The telegraph–railroad connection


The history of the railroad would be incomplete without the telegraph. When the U.S. transcontinental railroad was built., a line of telegraph wires was run parallel to it to facilitate instant communication. “Railroad time” was instrumental in standardizing local timekeeping so as to match up to the schedule of the trains. (Excerpts taken from “The Great Courses Daily” by Wondrium.)

Each railroad station had an agent who sold tickets, handled baggage and accounted for inbound and outbound freight, which included shipments of coal, grain, lumber, potatoes and livestock. He was also the telegraph operator for handling the train orders and public telegrams.

During the “Great Dakota Boom” from 1878 through 1887, a new railroad came through South Dakota. This was the C&NW’s main rival, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul and Pacific railroad. The Milwaukee depot was built in 1886, and telegraph wires were placed in 1887.

Mr. V.A. Garlock spent 55 years “pounding a telegraph key.” He learned to use the telegraph key in 1904 and was stationed in Lake Preston on Dec. 4, 1918. When Garlock retired on Oct. 1, 1960, he had seen many changes. The first box cars he billed out of Lake Preston had a capacity of 30,000 tons; in 1960, they each had a capacity of up to 125,000 tons. The number of trains decreased from a passenger and a freight train each day in 1904 to just two freights a week.

Sadly, the interstate highway system spelled the end of the passenger trains. Reduced freight loads became less profitable.

The actual telegraph key that played such an important part in railroad history in our area is located in the new “Planes, trains and automobiles” section of our museum.


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