Born in 1882 and trained as a teacher, John Ferverda instead went to work for the Big Four railroad in 1904 as a station agent and telegraph operator in Silver Lake, Indiana, near where his family lived. By 1907, John had accepted a position in Rushville, Indiana as station agent where he would meet Edith who was destined to become his wife – and my grandmother.
A station agent, especially in smaller stations, was responsible for everything. People, cargo, schedules and especially telegraph communications known as telegraphy which kept everyone on time and safe.
On their marriage application on November 16, 1908, John lists his occupation as a telegraph operator.
In January 1910, Edith and John returned to Silver Lake where he became the station agent. They purchased the house next door to the depot.
John’s brother, Roscoe Ferverda bought the house across the street and he too eventually became the station agent after my grandfather resigned the position. In the 1930 census, Roscoe was the station agent at Silver Lake.
In 1913, based on newspaper articles, it appears that John was assigned to Markleville, just north of Rushville, perhaps only temporarily.
He was back in Silver Lake before 1915 when, according to the November 13th edition of the Fort Wayne, Indiana newspaper, another agent was sent as a relief agent for “John at the Big 4” while he had surgery on his eye in Cincinnati. Hmmm, I didn’t know my grandfather had surgery on his eyes. I wonder why. Photos in later years show a droopy eyelid. I also wonder if either the condition or the surgery had anything to do with what happened in January 1916.
John was apparently back at work by November 27th, when the newspaper announced that the stork had left a baby boy at the home of ” John Ferverda, our genial agent at the Big Four station” and his wife.
On January 8, 1916, the Rushville Republican newspaper carried an article stating that John Ferverda, “the Big Four Agent at Silver Lake,” had resigned his position with the railroad and had purchased a hardware store with a partner.
The History of Kosciusko County, Indiana, published in 1919, provides us with a little more information about John Ferverda.
Having mastered the art of telegraphy, he entered the service of the Big Four Railway as an operator, was assigned at different stations along that system and remained in that service about 10 years.
The Big 4 Railroad
I had never heard of The Big 4 before, and as it turns out, there are two Big 4s, also written as Big Four. The one that interests us is the railroad company that operated across Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.
This map shows the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway (Big Four) drawn on the New York Central system as of 1918.
In 1906, the Big 4 was acquired by the New York Central Railway which operated it independently until 1930. In 1968, the line was incorporated into Penn Central and later into Conrail, CSX and Norfolk Southern.
How or why John Ferverda learned to operate a telegraph machine is lost to history. The local history book indicated that he lived at home until he was 22. John attended a teacher’s academy, was credentialed to teach, but never did. In 1904, he would have been 22 and finished with his classes.
Given that the article in the Kosciusko County History book states clearly that he had mastered the art of telegraphy, then entered the Big Four Railroad service as an operator, we know that he didn’t learn on the job. This causes me to wonder where he practiced, given that his parents were Brethren, lived in the country, and assuredly did not have electricity in their home.
One cannot learn Morse code, the “language” of the telegraph without practicing and becoming proficient. Proficiency using Morse code is measured by either words per minute or characters per minute, and a telegraph operator for a railroad had to be proficient and speedy, which means he had to have practiced regularly using a unit to both send and receive.
I’ve been curious for some time – what, exactly, did a telegraph operator for a railroad do? How did they communicate before the remote areas were entirely wired for electricity? According to my mother, their house didn’t have electricity initially, so the depot next door probably didn’t either. John worked at this profession for a dozen years, a significant amount of his life.
I wanted to know more. Genealogists always want to know more!
By the time I came along, telegraph operators were either obsolete, or at least I had never come across one. The Big Four was gone, and my grandfather died before I could ask him any questions at all.
My mother wasn’t born until 1922, several years after John had resigned the position, so she wouldn’t have been able to answer many questions either.
However, I do have a secret weapon resource at my disposal.
My husband, Jim.
No, Jim didn’t know my grandfather, but Jim is a super bright geeky “radio guy,” meaning an amateur radio operator, known colloquially as a “ham,” and has been for about 50 years. Literally since he was a kid. He was licensed by the FCC to operate a radio before he was old enough to drive! And, he’s proficient at Morse code. Sends, receives and understands it. Plus, he’s a history buff. My lucky day!
If you have a question about radio, or anything to do with radio or electronics, just ask Jim, because if he doesn’t know the answer, guaranteed, he’ll find it for you. And he’ll enjoy it to boot.
Jim and the ARRL
Jim (call sign K8JK) just happens to be the Michigan section manager for the ARRL, the American Radio Relay League, headquartered in Newington, CT.
Recently, Jim attended training at the ARRL headquarters and invited me along. While Newington, in and of itself, unless you’re a “ham” isn’t any sort of Mecca, I like to support his endeavors AND I’m a ham myself, just barely.
I am also extremely interested in genealogy and history, which I know comes as a shock to my readers, and when I discovered that I had ancestors that settled within an hour’s drive, I was all in. Oh yea!
Each day I dropped Jim off at ARRL headquarters, and at the end of the day, picked him up again.
On the last day, the class attendees really did get to go to “ham Mecca” and entered the sacred ground of the small house located in front of the current ARRL building. That initial house had been the location purchased by the founder of the ARRL, Hiram Percy Maxim, whose “rig” has been preserved with its original call sign of W1AW.
The building includes several operator booths, along with antique radios and telegraph keys. Each class attendee was able to spend time transmitting in the original W1AW “ham shack” as a guest operator.
Now you know where this is going, right?
Amateur radio operators still use Morse code at times to communicate, and telegraph keys were created and used for exactly that purpose – in train stations and depots. My grandfather clearly knew how to use this equipment and did daily for a dozen years. I’d still love to know why he decided to take up telegraphy, because aside from trains, I don’t know why or who else in northern Indiana would have a need for a telegraph operator. Perhaps he saw an opportunity and embraced it.
Thank goodness he did, or I wouldn’t be here. So you could say I’m in eternal debt to Morse code for my very existence.
Questions – So Many Questions
I really enjoyed visiting the museum in the W1AW building – and peppered Jim with questions.
What is that?
How does it work?
Which one of these keys, the device used by telegraph operators to transmit Morse code, would have been used by the railroads?
Between 1904 and 1916?
How about on the Big 4 Lines?
How did the keys work?
What is that lever?
How do these connectors work?
Why is there air?
Morse Code, Telegraphs and Why There’s Air
Jim very graciously agreed to explain all this, in technical terms, but not too technical. Just technical enough. I get the idea somehow that he made the offer in self-defense, because by that time, I was digging through his boxes of “sacred antique stuff” (also referred to as “junk”) hoping to find an old telegraph key that might have been used in a Big 4 depot.
I allowed myself to be shooed out of his office when he offered up the article:)
Jim’s guest article begins here:
Hi, my name is Jim Kvochick (K8JK), or Mr. Estes as I’m called at genealogy and DNA conferences. My lovely wife, who is also a ham operator (K8RJE), has asked me to explain what life was like for a telegraph operator when her grandfather, John Ferverda, was working for the Big 4 Railroad in Indiana between 1904 and 1916. It’s hard to believe that was a century ago. Morse code was invented in 1836 by Samuel Morse and is still used in various formats today. In many ways, Morse code as a language is universal and timeless.
Ever since the beginnings of time, people have been trying to communicate over distances greater than the human voice could reach. Early attempts included the use of smoke signals, signal fires, waving flags, and the moving arms of semaphores, shown below.
Mirrors were also used to flash the image of the sun to distant observers.
Railroads had a need for communications as well and clearly their requirement extended beyond the range of visual communications. Early attempts involved a method for attaching hand written messages called “train orders” on a large hook extending from the station. As the train slowly approached the train depot, the conductor on the moving train would reach out to grab the incoming messages, and “hook” the messages or mail destined for that location. If the conductor missed, the station operator had to run alongside the moving train with the messages on a long pole, reaching towards the conductor.
Train orders advised the locomotive engineer of changes in schedule, planned stops, or any other details needed to complete their run. Harnessing electricity was a welcome innovation but adapting that technology to long distances was challenging.
Utilizing electricity, wires were stretched from one point to another and an electric current was either allowed to flow through the wires or broken by a switch called a telegraph key. The key below dates from about 1900.
The electric current was first used to make marks on a paper tape and later, it was used activate a “sounder” which made clicking sounds. The short and long times between the clicks could be decoded into letters from the alphabet.
The round discs on the sounder key above are electromagnets and the sounder portion is the spring lever with the tab on the left, shown with the red arrow. The lever gets pulled up against the large metal bar to its right, between the sounder and the electromagnets and makes an audible click when the two pieces of metal touch.
By the early 1900’s most train stops utilized mechanical sounder devices and trained the station operators on sending and receiving Morse code.
The schematic shown above is the design of a typical station telegraph, like what would have been on John’s desk.
This revolutionary discovery allowed people to communicate instantly over distances that had required days or weeks for horse or train-carried messages.
Telegraph stations were set up along railroads first because the right-of-way had already been cleared and it was easy to set up poles to carry the telegraph wires, although unexpected challenges arose. For example, while curved train tracks weren’t problematic, it took several failed attempts before learning that poles located on curves needed to be braced or they fell over due to the weight of the wires. Copper wires stretched, steel wires rusted and broke. Eventually, through trial and error, the right combination was achieved of braced poles and copper coated steel wire.
Railroad dispatchers sent messages via telegraph to control the movement of trains and the wires also began to carry messages telling of news events and business transactions.
Of course, this also meant that the telegraph operator knew everything within the community, and in particular, was the first to receive messages deemed important enough to be telegraphed to the recipient.
It has been said that the “electric telegraph” was the most significant invention of the 19th century. At the very end of the 19th century, it became possible to communicate by telegraph without using wires. This ‘wireless’ telegraph system paved the way for all of today’s complex wireless communications systems.
Although telephone communication began in the 1880’s within a local geography and expanded into long distances beginning in the 1890’s; telegraph signaling held the advantage due to lower costs and minimal infrastructure required. Radio communications was beginning to come into popular usage, but the cost per unit was too prohibitive to deploy widely. To further reduce the cost of installing the telegraph system, only a single wire was used, with reference to an earth ground to complete the circuit.
Many of the stops along the train tracks did not have electric power, so to successfully operate the telegraph stations at that time required the use of batteries.
Batteries in the 1900’s were large open jars containing electrodes and acid, requirimg constant attention by the station operator. Remember too that in many cases there was no commercial power available to charge these batteries. John Ferverda would most likely start out each day with a check of the battery condition and perform the required maintenance to keep his telegraph station running.
Early batteries used highly toxic chemicals which were stored in the station agent’s office. These batteries and their chemicals including sulfuric acid, zinc and copper, created toxic gasses which were eventually vented outside the agent’s office. Perhaps it’s a good thing that John Ferverda only worked as a station agent for a dozen years.
Early telegraph operators would have used the American Morse code, a predecessor to the more widely used International Morse code of today. While the American version relied heavily on the specific timing between the dots and dashes, the International version was far more forgiving, in trade for making some of the letters and numbers slightly longer.
There were numerous styles and variants of older telegraph keys and many are still being used by amateur radio operators today.
Most likely John Ferverda used a variant that looked similar to the model below from the ARRL collection.
The telegraph operator was still in demand and used for information at depots or stations well past the 1950’s. Although many train lines experimented with two-way voice radio during the 1930’s, a truly practical solution wasn’t installed in volume until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
Today, radio and satellite communication dominate tracking and routing our modern railways.
The humble telegraph paved the way for the wireless communications that all phone “operators” today utilize – those small electronic boxes that we carry in our pockets and love. John Ferverda was a very, very early adopter of the predecessors to cell phones of today.
Oh, and by the way, if anyone happens to run across the telegraph key from the station in Silver Lake or Rushville, Indiana, or any of the Big 4 depots in that region, perhaps at an auction or antique mall, please let me know because I’ve love to surprise my wife. (Shamelessly added to this article by said wife.)
My thanks to the ARRL for their hospitality and to Jim Kvochick for explaining the history of telegraphy and why there’s air, or least why there’s Morse code.
And seriously, if you do run across a telegraph key from the early 1900s in Northern Indiana, I really do want one and would be forever grateful. I sure wish I had John Ferverda’s original equipment.
What’s the history of radio or railroads in your family?
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