Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Today, few would even begin to doubt that society is in the midst of a global telecommunications revolution, brought about by the introduction of new technologies such as the Internet and wireless communications. This revolution, however, has deep historical roots, dating to the 1840s with the building of the world’s first wired network of digital communication – the telegraph system. As with many technologies, an important part of this history has been woefully neglected: the role that women played in operating this early communications network. Few are aware that Pennsylvania played a pioneering role in the introduction of women into the telegraph office. In 1870, the Keystone State claimed the highest recorded number of women telegraph operators of any state in the Union.

After Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872) first demonstrated his invention between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore in 1844, he and his associates began stringing telegraph lines northward from the nation’s capital to Philadelphia. As with the earlier canal system and the later railroads, Pennsylvania provided a natural east to west corridor, enabling the telegraph lines to connect cities on the East Coast with communities along the Great Lakes and the Ohio River. Henry O’Rielly of Rochester, New York, an Irish-born journalist and entrepreneur, began construction of his Atlantic & Ohio Telegraph Company’s line in Pennsylvania, from Lancaster to Harrisburg, in 1845. By the following year, it spanned the Commonwealth, stretching from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.

Like many enthusiastic entrepreneurs, O’Rielly was as long on confidence in the new technology as he was short on business acumen and technical expertise. Perpetually strapped for money, he was also continually in need of skilled operators to send and receive messages at each station along the line. O’Rielly and his assistant, James D. Reid, hit upon the idea of hiring women to serve as telegraph operators, assuming that they could be employed for less money than male operators, who were already in short supply.

The first woman hired by the Atlantic & Ohio Telegraph Company was Emma Hunter of West Chester, Chester County, who began her career as a telegrapher in 1851. Operating out of her home at first, Hunter received a yearly salary of fifty dollars. Recalling the situation nearly twenty years later, Reid wrote that “the wires were introduced into a neat sitting room of a home in Westchester, Pa., where, with the instrument on one side and a work basket on the other, our new assistant sent and received her messages, and filled up the interim in fixing her Sunday bonnet, or embroidering articles of raiment which a gentleman editor is not expected to know or name.”

While Emma Hunter was arguably the world’s first electronic commuter, she was not the first woman to be employed as a telegrapher. Lowell, Massachusetts, women’s rights activist Sarah Bagley was probably the earliest woman to enter the .field, in 1846. Hunter may not have been the first woman operator in Pennsylvania, either; Helen Plummer became a telegrapher in Greenville, Mercer County, about 1850 . Hunter, better known by her telegraphic sine (“alias”), Emma of S, quickly became recognized as one of the company’s most skilled telegraphers. In acknowledgment of her talents, the management of the Atlantic & Ohio Telegraph Company tripled her annual salary – from $50 to $150 – after her first year of service, and gave her an additional bonus of $150 as well.

Hunter was born in Meadville, Crawford County, in 1831. Her father died when she was young and her mother Agnes moved to West Chester, where she opened a book and stationery store in 1848 to support a family that included Emma and her brother John. Emma most likely acquired her business skills by working in her mother’s store. She learned telegraphy from Uriah H. Painter, a West Chester entrepreneur and financier involved in the construction of both the telegraph and the railroad to West Chester.

In addition to sending and receiving messages, she also kept the books for the office and sent the proceeds to the owners of the telegraph company on a regular basis. She quickly mastered the rules and regulations of the telegraph office and frequently took the operator in Philadelphia to task for failing to follow them. In 1865, she telegraphed the Philadelphia operator that, “You have checked me With several msgs that was sent by other Sine that T did not have anything to do with.” This error on the part of the Philadelphia operator would have resulted in Hunter having to pay for delivery of these messages out of her office proceeds. The chagrined Philadelphia operator promptly sent a retraction and apology.

Reid installed the telegraph equipment in Hunter’s home to prevent her from having to go out in public to conduct business. The “separate spheres” ideology of the nineteenth century restricted women’s activities to the home, while men were allowed to conduct business in the public sphere. Over time, as people became more accustomed to seeing a woman perform a complex and technical task, she relocated her office, in 1857, first to her mother’s stationery store on Church Street, and later to the Pennsylvania Railroad Company (PRR) depot on Gay Street in West Chester.

Hunter remained in the telegraph office until 1868, when she accepted a position with the Bank of Chester County as a clerk. She left the bank and married Thomas T. Smith, a tobacco merchant, the following year and they had two children. She spent the rest of her life in West Chester where she died at the age of seventy-three in 1904.

About the time that Emma Hunter became a telegraph operator, the railroads began to consider using the telegraph to control the movement of trains. One of the pressing problems faced by the railroad at the time was routing trains traveling from opposite directions on a single track. The standard approach was to calculate the time at which the two trains would meet, and direct one of the trains to pull off onto a siding to allow the other train to pass. If the computation was in error, however, the result could be a disaster – and death. In 1851, Charles Minot, superintendent of the Erie Railroad, proposed hiring a telegraph operator for each station to manage train movements. If an engineer knew that a train was approaching from the opposite direction, he could stop at a station and ask the telegraph operator to check with the operator at the next station to see if the train had passed by. If so, the engineer would pull his train into the siding and wait for the train from the opposite direction to pass. If not, the operator at the next station was instructed to hold the train at the station and the engineer could then safely proceed. The major railroad companies eventually adopted this scheme.

One of the first women to work as a railroad operator was Elizabeth Cogley of Lewistown, Mifflin County. She began her career as a messenger for the Atlantic & Ohio Telegraph Company’s office in Lewistown in 1852 and learned Morse code and telegraph operation from the office operator, Charles Spottswood. When he left in 1855 to accept a position elsewhere, Cogley took over as operator as well. By this time, the Atlantic & Ohio Telegraph Company was struggling to make ends meet. When the PRR arrived in Lewistown in 1856, the Atlantic & Ohio’s office was moved into the railroad depot so that the telegraph operator could handle train orders as well as personal messages. Cogley became a railroad operator for the Pennsy, a position she held for nearly forty-five years before retiring in 1900.

Like Emma Hunter, Elizabeth Cogley had a retail background. Her father Joseph, like Emma Hunter’s mother Agnes, ran a book and stationery store in Lewistown, and Elizabeth helped to manage the business at an early age. Joseph Cogley also sold newspapers in an age where both news and literacy were scarce, and it was customary for an individual to read the news to a public gathering when the daily newspaper arrived by stagecoach. In her later years, Cogley vividly remembered the crowds that would gather in front of the post office to hear the latest news of the Mexican War, and recollected “f was always one of the crowd.”

During the Civil War, she handled many important messages related to the conduct of the war, including President Abraham Lincoln’s first call for 75,000 troops. Her telegraphic skill soon came to the attention of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company officials, and she was transferred to the company’s general office in Harrisburg in 1862, where she remained until her retirement in 1900. She then returned to Lewistown where she died in 1922.

Early telegraph systems used a printing telegraph, or register, that printed dots and dashes on a strip of paper to be deciphered later. This proved slow and cumbersome, especially for train orders, where speed was essential to prevent accidents. Railroad operators quickly learned to simply listen to the clicks of the armature and decode the message as it was received; this was called “receiving by sound.” One of the first women to learn to receive by sound, Abbie Struble, attended a school run by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) in Pittsburgh. She then became the railroad operator in Port Perry, Allegheny County, in 1861, at the age of sixteen. As men left to fight in the Civil War, she took over other duties at the depot, eventually becoming postmaster, railroad agent, and express agent, in addition to being the telegrapher.

Abbie Struble, the daughter of Louis Struble, a steamboat pilot on the Mononga­hela and Ohio Rivers, married J. L. Vaughan, a telegraph lineman, in 1866. After teaching her husband to operate, she became a telegraphy instructor for the B&O, and trained more than half of the operators on the railroad’s Pittsburgh division.

Telegraphers in the nineteenth century were highly mobile, often moving from town to town in search of employment, and the Vaughans were no different. They embarked a long and colorful career together, working for various railroads after their marriage. The couple worked in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Missouri, before moving to Merkel, Texas, in 1882, where they became station agents and operators for the Texas & Pacific Railroad Company. Their five children grew up in the railroad depot, and four of them, two sons and two daughters, became telegraph operators. When one of the sons accepted a position in Mexico with the Mexican Central Railroad in 1891, his parents followed him, and remained there until the revolution forced them to return in 1912. They settled in Long Beach, California. During World War I, when telegraphers grew scarce, Abbie Struble came out of retirement at the age of seventy-two to teach telegraphy once again. She died in Long Beach in 1924, at the age of seventy-nine.

Women operators rarely made the news in the nineteenth century, because of prevailing prejudice against women appearing in the “public sphere.” During natural disasters, however, women telegraph operators became highly visible, putting their communications skills to work warning of danger and saving lives. The Johnstown Flood of 1889 was a notable example. On May 31, 1889, heavy rains caused the level of Lake Conemaugh, a reservoir created by damming the south fork of the Conemaugh River, to rise perilously. An anxious-looking man appeared in the doorway of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company’s telegraph tower in South Fork, where operator Emma Ehrenfeld was in charge. “Then, about noon,” she later recalled, “I judge it was, a man came in very much excited; he says ‘Notify Johnstown right away about the dam.’ He says, ‘It’s raising very fast and there’s danger of the reservoir breaking.”‘

Ehrenfeld discovered that the telegraph wire was functional only as far as the next station, Mineral Point, just north of Johnstown. She sent the warning to the operator at Mineral Point, and asked him to have the message hand carried to the next station still able to communicate with Johnstown. From there, the message was telegraphed again to the Pennsylvania Railroad agent at Johnstown.

During the afternoon, Ehrenfeld sent several more warnings, using the same combination of telegraph and messengers. The Pennsylvania Railroad agent at Johnstown used the telephone to notify the manager of the Western Union office, Hettie Ogle, of the impending danger. Ogle was a Civil War widow, the local representative of the Signal Service, and an entrepreneur who had grown Johnstown’s Western Union office from a single-operator station in 1869 to one that employed three operators, including her daughter, Minnie. After the invention of the telephone in 1876, she opened Johnstown’s first telephone exchange.

The rising water had forced Ogle, with her daughter Minnie T., age thirty-two, and operators Grace Garman, twenty-one, and Mary Jane Watkins, twenty-two, to retreat to the second story of the building housing the, Western Union office. At about three o’clock that afternoon, she notified the Pittsburgh office of the danger and signed off, adding that this would be her last message because of the rising water.

Her words proved to be prophetic. At nearly the same moment, Emma Ehrenfeld looked out the window of her tower in South Fork and saw people scrambling madly through the streets, flailing their arms and screaming. In an assistant , she realized the dam had burst and a huge wall of water was thundering toward her tower.

“It just seemed like a mountain coming, and it seemed close; of course, I don’t know just how close it was, but I knew I must go if I wanted to get out, and l started and ran down the stairs without waiting to get my hat or anything; and there is a coal tipple about opposite the office and I ran down across the track, and up those steps. It was a very short time, not more than two minutes until the office was taken.”

Ehrenfeld survived the crashing floodwaters, escaping by clambering up a nearby hillside. In 1890, she married Joseph Glass, a prominent South Fork physician. After his death in 1913, she lived in Pittsburgh and later Daytona Beach, Florida, where she died in 1943.

Hettie Ogle, her daughter, Garman, and Watkins were not as fortunate. All perished in the catastrophe, but only Grace Garman’s body was recovered and identified. Ogle’s tragic death not only reminded people of the important role of women telegraphers, but also inspired. a popular song, “My Last Message,” by J.P. Skelly.

Women telegraphers were recognized as communicators who brought news to their comm.unities and enabled the trains to run safely and on time, in spite of wage discrimination and prejudice against their employment. They found innovative ways to combine their personal lives and. their work. Yet the story of the women telegraphers has been largely forgotten due to the lack of corporate records and the fact that the history of technology has, until recently, ignored the role of women. But by using techniques from both historical and genealogical research, it is possible to recover the stories of these early “wizards of the wire,” and recognize the accomplishments of these early telecommunications pioneers.


For Further Reading

Gabler, Edwin. The American Telegrapher: A Social History, 1860-1900. Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988

Jepsen, Thomas C. Ma Kiley: The Life of a Railroad Telegrapher. El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1997.

–. My Sisters Telegraphic: Women in the Telegraph Office, 1846-1950. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000.

McCullo11gh, David G. The Johnstown Flood. Ne:w York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.

Morse, Samuel Finley Breese. Samuel F.B. Morse; His Letters and Journals. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914.

Rosenkrantz, Linda. Telegram! Modern History as Told Through More than 400 Witty, Poignant, and Revealing Telegrams. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2003.


Thomas C. Jepsen is an information technology consultant and computer science instructor at North Carolina State Universi­ty in Raleigh, North Carolina. His research interests include the history of telecommunications and women in telecommunications. He has written two books on related topics, My Sisters Telegraphic: Women in the Telegraph Office, 1846-1950, and Ma Kiley: The Life of a Railroad Telegrapher. In 2003, he was a PHMC scholar-in-residence at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, Strasburg, Lancaster County.