THE HISTORIC RURAL RETREAT DEPOT
Event Center and Museum

DEPOT AGENTS

When the telegraph sounded Rural Retreat's call sign "AY" the agent knew to begin listening to the Morse Code to copy the message. The photo below is of Agent James Lacy Akers, sitting at his desk and probably typing a telegram. This photo was taken in 1949 by the N&W Railroad as part of a set of photos documenting the completion of a major remodel to the Depot.  

J.L.Akers worked at the Rural Retreat Depot from 1919 until his retirement in 1959.  He appears in the O. Winston Link photos of Rural Retreat including "The Birmingham Special Gets the Highball in Rural Retreat"
**A note of interest about the use of the telegraph appears below the next feature.  Many thanks to Abram Burnett for his historic notes!**


The numbers on the photo of J.L.Akers at work in Rural Retreat were provided by Mr. Abram Burnett via the Norfolk&Western Historical Society.  Following is an explanation for each of the numbered items:

1. Area of the negative "whited out," probably to make the swing-arm telegraph resonator more prominent.

2. Telegraph sounder in a swing-arm resonator. Note that the tobacco tin jammed down behind the sounder (to amplify the sound) is a Half-and-Half tin, not the usual Prince Albert tin. Telegraphers refer to this as "the PA can," regardless of the brand.

3. Through the station window is visible a building across the tracks. I do not recall this building having been there in my time on the Bristol Line (which began in 1964.) (Webmaster note:  I think this is a reflection from across the room.  There was no building there.)

4. Six-hole oak jack box. Probably used for cutting the local telegraph instruments in on the various telegraph wires that ran along the Bristol Line. There was probably a separate jack box for cutting the local telephone instrument in on the various telephone wires that passed through the station (Dispatcher's Wire, Block Wire, Message Wire, etc,) but I don't see it in the photo. The reason I believe the telegraph jack box and the telephone jack box were separate is that they required different kinds of jacks (series jacks for the telegraph circuit, and "bridging jacks" for the telephone circuits.) Jack boxes came "hard wired" from Western Electric, the jack boxes were not furnished with both types of jacks in the same box, and the job of changing out those jacks is such a cussed job that I highly doubt it was done in the field by the local wireman/maintainer. It's a workbench job...

5. Barely distinguishable above my green numeral "5" is the telegraph "hand key" or "straight key." It is screwed to the desk.

6. Operator Akers' personal "bug" or semi-automatic key. Looks like a Vibroplex brand. A "bug" makes sending less fatiguing on the wrist and and is much faster. These were not provided by the railroad and if an operator chose to use one for his own convenience, he bought his own and carried it from job to job. Vibroplexes came in a small rectangular wooden carrying box, leatherette covered and equipped with a carrying strap on top. Mine measures 4.5" wide by 4" tall x 10.5" deep, is fabric lined, and has the door on one end. They were distinctive and identified the carrier as a telegrapher. My own telegraph teacher, Harry Clark, had been a "boomer" telegrapher and worked on 20-some railroads, and told me that when the Conductor on a passenger train saw the carrying case, he knew the man was a telegrapher on the way to some job and never asked for a ticket or a pass. Harry said he had ridden all over the country by displaying his bug carrying case ! The "bug" was invented and patented in 1902 as the answer for "telegrapher's glass arm," which we today call Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

7. The ink well. Very important in station work as public telegrams were always written in ink and the station block sheet was kept in ink.

8. Desk-mounting base for the Chicago Railway Supply Co. telephone, which base accepts a pipe that extends upward, then outward, then downward to hold the transmitter (mouthpiece) in front of the speaker.

9. The gate-arm telephone ("scissors-phone") mounted on the desk. This would have been used for cutting in on the block line(s) and the message line. It probably had its own oak jack box screwed to the desk top somewhere near the phone. I am curious about how the Train Dispatcher "raised" (called) the individual stations on the telephone circuits. Did he ring a combination of longs and shorts on some kind of annunciator bell (the bells ringing in all open offices simultaneously,) and the called operator answering when he heard the ring for his station? Or did the Train Dispatcher have a "selective ringing" apparatus, which enabled him to ring any station individually, without the bells going off at other stations? (As I recall, the N&W didn't install telephones for train movement purposes until 1913, and Western Electric didn't market the "selective ringing" equipment until 1917.)

10. The N&W passenger Time Table, stuck in a rack. As I recall, the Time Tables with maroon covers and a head-on photo of a Class J engine didn't come out until 1947.

11. The city phone directory, no doubt tied to a nail in the wall with a piece of train order twine... as most were. The "city phone" is not visible in the photograph. (It would be interesting to know when Rural Retreat received a city phone.)
If the Chicago Railway Telephone is used for the dispatcher, message, and/or block lines, a second Western Electric telephone was not needed for the same purpose. Item 11, the telephone book, indicates that Rural Retreat had a local telephone service. My opinion is that the Western Electric candlestick phone labeled as 9 was the outside line. Most small exchanges in that era did not have a dial service; connections were made by the telephone operator at the exchange.

12. The "All Cap Mill." "Mill" was the telegrapher's word for a typewriter, and those for use in station work were furnished with all capital letters, "all capitals" apparently being a requirement for the preparation of freight waybills.

CIPHER CODES
Telegraph "Cipher Codes" were rather common on railroads back in the day when business moved over Telegraph wires. They all began with the sentence, "The purpose of this code is brevity, not secrecy."

Cipher Codes employed brief words to replace commonly-used phrases, e.g. MUD = "Regarding your message of ---," ASH = "How many engines do you have on hand?," MAUD = "Please reserve lower berth for ---," HARBOR = "Has bill of lading been surrendered?"

These documents were generally issued by the General Superintendent of Transportation and, on some roads, carried a "CT" number. (The one I am looking at is an 1897 PRR Cipher Code, and caries the form number CT-900.) Several of the biggest railroads even employed a "Telegraph Censor," whose job it was to inspect telegrams, make sure they were not unnecessarily wordy, "if their purpose could have been served by forwarding in company mail" instead of tying up the telegraph lines, and whether the senders were utilizing the Cipher Code words for brevity. (Talk about a cream-puff job !)

Has anyone ever seen an N&W Cipher Code book?

-- abram burnett 

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