this month. I think that this is because Johnstown has just experienced SO MANY tragic mishaps.

This story is bonkers.

Anyway, in 1865, the Civil War ended and John Wilkes Booth assassinated President of the United States Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s Vice President, Andrew Johnson, became the new POTUS. Things did not go well for Andrew Johnson.

In 1866, Johnson took a “Swing Around the Circle” train trip. He was trying to convince people to like him better. In September 1866, Johnson’s train stopped in Johnstown, between his route from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg.

Thousands of people showed up in Johnstown to see Johnson and the Civil War heroes whom he (allegedly) pressured to travel with him. Maintenance staff in Johnstown built a viewing platform over an old canal for the spectators.

Hundreds of people stood on the platform.

The platform collapsed. Many spectators fell about 20 feet.

Several spectators were killed.

The train moved on to the next stop WHILE THE RESCUE AND RECOVERY WERE STILL IN PROGRESS.

Now, I don’t have the talent or the patience to write about Andrew Johnson. Especially not for a blog post here. Especially not on Thanksgiving Eve, while I have several shots of whiskey in me. That’s why God created Wikipedia on the eighth day!

When I was a kid, I read a children’s historical fiction novel about Andrew Johnson that I either found in a used book store or else I found in the back of a classroom. I think that it was called “The Tennessee Yankee” or else “The Yankee from Tennessee” or something. The book made Johnson out to be a hero. However, everything else that I ever read about Johnson after this pretty much called him a jerk. People are complicated. The American Civil War was complicated. Reconstruction was complicated.

I never had anything THIS exciting happen to me when I visited or lived in Johnstown. One of my co-workers from Johnstown told me that her ex-husband went to see Sting at the Johnstown War Memorial. Sting – ALLEGEDLY – performed so poorly that night that the crowd threw their beer bottles at him when he sang “Roxanne” for twenty or thirty minutes. So, that’s an exciting thing that happened in Johnstown – to somebody else – during my lifetime.

Thoughts on Selling Crappy Jewelry to Fight Pre-Marital Sex

So, before I moved to Pittsburgh so that I could take a job with my current employer in downtown Pittsburgh, I worked for an insurance-related firm in downtown Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

The Johnstown employer had its main office on the second floor of an office building that was connected to a crumbling parking garage on this same floor. A year after I left the job, the parking garage was condemned. However, when I still worked for the company, “anybody” could access our floor from that same level of the parking garage.

My employer’s office was in a U-shape. So, you could enter the lobby and talk to the receptionist. You could walk around our entire office in a U shape, and then exit the office through a back door that was very close to the front door.

For most of my three years at this employer, I sat at a cubicle with my back to this back door. This is important to the story.

I did not choose this cubicle. The cubicle was assigned to me.

This back door had a lock on it. Theoretically, one could exit the office through this back door, but the lock was supposed to prevent people from entering the office through this back door.

Theoretically.

My co-workers, when they felt like being jerks, propped this back door open so that they did not have to participate in unnecessary walking in order to enter the office through the main door and the main lobby where the receptionist sat.

Whenever I or the other woman who sat back there un-propped the door (for our own safety), other people in our office complained. Then, they propped the door open again.

Now, keep in mind, I sat with my back to this door.

Late one afternoon when I was the only person sitting in this back section of our office, a random guy in his twenties entered our office through this propped-open back door.

This random guy identified himself as a man who took a gap year from college or something so that he could travel the country in order to educate the public on the “dangers of premarital sex.” I think that he told me that he was doing this for Christ or something.

He told me that he was selling jewelry in order to fund his travels. Would I like to buy some crappy jewelry?

Fortunately, at that moment, my employer’s comptroller showed up. She escorted him off of my employer’s premises. I didn’t have to see him again.

I’m all for Christ. I think that Christ is awesome. (Pardon the pun.) I spent four years at a Roman Catholic Liberal Arts college.

However, anybody who has the cojones to just invite themselves into other people’s back offices like this in order to sell crappy jewelry is NOT a good public relations person for Christ.

Happy Friday, y’all.

Al Roker’s New Book Underwhelmed Me

Al Roker just put out a new book: Ruthless Tide: The Heroes and Villains of the Johnstown Flood, America’s Astonishing Guilded Age Disaster.

Al Roker’s new book underwhelmed me.

In my opinion, it rehashed much of  “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough. It didn’t provide enough new insights.

Here’s the thing: From ages 7 – 18, I lived in a small town in the Allegheny Mountains (the Laurel Highlands) about 30 miles from Johnstown.  Johnstown was the “city.” We drove to Johnstown frequently in order to access services that we didn’t have in our own town.  (Johnstown was much closer to us than Pittsburgh.)

At my school, we studied the Johnstown Flood of 1889 for weeks. We had to write essays about it. We toured the flood museums in downtown Johnstown and at the site of the South Fork dam that caused the flood. (Yes, multiple museums about the the Johnstown Flood exist.) We also visited the stone railroad bridge where many flood victims burned to death, as well as the cemetery where Johnstowners buried many of their flood victims. We saw the graves of the unidentified flood dead.

After college, I moved to Johnstown for three years for a job. I worked downtown. Every day, I walked past monuments to the victims of Johnstown’s three major deadly floods. I walked down the streets that the flood destroyed. I drove past and under the infamous stone railroad bridge. (Route 56 goes under the very edge of this bridge.)

After I left Johnstown, I purchased and read “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough.

Roker listed McCullough’s book as a source document. In fact, under his section “A Note on Sources and Further Reading,” Roker says, “The best-known modern book on the subject is David McCullough’s groundbreaking The Johnstown Flood, first published in 1968; its nearest predecessor similar in scope was Richard O’Connor’s Johnstown: The Day the Dam Broke, published in 1957.”

If you aren’t familiar with the Johnstown Flood of 1889, then first note this: downtown Johnstown is in a valley at a river confluence. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club was an exclusive, secretive, private club upstream from Johnstown.  Many of the very wealthy industrialists of Pittsburgh, including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick. Andrew Mellon, etc, belonged to this club.

On the days leading up to May 31, 1889, a significant amount of rain fell. On May 31, the dam on the private club’s private lake failed. The lake emptied into the valley below. This caused the Johnstown Flood of 1889.

To Roker’s credit, he did focus a great deal more than McCullough did on the actual members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.

However, if you needed to read one book – and only one book – on the Johnstown Flood, I recommend McCullough’s book over Roker’s book.

As a side note, Johnstown is upstream from New Kensington and Pittsburgh. McCullough’s book noted that flood debris and flood victims were carried to at least Pittsburgh. Here is my blog post about that.  

The Day The Johnstown Flood Came To The Allegheny

After the Johnstown Flood of May 31, 1889 killed at least 2,209 people, tourists took picnic lunches to Johnstown so that they could sight-see the damage.

People who lived along the Allegheny River (including the people of Parnassus) didn’t have to make this trip, though. The Johnstown Flood came to them.

You see, the South Fork dam upstream from Johnstown failed. The deluge wiped out several communities including downtown Johnstown and its surrounding neighborhoods. The debris washed downstream on the Conemaugh River.

Now, if you look at a map, you will see that we residents of Parnassus actually live downstream from Johnstown. Here’s why:

1.) The Little Conemaugh and Stoneycreek Rivers merge in downtown Johnstown (at Johnstown’s own “Point”)  to form the Conemaugh River.

2.) The Conemaugh flows into the Kiski at Saltsburg.

3.) The Kiski flows into the Allegheny.

4.)About ten miles later the Allegheny flows past Parnassus (the city of New Kensington wasn’t founded until 1891), then past numerous other river towns such as Verona.

5.) Eventually the Allegheny meets the Monongahela at Pittsburgh to form the Ohio.

Here’s a passage from Chapter IX of Pulitzer Prize-winning (and Pittsburgh native) David McCullough’s “The Johnstown Flood,” about the aftermath of the flood:

The Allegheny River, with its endless freight of wreckage, also continued to be an immense fascination. Children were brought from miles away to watch the tawny water slip past the shores, so that one day they might be able to say they had seen something of the Johnstown Flood. The most disreputable-looking souvenirs, an old shoe, the side of a packing box with the lettering on it still visible, were fished out, dripping and slimy, to be carried proudly home.

There were accounts of the most unexpected finds, including live animals. But the best of them was the story of a blonde baby found at Verona, a tiny river town about ten miles up the Allegheny from Pittsburgh. According to the Pittsburgh Press, the baby was found floating along in its cradle, having traveled almost eighty miles from Johnstown without suffering even a bruise. Also, oddly enough, the baby was found by a John Fletcher who happened to own and operate a combination wax museum, candy stand, and gift shop at Verona.

Fletcher announced his amazing discovery and the fact that the baby had a small birthmark near its neck. Then he hired a pretty nineteen-year-old, dressed her in a gleaming white nurse’s uniform, and put her and the baby in the front window of his establishment. Within a few days several thousand people had trooped by to look at the Johnstown baby and, it is to be assumed, to make a few small purchases from the smiling Mr. Fletcher. Then, apparently, quite unexpectedly, the baby was no longer available for viewing. The mother, according to Fletcher, had lived through the flood and, having heard the story back in Johnstown, rushed to Verona, identified the birthmark, and went home with her baby.

So if this story is true, in the aftermath of the Johnstown Flood somebody fished a live baby out of the Allegheny River at Verona. (Verona is downstream from Parnassus and upstream from Pittsburgh.)

So, voyeurs may have stood on the ruins of Fort Crawford in Parnassus or on the adjoining grounds of the Presbyterian Church as the debris of demolished towns and demolished lives discharged past them. Perhaps a looky-loo climbed down the river bank here to fish a souvenir out of the Allegheny.  Perhaps bodies washed ashore here.

I worked in downtown Johnstown for several years. Buildings there include plaques showing 1889’s high water mark and the downtown park features makers honoring the victims from Johnstown’s three deadliest floods (in 1889, 1936, and 1977). I often drove under the stone bridge that trapped many of the 1889 flood’s victims.

How sobering that the ruins of Johnstown coursed down the Allegheny, past all of these river towns on the way to Pittsburgh, in 1889.