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.

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.

Woytek Virtual House Tour Christmas 2020

Here is a photo of Wigilia (Christmas Eve) during a much simpler, pre-pandemic time. No, this photo will not appear in the video, but I am thinking of all of my friends and family right now with love. Thank you for all of the happy memories!)

I am so excited to present Jonathan and Jennifer Woytek’s Christmas 2020 Virtual House Tour. Jonathan finished this tonight especially for all of you, since we aren’t having visitors at our house this holiday season.

Our house was built in the 1890’s. I intend, at some later date, to blog a little bit about this house and the Victorian-era traditions that it might have seen.

Click here for the YouTube link.

Nor’easter in New Ken?

Beer Garden at Voodoo Brewery, downtown New Kensington, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. December 16, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I joked in a prior post that Krampus brought me a new camera for Krampusnacht.

In reality, I received a new camera for Christmas. The camera arrived on Krampusnacht. I tested it today during our first snowstorm of the winter.

I actually took these photos several hours ago. We have even more snow right now. The snow is still falling.

Alcoa Aluminum Smelter in Voodoo Brewery’s Beer Garden. December 16, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

You should see above a photo of the Alcoa aluminum smelter that now sits in Voodoo Brewery’s beer garden in New Kensington.

This relic sat for decades at Station Square in Pittsburgh. (Station Square is a dining and shopping district along the Monongahela River, directly across said river from downtown Pittsburgh.)

The property owner at Station Square no longer wanted it.

Now, Alcoa actually plays a role in New Kensington’s history. HUGE role.

So, a month ago, crews moved this smelter 20 miles to the beer garden on Fifth Avenue, New Kensington.

Pittsburgh’s loss. Our gain.

Here’s an article from the Trib about the Alcoa smelter if you want to read more about it.

To be honest, I have eaten out at Station Square many times. I went there for boat trips on the river when I was in high school. This smelter actually stood next to the dock that we used for these trips. I don’t remember EVER seeing the smelter during my trips to Station Square. I’m sure that this was because Station Square just had so much other things to see. Also, because back in the olden days, I wouldn’t have actually cared about an Alcoa smelter. I never had any interest in industrial history when when I was high school. (The only reason that I remembered Henry Clay Frick was because Emma Goldman’s boyfriend shot him during the Homestead riots.) I never cared about Alcoa until I met Jonathan Woytek and he brought me to New Kensington.

Now that this smelter sits down the street from my house, I am sure that I will have plenty of opportunities to check out the smelter as I sip on my Voodoo beer. Maybe take a few selfies in front of it.

Not now, of course. We are living through a snowstorm and also a global pandemic. But soon.

Catoris Candies, Fifth Avenue, New Kensington. December 16, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
This block is caddy-corner from the Beer Garden at Voodoo Brewery, downtown New Kensington. December 16, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Salisbury Steak and Political Swag

When my husband’s mother and grandmother were both still alive and healthy, they and my husband’s father all lived together up the hill from us. They invited us over to their house for a dinner of Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, twice a year , on Election Day.

Every single year, I said something to the effect of, “It’s fantastic that you guys celebrate the democratic process this way!”

Then, my husband and his mom, Fran, reminded me of the dinner’s true origins.

See, my husband’s grandmother – Babcia, as the family called her – worked for the City of New Kensington. She received a day off of work from the city on each Election Day. She used her “day off” to cook a dinner which ordinarily took her too long to prepare on normal work days – Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes.

(I know – I just know – that somebody out in cyberspace is going to read this and either think or say, “Look at those lazy public servants, getting Election Day off on the taxpayers’ dime.” I don’t care. I’m a taxpayer myself. If the City of New Kensington once paid my husband’s grandmother so that she could stay home and cook dinner for her family twice a year, whatever.)

After Babcia retired from the city, she and her daughter continued the Election Day tradition.

They passed away in 2015 and 2016. We were all heartbroken. Jonathan’s dad outdid himself in trying to keep up all of the family traditions, including the Election Day dinner. I give him a lot of credit.

Then Covid happened. We stopped the big family dinners.

Jonathan and I will eat dinner alone together today on Election Day. Then, Jonathan will spend the evening at a volunteer fire department training. I will write as I listen to music and try to not watch the Election Day news coverage.

Jonathan and I both voted this morning. I joked to Jonathan, as we left our polling place – the basement of a Presbyterian Church that sits on our street – that now we had to jump in our car and drive north to Rochester, New York. This way, I could attach my “I voted” sticker to the sticker guard that protects Susan B. Anthony’s tombstone. We didn’t actually drive to Rochester. We returned to our house to do laundry and telework at our day jobs.

My sister, E., texted me to tell me that she walked around a Civil War battlefield after she voted in Northern Virginia today.

E. and I – and our other three sisters – all grew up in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. In late August each year, we walked around the Somerset County fair. I picked up every bit of “free” political swag offered to me in the exhibition tent. Pens and notepads and wooden rulers and, of course, bumper stickers. I asked my parents if I could put the “free” bumper stickers on their car and truck. They always said no. My dad told me that we couldn’t ever put bumper stickers on our family autos because this would affect the resale value. I figured out later that most of these “free” bumper stickers listed the names of people for whom my dad would never vote.

When I was in the sixth grade, our social studies class held a mock presidential election to model the actual presidential election that fall. We each wrote down our choice of candidate on a piece of paper, folded the paper, and placed it in the “ballot box.”

The election was meant to be “anonymous.”

Unfortunately, the teacher picked two fellow students to count up all of the ballots.

I had “voted” for the same presidential candidate that I knew that both of my parents favored. I was the only person in my entire class – perhaps the entire sixth grade – who voted for this candidate.

Everybody in my class wanted to know which student had voted for this candidate.

The students who had been selected to count the ballots figured out that the unpopular vote came from me based on my handwriting.

The students who counted the votes snitched on me. They ratted me out as the person who had cast the lone vote of dissent.

My entire social studies class made fun of me for this.

My classmates did me a favor. They warned me back in the sixth grade about the way that people behave when they get caught up in groupthink. They warned me at the age of twelve that politics is a dirty game.

Happy Election Day, y’all.

Severe Weather Photos

New Kensington, Pennsylvania. April 8, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Here are some photos that I took of the damage from the severe storm that hit New Kensington early this morning.

New Kensington, Pennsylvania. April 8, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
New Kensington, Pennsylvania. April 8, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
New Kensington, Pennsylvania. April 8, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)
New Kensington, Pennsylvania. April 8, 2020. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)