Verne G. and telegraphy

Posted by Preston G. on October 31, 2011 at 12:40 am
Oct 312011
Westlake Park, Los Angeles, 1908

Westlake Park, Los Angeles, 1908

In March 1919 Verne moved to an apartment a couple of blocks east of Westlake Park (now MacArthur Park) just west of downtown Los Angeles. The picture is actually from a few years before he lived in L.A. but it’s all I could find. It serves as a fortuitous illustration for this post on Verne’s interest in telegraphy, since it has all those wires in the foreground.

Verne thought for several years that he would start his career as a telegrapher, which in fact he did for the time that he was in L.A., but his plan of beginning his life with Dorothy as a railroad telegrapher never came about. He had begun to learn telegraphy when he was a teenager back in Dallas. It must have seemed like a good trade to start with for a young man with one arm. He had attended classes at a telegraphy school there at some time before the letters to Dorothy began in 1914.

Verne felt the pull of country life, the life of a farmer and outdoorsman, which he tried from Jan. 1915 to Jan. 1918 when he left Arizona for Los Angeles. He really only left farming because he lacked the capital to get it started. He needed a temporary career to enable him to get married and save some money. I think he really would have preferred to do this as a chemical lab assistant, but he didn’t think he could compete with one arm as a chemist, so he fell back on telegraphy.

It kind of amazes me that even after it was clear that Verne was committed to Dorothy and that he was an industrious and determined young man, Dorothy’s father never seems to have considered offering Verne a job in Dallas. At least there is no evidence in the letters. It may be that what W.L. needed was salesmen and he realized that Verne was not a great salesman (none of the Garrison men seem to be.) Just as likely, Verne just had a strong need to make it on his own and didn’t see anything that he wanted to do in the fabric business.

Even after getting to Los Angeles, what he wanted was to return to the desert as a railroad telegrapher with Dorothy as his new bride. But he knew that Dorothy would need a place with people before long, and it seems that he hoped to be able to move up to running a station in a larger town or city. He never intended to remain a telegrapher as a career, but he needed a way to support Dorothy and save some money so he could go into business for himself.

He was a man of his time, and even though Dorothy had learned stenography and typing, he told her that he did not want her to work after they were married. At the same time he made clear that he would have loved for her to learn telegraphy. I think it would have suited him if they could have run a railroad station in a small town in Arizona together for a few years while they saved up to go back to farming or starting some other business. Uncle Howard tells me that his father would have liked to have that life in the desert with Dorothy and a train station to run and his chemical experiments to occupy his spare time. (How would you have liked to have been born into that, Uncle Howard?)

Verne looked at several telegraphy schools, but apparently concluded that Los Angeles was his best bet, since he had a personal conflict with a guy who owned the school in Dallas. He never explained how this came about, but he said that this man was the only one that he counted as an enemy, and this kept him from returning to Dallas in Jan. 1918.

Verne brushed up on his telegraphy while he was still in Arizona by getting a machine that would send so he could practice receiving. He went to telegraphy school in Los Angeles for several months in early 1918 and by March was working for the Associated Press. He encountered a new problem in that telegraphers were now receiving while typing which was an obvious problem with only one hand. However, by early 1919 he had learned to receive while typing with one hand.

When he moved from the AP to the Salt Lake Railroad in Sept. 1918 he had to learn a different style of telegraphy. Railroad telegraphy was slower than the form used by the AP and involved learning to send and receive long data forms containing the information about what freight a train was carrying. Also, it was illegal for railroad telegraphers to receive “on the mill” (the typewriter), although I’m not sure why. It may have just been to insure accuracy, since where train movements were concerned mistakes could be disastrous.

I should mention that Verne’s brother Carl also learned telegraphy. Carl worked for more than one railroad and eventually settled in with Southern Pacific and moved up to higher positions with the railroad. He stayed with the railroad all his life, except for WWII when he was in the army transportation corps in Asia.

In early 1919, a friend of Verne’s, E. Shelby Smith, proposed to buy a telegraphy school in L.A. and have Verne run it. It is not clear whether Smith bought the school, but Verne never took him up on the proposition.

There is no sign in the letters that Verne was aware of the most important fact about telegraphy at the time, the fact that early versions of the teletype machine had already been developed. The days of telegraphy as a valued skill were limited, and it is probably a good thing that Verne left it behind. He continued to use telegraphy in his hobby as a ham radio operator in the years after he was married. My father and Howard remembered him coming home from work and relaxing by “talking” with other radio operators using Morse code. He spoke in the letters of encountering “ham” telegraphers on the wire when he was working in L.A., and they were not considered to be very good at it. He probably was quite a bit better at Morse code than the average ham operator. It became one of the many hobbies that Verne occupied his spare time with for the rest of his life.

Preston G.

Retired biochemist. One of 16 grandchildren of Verne Garrison and Dorothy Logan Garrison.

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