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.

Soldiers’ Lot, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh

Cannon. Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. November 10, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

In 2018, I took a guided tour of Allegheny Cemetery. This cemetery is on the National Register of Historic places.

 Allegheny Cemetery includes a National Cemetery Administration’s soldiers’ lot. The Allegheny Cemetery Soldiers’ Lot is located in Section 33 of Allegheny Cemetery. The majority of the 303 soldiers buried here were Civil War soldiers. Most of the burials were of Union soldiers; however, the lot also contains several Confederate soldiers.

I returned to the Soldiers’ Lot in 2019 in order to take some photos.

Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. November 10, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I didn’t have any prior knowledge of this following soldier, but I Googled his name when I returned home.

From the Veterans Affairs / website for Allegheny Cemetery Soldiers’ Lot: Corporal John M. Kendig (Civil War). He received the Medal of Honor while serving in the U.S. Army, Company A, 63rd Pennsylvania Infantry, for actions at Spotsylvania, Virginia, May 12, 1864. His citation was awarded under the name of Kindig. He died in 1869 and is buried in Section 33, Lot 66, Site 32.

Corporal John M. Kendig (Civil War). He received the Medal of Honor.
Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. November 10, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Here’s a grave for an unknown Union (United States) Civil War soldier:

Unknown U.S. Soldier grave.
Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. November 10, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Finally, here is a Confederate grave that I saw at the Soldiers’ Lot. Note how the headstone differs from that of a Union soldier.

Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. November 10, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Absolute Best History Podcasts

Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. November 10, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Here are my absolute favorite history podcasts. These are the podcasts to which I re-listen to episodes.

I, personally, download podcasts from iTunes. However, I linked to each podcast’s website.

1.) Uncivil, from Gimlet Media, hosted by Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika

I blogged about this Civil War podcast a few months ago. Each episode discussed stories and events that aren’t part of the common Civil War narrative. For instance, one episode taught me about female soldiers who enlisted in the army as men. Many of the episodes featured stories and events involving African Americans.

I complained about this podcast last year because Season #1 ended with no announcement and Gimlet said nothing about the status of Season #2.

2.) American Hauntings Podcast by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck

I included American Hauntings because the podcast actually taught me more about history then it did about the supernatural.

I posted about American Hauntings last month. Co-host Cody Beck commented on my post! Thanks, Cody!

Season #4 is Haunted New Orleans! I learned that Jean Lafitte the pirate might actually have NO actual connection to the building known as “Lafitte’s” Blacksmith Shop Bar. That the most graphic stories about Madame LaLaurie’s mansion may be fiction. (Though the LaLaurie family’s brutal cruelty towards their enslaved servants DID happen.) I learned about “quadroon balls.”

I even learned that Nicholas Cage (who also owned the LaLaurie Mansion) purchased for himself a pyramid-shaped tomb in New Orleans’ St. Louis Cemetery No. 1!

The entire first season highlighted Alton, Illinois. I didn’t even know that Alton existed until I found American Hauntings. I learned that Alton competed economically with St. Louis. It hosted a Civil War Prison AND a tuberculosis sanitarium. A LOT of people died horrible deaths in Alton.

I learned that an abolitionist named Elijah Lovejoy ran a printing press in St. Louis. Three angry mobs destroyed Lovejoy’s printing press three separate times. Lovejoy moved to Alton, Illinois and bought yet another printing press.  A FOURTH angry mob, this time in Alton, destroyed Lovejoy’s fourth printing press. Also, the fourth angry mob shot and killed Lovejoy.

The Season #2 taught me about St. Louis, Missouri. Season #2 included a multi-episode feature on the Lemp brewing family. I learned that the most atrocious stories about the Lemps did NOT happen! (There is NO record that the young boy known as “Zeke” Lemp actually existed. Charles Lemp DIDN’T kill his dog. Lillian Lemp AKA “the Lavender Lady” DID face a child custody challenge from her ex-husband after she wore trousers in a photo.)

The audio quality of the episodes in the middle of the first season was not great. However, the audio quality improved greatly in Season #2.

Season #3, titled Murdered in Their Beds, covered the string of midwestern ax murders (including Villisca) that occurred at the turn of the last century. This was my least favorite season.

3.) Southern Gothic by Brandon Schexnayder

Each episode explored a dark historical event, place, or folklore tale from American Southern history.

I included Southern Gothic on this list because the host did advise when folklore did not match historical records. For example, in the episode about the Myrtles Plantation, the host noted that dates on the local death records do not match the storyline involved with the plantation’s most famous ghost story. (Troy Taylor mentioned this same thing during an episode of American Hauntings.)

What I’ve Been Reading: “The Huntress”

Last summer, Jonathan gave me a copy of “The Huntress” by Kate Quinn for my birthday. World War II novels aren’t really my thing, so I put it in my stack of “to be read” books.

I’ve been sick since the day after Christmas until yesterday, so I read “The Huntress.” It was so good! I could not put it down. This is a historical fiction novel about a British Nazi hunter in the 1950’s mixed with flashbacks from a female Soviet fighter pilot (a member of the Night Witches in World War II) and also the tale of a Boston teenager whose father married a German war refugee with a shadowy past.

Here’s a random scene that pleased me to read: the British Nazi hunter walked into his office and saw his team member, the female Soviet pilot, reading the 1950’s British Regency romance novel “Regency Buck” by Georgette Heyer.

The Brit asked the Soviet woman, “Why do you read that tosh?

She responded, “I come to library my first month in Manchester – need books to learn about England, practice my reading. The librarian, she says, “Georgette Heyer is England.” Is not much like the England I see, but maybe is the war?

I personally didn’t read “Regency Buck” by Georgette Heyer, but I DID read “The Spanish Bride” by Georgette Heyer. Now, romantic historical fiction doesn’t have a very good reputation for literary snobs. However, it fills its own role in a nation’s culture. Georgette Heyer researched her historical fiction. She wrote the book “The Spanish Bride” about the adventures of real-life army wife Juana Smith during the Napoleonic Wars, and she based the tale partly on the memoirs of Smith’s husband, Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith. (Sir Harry served as a junior British officer during the Peninsula Wars. He was at the White House when the British burned it down during the War of 1812. He was at the Battle of New Orleans when Andrew Jackson defeated the British. He was at Waterloo. He commanded his own victory in India. He became a governor of British South Africa.)

Now that I think about it, the fictional character in “The Huntress” who read Georgette Heyer novels was a war refugee who spoke no English when she entered into a marriage of convenience with a British man who could keep her from starving to death. Real-life Juana Smith was also a war refugee, and she did the same thing.

I like to think that back in the 1950’s, a British librarian really DID tell war refugees to improve their English and learn about England by reading Georgette Heyer romance novels.

******* This last paragraph contains spoilers: Most of the English Regency romance novels (and also most of the non-English Regency romance novels that are STYLED after English Regency romance novels) that I read include the following story line: a woman marries a man because she HAS to marry him. She needs to have a husband so that she doesn’t get raped, so that she isn’t labeled as promiscuous, so that she can get her papers to emigrate to England. Whatever. The man agrees to the marriage of convenience out of the goodness of his heart because he sees himself as the woman’s protector. Both parties agree that it’s a paper marriage. However, as the story progresses, the couple falls in love with each other. The exact same thing happened in “The Huntress” between the British Nazi hunter and the female Soviet fighter pilot. ******

The Civil War Time Capsule

The Civil War Room. Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall. Carnegie, PA.
The Civil War Room. Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, Carnegie, PA. November 25, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Andrew Carnegie endowed the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, in 1901.

In 1906, the Captain Thomas Espy Post No. 153 of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) established a meeting room on the second floor. The GAR was a fraternal organization open to honorably discharged Union soldiers, sailors, or marines of the American Civil War.

The Civil War Room. Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, Carnegie, PA. November 25, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

After the final member of this GAR post died in the 1930’s, somebody locked up this room with the GAR’s Civil War collection – its library, flags, etc. – inside the room. The room stayed locked for the next 50 years. The room became a time capsule.

This Bible belonged to the Captain Thomas Espy Post No. 153 of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR).
The Civil War Room. Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, Carnegie, PA. November 25, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

The room suffered water damage and deterioration. Preservationists restored the room into a Civil War museum – the Civil War Room – in 2010.

Volunteers open the museum to the public during limited hours. They opened it for viewing the night of Marie Benedict’s talk on Carnegie’s Maid.

The Civil War Room. Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, Carnegie, PA. November 25, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
The Civil War Room. Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, Carnegie, PA. November 25, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Perry Monument, Erie, PA

Perry Monument, Presque Isle State Park, Erie, Pennsylvania. American flags. Veterans Day
Perry Monument, Presque Isle State Park, Erie, PA. October, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Here is the monument dedicated to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry at Presque Isle State Park, Erie, PA.

This monument sits on a small penninnsula between Misery Bay and Presque Isle Bay, near the entrance to the Port of Erie.

Here is my prior blog post about Misery Bay.