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.

A Ghost Might Have Climbed Into Bed With Me (Subtitle: Be Careful What You Wish For!)

The bed and breakfast suite where we spent a spooky night. Jean Bonnet Tavern. Bedford, Pennsylvania.

The posts on this blog that receive the most hits are those about “haunted” Livermore Cemetery in Westmoreland County, Misery Bay in Erie, and my list of haunted history podcasts. My thoughts about William Crawford’s brutal life and his encounters with Simon Girty also scored big on the analytics. So, if you found my blog through searches on these topics, then I wrote this blog post for you.

Okay, so Route 30 as it winds up and down through Central and Western Pennsylvania – the Lincoln Highway – is one of this blog post’s biggest stars. Other writers have already published books and internet content about the ghosts and legends of the Lincoln Highway. (It definitely helps that Gettsyburg is located along Route 30!) I won’t regurgitate what they already said. I’m not gonna steal someone else’s piece of the ghost story pie. It’s totally okay with me if you go off and Google “Route 30” and “history” and “haunted.” Just please come back.

I spent my early childhood in Central Pennsylvania (near Harrisburg) and all of my living grandparents lived west of us, in the Pittsburgh area. Sometimes, when we drove between Central PA and Western PA, my dad wanted to save money on PA Turnpike tolls. On such trips, my dad drove us across the western half of PA on Route 30.

Now, once you travel from Bedford County into Somerset County, you will climb to the top of a mountain summit, then drop down said summit, and then climb to the top of another summit. Over and over again. More than once, my parents’ fully-loaded station wagon followed fully-loaded coal trucks up and down these summits. If you’re from Western PA, then you understand the pain of these trips. When I was seven, my family actually moved to a town on the top of one of these Allegheny Mountain summits, in Somerset County. We still followed coal trucks to my grandparents’ houses, but we didn’t have as many summits to climb and descend.

(Side story: Flight 93 crashed less than 20 miles from our family home in Somerset County in 2001. When the National Park Service established the Flight 93 Memorial, they built the memorial’s main access road off of Route 30. I read the Flight 93 Memorial reviews on Trip Advisor. One reviewer noted that she drove her camping trailer from the Flight 93 Memorial, up and down Route 30, into Bedford County. She described her trip as “hellish.”)

So, as you leave Bedford traveling west on Route 30 en route to the Flight 93 Memorial, Saint Vincent College (my alma mater), and Pittsburgh, you will come upon the Jean Bonnet Tavern.

Again, I won’t steal somebody else’s piece of ghost story pie by getting too deep into the history of this place. The Pittsburgh news runs at least one story every Halloween about the ghosts. Several writers published books about the stories here. A bunch of other ghost bloggers wrote about the Jean Bonnet Tavern much more thoroughly than I have the patience to do so.

Here are the basics: The tavern probably opened in the mid-to-late 1700’s. It now sits at the intersection of Route 30 and Route 31. Back in the 1700’s, these were both trails. Modern-day Route 30 was a major trail that ran from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. The tavern sat at the bottom of the first of a series of summits that travelers crossed to reach Pittsburgh. Since this was a crossroads, local lore claims that people in trouble with the law were hung here. George Washington might have stopped here.

The tavern today includes a restaurant and a bed and breakfast. I have eaten there several times as an adult. The basement dining room and the first floor dining room have different menus. The first floor dining room includes the option of outdoor seating. I’ve dined at all three options.

I never saw any ghosts when I dined at the Jean Bonnet. My sisters and I hope to see one each time that we visit.

Well, my husband and I finally booked a room on the second-floor bed and breakfast when we travelled to the area for a family event. We booked for a one night stay, which meant that I had ONE CHANCE to see a ghost overnight. Our room had one of those little books where you can write about your stay. Some of the recent entries noted, “I didn’t see any ghosts,” but most of the recent entries for that little book for that particular room DID mention ghost encounters. In most of these entries, the room guests reported being shoved or held down as they slept.

I sat in our room and said to my husband, “I will be really disappointed if I don’t meet a ghost tonight!”

Jonathan told me that I better be careful what I wish for.

I fell asleep because I was actually really tired from all of my quality time with my family.

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, I WOKE UP TO FEEL SOMEBODY PINNING ME DOWN IN THE BED.

The entity pinning me down wasn’t my husband. My husband was asleep on the other side of me.

I tried to wake up my husband, but I couldn’t move and I couldn’t talk. So, either I suffered sleep paralysis, or else a ghost put its arms around me when I was in bed.

I slept some more.

I woke up to the sound of classic rock music. It was Credence Clearwater Revival or something. And then an Elton John song. It sounded as if the music was coming from the floor below, from the restaurant area. As if somebody had turned on the restaurant’s sound system. I looked out the window. The only cars in the parking lot appeared to be ours and those of the other bed and breakfast guests. It didn’t appear that any Jean Bonnet employees had arrived for the day. It was only 5 a.m. I considered dressing and leaving my room to investigate the source of the music, but I was too tired to put that much effort into the investigation.

I fell asleep again.

I woke up again around 8. I no longer heard music.

Jonathan and I dressed and went to the dining area for our breakfast. The Jean Bonnet Tavern’s owner greeted us and asked us if we had encountered any of the ghosts.

I didn’t ask about the early-morning musical wake-up call. Perhaps another guest played the music from their room. Perhaps, as I suspected, the music did originate from the restaurant’s sound system. Perhaps one of the ghosts turned it on. Perhaps the sound system was set up on an automatic timer programmed incorrectly. Perhaps one of the restaurant employees screwed up. Perhaps a living human did it on purpose to perpetuate the ghost stories. (I watched too much Scooby-Doo in my childhood.) If a living, breathing human did cause the early-morning music, would the tavern owner cop to it? Or would she play it off and blame it on the ghost anyway? After all, the ghosts seem to be a pretty major part of the tavern’s marketing campaign.

I said, “Perhaps.”

***

Postscript from the blogger: See my post “Meeting Aaron Burr in the Alleghenies.” Former FLOTUS Julia Dent Grant wrote in her memoir that her own mother, Ellen Bray Wrenshall Dent, encountered Aaron Burr at a tavern in the Alleghenies. Mrs. Dent was traveling between her home in Pittsburgh and her school in Philadelphia at that time. The memoir does not provide the tavern’s name. However, I speculate that this happened at the Jean Bonnet Tavern.

Mrs. Dent was born in 1793. I am under the impression that Mrs. Dent would have been a schoolgirl in the first decade of the 1800’s. Keep in mind that Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in 1804. The Burr conspiracy allegedly happened in 1804/05 – 1807. Aaron Burr was arrested for treason in 1807.

So, was Burr in the process of planning the alleged Burr conspiracy when JDG’s mother saw him at the tavern? When JDG wrote in her memoir of “Aaron Burr and his army,” did JDG mean the militia that Burr allegedly raised for the conspiracy?

This story stands out to me because, in my mind, Mrs. Dent said to her children (including future FLOTUS Julia Dent Grant), “Did I ever tell you about that time that I met a very famous person? Wait until you hear this story!”

If you enjoyed reading this blog post, please share it with someone else who also loves history and folklore.

Glessner (Covered) Bridge

Glessner Covered Bridge
Glessner Bridge, Somerset County, PA. November 9, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I visit the Flight 93 National Memorial during some trips to my hometown of Berlin, PA. I travel from Berlin to the memorial on a series of back roads. (These roads are a much more direct way for me than the posted route on U.S. 30 / Lincoln Highway.)

On each trip, I pass signs for the Glessner Bridge. Tobias Glessner built this bridge in 1881. The bridge sits on the National Register of Historic Places.

Only five miles separates the Glessner Bridge from the Flight 93 National Memorial.

I visited the bridge last weekend.

If you visit the bridge, be mindful that you will leave the “main drag” of Route 30. You will travel past working farms. Last week, I had to slow down for chickens on the road. I also saw an Amish buggy. In other words, PAY ATTENTION as you drive. STAY OFF OF YOUR PHONE.

(Sidenote: Both my mother and my mother-in-law lived in rural Pennsylvania at points in their lives. Both women told stories of having to stop their cars for cows sitting in the middle of various farm roads. It happens.)

Also, here’s the barn that sits next to the bridge.

Red Barn
Red Barn, Somerset County, PA. November 9, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I Grew Up Near the Flight 93 Crash Site

This isn’t a political post.  I’m not going to repeat any rumors, conjectures, or hearsay. This is my personal experience on September 11, 2001.

Flight 93 crashed less than 10 miles from my parents’ house in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. I grew up in that house. In September 2001, I was between apartment leases, so I lived in that house with them and some of my sisters.

I worked at my first post-college “office job” in downtown Johnstown, PA. Johnstown sits just north of the Somerset County line.  Even though Johnstown is a third class city, the region south of it (in Somerset County) is pretty rural. My parents lived thirty miles south of Johnstown. When I commuted between my parents’ house and Johnstown, I drove through one traffic light.

I remember that a few days before 9/11, a resident of Davidsville (a “Johnstown suburb” that is actually in northern Somerset County) crashed his ultralight in somebody’s yard. This was not the first time that the guy crashed his ultralight. I saw this all over the local news. I was under the impression that the guy was okay.

On the morning of 9/11, I went to work at my employer’s office in Johnstown. We gathered in a conference room for our weekly meeting. Someone at the meeting mentioned that an airplane had crashed into a skyscraper in New York City.  We proceeded with the regular business of our meeting. We returned to our cubicles.

One of my co-workers turned on a television located on the other side of the office to watch the news coverage in New York. I ended up in front of the television. I watched the first tower collapse.

The television coverage also referenced a plane collision at the Pentagon.

The owner of the company that employed me walked over to the television and told his employees to get back to work.  I went back to my desk. One of my co-workers walked past my desk to tell me that the second tower had fallen.

THEN, the daughter of the company’s owner rushed through the office. She announced loudly that an airplane had just crashed in Somerset County.

I said, “No.  That wasn’t an airplane. That’s an ultralight. This guy in Davidsville keeps crashing his ultralight.”

The company owner’s daughter said, “No, it was an airplane that crashed.”

Really? In Somerset County?

I emailed my good friend E. who worked in downtown Pittsburgh on that day. E. told me that her office was being evacuated.

Well, it just so happens that a United States federal courthouse sits in Johnstown. So, public officials announced an evacuation of downtown Johnstown.

Even though my employer had told me only an hour or so previously to “go back to work!,” I got to evacuate my office.

Here’s the problem: I lived south of Johnstown, in Somerset County. And, we had just learned that an airplane crashed south of Johnstown, in Somerset County.

There was very, very  limited information available online about the airplane that had just crashed in Pennsylvania. We didn’t have Twitter back then. I didn’t own a smartphone, and I didn’t use any social media. I heard rumors from my co-workers that the main highway and a bunch of other local roads were closed south of Johnstown, but I didn’t have any concrete information about this.

Finally, I couldn’t call my parents. I tried, and none of my calls went through. So many other people tried to make phone calls at that same time!

I got into my car and turned on the radio. The local radio personalities didn’t have any helpful information for me. So, I decided to just drive towards home and see if I hit any road closures. I reasoned that if I came upon any, I could just detour on a back road. (I didn’t own a smartphone or a GPS system. However, I learned how to drive on a series of farm roads between my parents’ house and Johnstown. I reasoned that I could just “wing it” on the back roads of rural Pennsylvania if I needed to do so.)

It turned out that the local authorities closed the main highway just north of downtown Johnstown, but they left the highway open south of Johnstown.

So, I made it home by taking my usual route.  I didn’t actually see any barricades or any sign of the crash.

Then, someone drove past my parents’ house in a pickup truck with a bed full of gas cans.

A few days after 9/11, my employer at that time wrote a letter to the local Johnstown newspaper proposing that a memorial to the Flight 93 passengers be installed next to the convention center in Johnstown. The newspaper printed his letter.

Look, I know that my story isn’t very exciting. I don’t have firsthand testimony to support anybody’s theory of WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

However, I won’t forget the day that I watched television coverage of three airplane collisions into nationally known buildings, and then learned that a fourth plane had crashed “somewhere” between my workplace and my home.