• Railroad telegraphy-Railroad vs. International Morse Code

  • Discussion related to railroad radio frequencies, railroad communication practices, equipment, and more.
Discussion related to railroad radio frequencies, railroad communication practices, equipment, and more.

Moderator: Aa3rt

  by Aa3rt
We had a good discussion of this topic on the previous version of this site. Unfortunately a lot of good information was lost.

My father recently gave me a pamphlet from The Morse Telegraph Club of Freeport, Illinois. They don't have a website, and internet seaches have not been rewarding to this point (or perhaps I haven't hit the right combination of words to search on yet). Anyhow, the pamphlet does provide a side by side comparison of International and American or "Railroad" Morse Codes.

The differences I've noted were the following letters and all digits EXCEPT the number 4.

F, J, L, O, P, Q, R, X, Y, Z

The text on the back of the pamphlet does state that "The Morse telegraph was used on some American shortline railroads into the 1980's, and continues to be used on railroads in Mexico and other South American countries".

Is anyone familiar with when telegraphy gave way to radios/telephones? And what shortlines were still using Morse Code in the 1980's, or is this just a bit of fanciful fiction?
Last edited by Aa3rt on Fri Jul 16, 2004 9:54 am, edited 1 time in total.

  by va3ori
To be perfectly honest with you, Art, I cannot imagine ANY railroad using telegraphy into the 1980's, though I stand ready to be disabused! I'll do a bit of checking, but I would guess that by the early sixties, telegraphic communications on railroads was a thing of the past. Certainly by the time Telex came into being, commercial telegraphy was also quite gone. Still, it is a worthwhile subject for research, so let's hope that between us (meaning EVERYONE who reads this forum, we'll come up with some definitive answers.

By the way, I picked up a beautiful old Vibroplex bug complete with carrying box and sounder, at a fleamarket a few years back. It is in great shape but needs a bit of cleaning and new wiring. I will be taking lessons in "land Morse" (a.k.a. "commercial" or "American" Morse) and hope to be able to set up a demonstration station.

Should anyone be planning to visit the Canadian Railway Museum at St. Constant, Quebec, you will be able to see a demonstration of railway telegraphy. When I was there, one operator was stationed at the new-built "depot" and a second one at an old depot which has been moved to the museum site. At the main station (actually the welcome centre), you can send a telegram to yourself by filling out a paper and giving it to the telegrapher who is a retired railway operator. He will telegraph the message to the other operator. You then take the tram through the museum grounds ot the other station where you can collect your telegram. The operators are bilingual so you will not have any language problems. It is a marvelous way to get the flavour of the art and, if you happen to know Morse code yourself, it is a great way to compare knowledge. I found it fairly easy to copy the clicks of the sounder and other than the letters and numbers that differ betwieen the two codes, it did not take a long time to decipher the different mode. The operators were very accomodating.

vy 73. Ori

  by Ken W2KB
I know an ex-tower operator from the CNJ. He knows the Amercan Morse from his CNJ days. My very vague recollection is that he told me it was phased out on that RR in the 1950's.

  by w2dsx
This website had several great threads on this topic, but they were lost when the site was reconfigured. Last holdout for morse was up in Alaska, and it was indeed in the '80s. Reason was there were no shortage of operators willing to endure the conditions up there (score one for nostalgia) and a morse wire is very simple to maintain. I wish I had a copy of that info, but cie la vie...

The NHRHTA has a good thread about the last of telegraphy on the New Haven, and a google search should reveal more, maybe some of the info from a couple of the old lightning slingers that were around when this site was new...

73 & cheers! Jim w2dsx

  by Aa3rt
Thanks for the response-to be perfectly honest, the Alaska Railroad never occurred to me.

I originally brought this subject up on the old site, as I'm involved in the restoration of a caboose and obtaining displays for the La Plata (MD) Train Station Museum. The museum curator has expressed an interest in having an operating telegraph sounder that would, if nothing else, broadcast the station's call sign at the touch of a button as a demonstration for visitors.

  by Ken W2KB
The old telegraph sounders and keys do show up on Ebay from time to time.

  by Richard Y
If I every get up to Quebec, will have to check out that Canadian Railway Museum. I have been to the Sacramento Railroad Museum, but cannot remember if they had any displays of early telegraph equipment. I just recently went to a nice, but small, railroad museum which is in the same building as Amtrak in Whitefish, Montana, but cannot remember much in the way of telegraph equipment on display.
It is interesting you can sometimes buy old telegraph items on E-Bay. Will have to watch for them. Would like to buy some antique railroad lanterns.
A few months ago, in a TRAINS magazine article, it had some pictures of a dispatcher's office at the Cajon pass, near San Bernadino. The pictures were from the early 1950's, I believe. It did say they had older telegraph equipment stricly for back-up. If even showed an old telegraph receiver box resonator, somwhat similar to:

It is hard to believe they still used these as late as the 1950's
I would guess they are hard to come by and are farily valuable?

Dick /WA6ZFM

  by MC8000
I can recall the Grand Trunk Western having a Morse line up until 1970 on the Chicago Division. By that time, it was used only occasionally. The operators at Lapeer Jct. in Michigan used to send some of the consist reports to Battle Creek with it when the teletype machine was down, which was frequent.
Also, the Milwaukee Road had a wire up until at least the early eighties on the main line between Chicago and Minneapolis. I recall the operator at Duplainville tower using it when I was there for a visit in the early eighties.
The NdeM used telegraph to copy train orders and messages well into the 1990s out of Nogales, I have a recording of the operator at Aqua Zarca station copying train orders by wire in 1992.
Surprising how long this stuff held on in some of those places. I'm sure that there was much more out there that I wasn't aware of, perhaps someone else will comment.
"73" Charlie
  by va3ori
When I visited the Whitefish depot/museum almost three years ago, there was indeed a display of telegraphic equipment. One of the bugs was hooked up to a clacker and I was able to try out my fist. Not sure what they were using as a power supply, but I'm assuming a battery of some persuasion. The museum, though small, has some very nice artifacts and should not be missed if you are in the area.

vy 73. Ori
  by Richard Y
I hope I don't have early Alzheimers, Ori. You are right, now that I think about it there was some sort of telegraphy display at the Whitefish railroad museum. Yes, it was small but an interesting museum to visit. I guess you have to call and let someone know you want to visit it. I don't know if it has regular visiting hours.
It's been 9-10 years since I have visitied the California State Railroad Museum at Sacramento. I cannot recall if there are early telegraph paraphernalia or any telegraph displays at the museum. Maybe someone can recall, for me.
By the way, if anyone on the forum has not seen the Sacramento museum, it is fantastic. It is worthwhile visit just to see the Leland Stanford Locomotive No 1:


73's - Dick

  by va3ori
I hope to be visiting a couple of museums next summer, Sacramento's being just one of them!

  by clearblock
The Rochester Genesee Valley RR Museum has had a working telegraph sounder display at Industry Depot for several years. Until recently it was operated by a cassette tape device. It was just upgraded by one of our members to operate from code generated by a laptop PC. You can see the text displayed on the PC as it is heard on the sounder.

The sounder was also upgraded with the addition of an authentic Prince Albert tobacco can resonator.

I have not been able to get my ear tuned to copy the clicks from the sounder. Everything sounds like all "dits" to me plus the differences from international Morse.

Dick, K2HZ

  by va3ori
I really must get to the Rochester museum. I had planned on taking The Breeze across the lake, but alas, the service has been suspended.

In any case, I understand your problem with copying those clicks and clacks. It certainly is different from a continuous wave! It is a pity that this has become a dying art. I've been telling myself to get off my duff and take lessons from a local ham who retired after 35 years as a railway dispatcher - many of those years spent at the telegraph key. It seems that it will be up to us, the hams who still have Morse code in our backgrounds, to preserve this archaic form of communications, a form developed for and by the railways! Just MHO...

cheers es vy 73, Ori
  by ChiefTroll
I can't remember the source, but I'm sure I remember hearing at the time, early 1980's, that the last active railroad telegraph circuits in the Continental US were still in service up to that time on the B&O between Cumberland, MD and Connellsville, PA.

When one of our D&H transportation officials went to work for the Soo Line around 1968 he told me that the SOO was still using telegraph for issuing train orders in the Dakotas at the time.

The last active railroad telegraph circuit I saw personally in actual use was on the New York Central between BN Tower (the Junction between the Electric and Putnam Subdivisions in The Bronx) and MO Tower at Mott Haven Junction in 1961, and probably later. It just happened that most of the operators at BN and MO were telegraphers, and they used the circuit for BN to OS trains to the Hudson Division Operator at MO. They could also do it by telephone, but the telegraph was much quicker.

The justification for retaining telegraph was usually cost. It can be expensive to upgrade a wire circuit from telegraph to telephone service, and keep it reliable. On the other hand, telegraphers became scarce, and therefor expensive. So you had that trade-off. Also, with telephone circuits, train crews could communicate without the need for a telegrapher, so there went an item of expense.

I suspect that when you hear mention of "short lines" regarding railroad telegraph service, the term refers to a "short telegraph line," like a local message or block circuit, and not a "short line" railroad. Most of them had converted to either company telephone, Bell phone, or radio before the Class I's had retired their telegraph circuits.

Gordon / WJ3K

  by jarubel
Here's a link for the Morse Telegraph Club.


They also have a forum over there, and I'm sure someone there can answer any questions a person might have about American Morse.