Railroad Telegraph Stories
from Tom Shepherd


Hello railroaders and telegraphers!

Tom Shepherd is my name and I am 81 years old.  I hope you will enjoy reading about my railroading memories as much as I have enjoyed writing them!

Something amazing happened on July 4th, 2008.  I went to an antique sale in Spirit Lake, Iowa and unexpectedly discovered the very telegraph key I had used on the Illinois Central Railroad 66 years ago.  It was like a miracle!  I had made a special mark on it with a hammer and nail, but when I quit the railroad, I left it behind since the telegraph key did not belong to me.  I paid $30.00 for my treasure.  A small brass emblem is nailed to it that reads "Central Scientific Co. Laboratory supplies, Apparatus, Chemicals, Chicago, Illinois.

Wow!  I took it home and dit dahed for hours!  Memories of my telegraph days, working for the ICRR, and attending the Navy (NTSCH) School at the University of Wisconsin in Madison came flooding back to me.  To make a letter "V", I was taught to say, "Dit dit dit dah.  Hedy Lamar.  Dit dit dit dah.  Hedy Lamar.  Dit dit dit dah.  Hedy Lamar."  Hedy Lamar was a famous movie star in the 1940's and saying her name provided the proper space between the telegraphed words.

Hang on going through the flying switches, do not step on any rails, watch out for hot boxes, and leave the signal down!


Around 1935 I lived on Fowler Street in Waterloo, Iowa, about ten blocks from the ICRR round house.  There was a sharp curve in the tracks a few blocks from our home.  When the steam engine blew the whistle, all the neighborhood kids grabbed a bucket and headed for the sharp curve in the tracks.  Pieces of coal would always fly off the engine at the curve.  Sometimes I think the fireman shoveled off coal for us at that curve!  I learned to fist fight at an early age to get my share of the coal from older kids.  Back then, everyone heated their house with coal and times were tough in America.

When I graduated from the ninth grade at Edison School, my mother said, “Where are you going to work, Tommy?"  I replied, "I am going to West Junior High with some of my friends."  I enrolled at West Jr. and attended a class taught by the Illinois Central Railroad.  I thought it would be a fun class and interesting to learn telegraphy.  The teacher was a pleasant, retired ICRR Depot agent.  Because I learned International Morse Code so quickly, I became head of the class.  The teacher also appreciated my superior handwriting.  It was extremely important to write perfect railroad-style penmanship so there would be no mistakes in railroad train orders.  I can still write in that style to this day!

I was 14 years old and the only student the railroad hired.  I was needed because all the young agents had been drafted into the army and the older ones needed some time off.  A car would pick me up after school on Friday afternoon and drive me to a depot to work for the weekend.  The railroad always found a place for me to stay and must have paid for my room and board.  I really delighted in riding the steam engine back home on Sunday afternoon.  The engineer said to me, "Hang on, Tom, when we hit a flying switch!

I quit school and started to work full time when I turned 15.  I worked in the Eastern division which was from Waterloo to Dubuque, Iowa and included the East Dubuque Tower in East Dubuque, Illinois.  I operated the bridge owned by the ICRR that spans the Mississippi River in Dubuque.


Early in my career as a telegraph operator, the Illinois Central Railroad sent me to work in Masonville, Iowa. Although small, Masonville was a great railroad town and known as “the main line of mid-America”. In 1995, I traveled through Masonville and the depot was still standing. I got out of my car and stared at the building and platform for a long time. It was to me a wonderful sight!

During the time I worked there, the railroad found me a place to stay in town and paid for my board and room. I was replacing a depot agent who had been drafted into the army and lived with his wife and two young daughters. I do not know how much she was paid, but I was always very well fed!

The depot was furnished with a table, four chairs, a desk for my telegraph equipment, and a steel safe which held a loaded revolver. My instructions were to not touch the revolver even if the depot was robbed. “Let them have whatever they want and save yourself!”

I could see the platform and down the tracks through a large bay window. A few pictures adorned the wall and the floor was brick tile. The levers for the signal tower were in the corner towards the tracks. Outside were two flatbed carts used to load up baby chicks and miscellaneous goods sent through the Parcel Post. I received pay for anything I handled for the Parcel Post Company and for any Western Union telegraphs I sent.

The daily train from Waterloo, Iowa to Dubuque, Iowa and back always stopped and unloaded goods purchased by farmers and the townspeople. The conductor’s name was Mr. Sullivan. He was a very kind man and always answered any of my questions. Mr. Sullivan endured one of the worst tragedies I could ever imagine. He lost all five of his sons on the same day in a Navy battle in the South Pacific.

The walls of his caboose were lined with posters of Hedy Lamar, Betty Grable, Lana Turner and other 1940’s movie stars. Mr. Sullivan said to me, “Tommy, you stay out of the caboose, because I’m afraid I would get in trouble if I let you see those pin-ups!” And you guessed it. When Mr. Sullivan went into town for something, I looked inside the caboose. All the movie stars in the pin-ups were wearing full length bathing suits! Times sure have changed.

One summer day, the dispatcher from Waterloo let me know tracks had washed out somewhere on the line and trains from New Orleans, San Francisco, and Los Angeles would be coming to Masonville. The three passenger trains could not be left on the main track, because a meat train was coming from Rath Packing Company in Waterloo, Iowa. Meat trains had the right of way over all other trains, including passenger trains. All the cars were loaded with meat packed in ice and heading for the Armed Services. Because of the summer heat, water would pour out of the cars from the melting ice.

After I managed to get the trains off the main line and onto the sidings, all three conductors came into the depot and were surprised to see such a young agent. They were all dressed in their magnificent uniforms and I felt as though I had three kings in my depot! I introduced myself, and since it was noon, mustered up the courage to ask if they would like to have lunch with me. The woman I boarded with had just brought my lunch and always provided enough food to last all day. We feasted on sandwiches made with fresh homemade bread and coffee. All three conductors sat down, I shared my lunch, and we had a good time visiting with each other.

Later, the conductor of the New Orleans passenger train wrote to Mr. Johnson, the President of the ICRR, about what a good job I did getting three passenger trains on and off the siding and that I had even shared my lunch with them. Mr. Johnson then wrote a letter to my mother and told her about the event and how competently I was handling the trains.

One day the dispatcher called to tell me we had a train order for the meat on its way. I told him I could already see the smoke, so the order had to be short. He started to dictate the order and it was a long one. As I wrote the order in railroad-style handwriting and read it back to him, I could hear the train coming. After an order was taken, it was folded up, put into a string loop and pulled closed. The string was then fastened on a Y-shaped wooden holder. As the train passed by, I would stand on the platform and hold the wooden holder with both arms toward the tracks. The fireman or brakeman would then stick out his arm and catch the message in the string. It was quite dangerous because you stood only a few feet from the engine. Usually I had plenty of time to get ready, but today I had not a minute to spare.

In my rush, I forgot the platform was gravel and slid right into the engine. The meat trains had a huge engine and traveled at 100 miles per hour. The Y-shaped message stick hit the engine and knocked me down and back onto the platform. The train was stopped and the fireman and brakeman came running back to the platform. They were sure I had been killed. The ICRR always investigated any accident and it was determined to be the dispatcher’s fault, not mine.

I enjoyed working at the Masonville depot, because there was always something happening… a lot of Parcel Posts and Western Union telegraphs. One week my paycheck was $75! I told my mother and she could hardly believe it. She worked at the Rath Packing Company in Waterloo and made $37.50 for six days of hard labor.

When I had to leave the Masonville depot, I said goodbye to the lady of the house and the two little girls. I almost cried. I had run the depot for nearly a year and it was hard to leave. The ICRR then sent me to Epworth, Iowa.


Epworth, Iowa was a stop on the Illinois Central Railroad only because there was a Catholic Monastery located there. I was sent to Epworth because it had been raining pitch forks and hammer handles for days and miles of track had washed out in the Epworth and Dubuque area. The ICRR found me a wonderful German couple to stay with on their farm. She was an excellent cook and even got me to like hot potato salad! I always helped milk cows early in the morning before I went to work.

The depot was a small, ten foot by ten foot building housing one chair, a built-in desk, and a switch board. Wasps had filled all the holes in the switch board. I immediately hooked up my key and waited to hear from the dispatcher.

A monk from the monastery came to the door my first day and wanted telegrams sent to Chicago. Another monk had passed away and the family in Chicago needed to be notified. I made a nice amount of money that day sending and receiving telegrams.

One day I was sent a message that a work train was on its way from Alabama and someone was needed to take train orders. The Western Union telegraphers in Chicago used side winder keys and I could not copy that fast without a typewriter. I keyed them to slow down. That made them angry and they REALLY slowed down. The dispatcher in Waterloo let me know the train would be there in a few days. When it arrived, I found the overseer and told him I was available to take train orders for him when he needed to move the work train. The railroad had an outhouse set up for me and gave me a set of pole climbing hooks. When the work train needed a work order to move, I put the hooks on my shoes, climbed up a telephone pole, clipped on my key, and called the dispatcher in Waterloo. I would maybe climb a pole two or three times a day.

The work train was made up of an engine, a caboose for the overseer, four sleeping cars, one cook-house car, and several flat cars that held tools and supplies, including extra track, spikes, railroad ties, and anything needed to repair the track. The workers included fifty to seventy-five black men and about twenty black women who did the cooking and cleaning. They had been given strict orders to have no contact with me. The workers set up their own toilets and were very organized.  When they spoke I could not understand them. It sounded like some kind of gibberish to me. The overseer was a white man about 6'4" tall. He wore leather pants, a loaded pistol, and had a leather whip about ten feet long wound up and hooked on his belt. One day I asked him how much the ICRR pays the workers. He said," Nothing. The ICRR pays me and I furnish their food (which was mostly beans and corn bread) and then pay the workers what I think they are worth."  When he was near, the men worked really hard. They drove spikes in pairs and would sing songs and never miss the spikes. It was a beautiful thing to see.


I had been on the job in Epworth only about two months when the dispatcher in Waterloo called to say I was being sent to the East Dubuque Tower in East Dubuque, Illinois to train for two weeks. Then if the agent thought I could handle the job, I would take over the Tower.

Arriving in Dubuque was a little scary for me and worrying about my new assignment didn't help matters. The weather was very hot and the mayflies were so thick the snow plows were sent out to clear the streets.  The railroad made arrangements for me to stay in a hotel in Dubuque.  East Dubuque, Illinois, at that time, had a bad reputation for drinking and gambling so the ICRR kept me across the Mississippi River in Dubuque, Iowa.

The agent in charge of the Tower trained me for two weeks and never showed up for work the third week. I called the dispatcher in Waterloo and he told me "Tommy, you are the new agent for the East Dubuque Tower. Congratulations!"

The inside of the tower had a single row of levers to move switches on the tracks and the lighted track layout on the wall was across from the switches. I had to leave the tower and go upstairs into another small  building to open the middle section of the railroad bridge when tug boats wanted through. One morning I was watching the lighted track layout and a train was coming through the tunnel, its lights blinking along the board. I had received no message from the train on my key and, heaven forbid, another set of lights were blinking from the opposite direction.  I had to make a split second decision so I switched the track and ran one train into the ditch to prevent a head-on collision. It turned out to be the maintenance man on his four-wheel railroad cart and in the ditch he went. He could have been killed, but was OK.  The railroad did another investigation and determined it was not my fault. The maintenance man should not have been on the track or should have keyed me ahead of time.

Mr. Johnson, the president of the railroad, called me and said, "Tommy, I have received only good reports about you. Keep up the good work. The accident was not your fault. You had to do what you did to prevent a head on collision."

I really enjoyed running the Tower. Things were now going smooth again and I was enjoying doing a lot of telegraphy work and helping trains make it across the bridge when a tug boat showed up, blew his whistle, and wanted me to open the middle section of the bridge for him to pass. It had been raining for weeks, the river was high and rushing towards New Orleans. I went up into the bridge tower and pulled the controls to open the center section of the bridge. Unbelievably, he missed the opening and hit the bridge! It knocked a hole in a barge large enough to drive a car through.

The bridge started shaking and shimmying. I called the dispatcher in Waterloo and told him what happened. He said, "Tommy, get off that bridge NOW!" He thought it was going to fall down so I ran out on the deck and jumped to the ground. You guessed it - another investigation.

My birthday was soon approaching and I traveled back to Waterloo to join the Navy. All my friends were going into the service and I thought it would be the thing to do. To join the service under the age of eighteen required the signature of a parent, so my mother signed and I was enlisted on my 17th birthday.  I was sent to the Great Lakes Navy Training Center near Chicago, Illinois. After taking a test which included some Morse Code, the Chief Petty Officer took me into his office and said, "Sailor, you are going to the University of Wisconsin Radio School!"

The railroad bridge spanning the Mississippi River.  This is the bridge I had to open to allow
boats to pass through.

The sign next to the tracks near what is now the office for train maintenance workers.

The west opening of the railroad tunnel where the lighted track layout showed two trains approaching
the tunnel in a head-on collision.

The small, white lower building is where I operated the switches to move the tracks and which housed the
lighted track layout. I would go upstairs to the upper building to open the middle section of the bridge.

The east opening of the railroad tunnel.

The old passenger depot which is a short way from the east opening of the tunnel.


The campus at the University of Wisconsin was very beautiful and located on Lake Mendota. Upon arriving, I was assigned to a dorm room with two other sailors.

Classes commenced and most of the students had a difficult time getting started since they could not type or did not know Morse Code. We began practicing taking code... no words, just letters and numbers, six in a row, and thousands of rows everyday for hours. Because of the intense training, we were warned about the possibility of having disturbing dreams and the Navy provided psychiatrists to counsel with us about any concerns we had.

They were right!  I started to dream I was in a tunnel and a carriage with four horses would chase me all night long.  I continued to dream the same dream night after night and finally went to visit with one of the psychiatrists.  He advised me to try to do something to stop them in my next dream. As usual, that night I dreamed the carriage was coming, so I gathered boxes of feathers and built a fire under a large kettle of tar. You guessed it!  I tarred and feathered the horses and carriage and never had that dream again!

In addition to learning Morse Code, we spent time getting in shape physically.  Part of our exercise classes consisted of rowing a large boat with eight sets of oars around Lake Mendota. During one excursion, we got the oars all tangled up and started laughing. As a result, he instructor tied us to the dock and made us row for an hour.  It seemed extreme to us young sailors, but he knew what he was doing. Training for war was serious business and we never fooled around again!

We were allowed to have every Saturday off from noon to 11 PM. Our rooms were inspected that morning by an officer and if the room wasn't spotless, we were denied our leave.

The NTSCH radio schooling lasted for twenty weeks and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute!

After completion of telegraph school, a graduation ceremony was held and some of the students were able to have family attend.  An officer walked out on the stage and asked, "Will Seaman 1st Class Tom Shepherd stand up?" He announced that I was one of the youngest and the best students enrolled in the school. (I never told them I already knew Morse Code!) He then went on to say, "We have a keg of beer and plenty of good food to eat at the party after the ceremony, but we do not want to see Seaman 1st Class Tom Shepherd drinking any beer!" I was seventeen years old and the legal drinking age in Wisconsin was eighteen. I do remember drinking a few beers though!

Following graduation, I was shipped to the South Pacific and ended up serving in the Philippine Islands. Upon discharge from the Navy, I returned home to Iowa and went to the ICCR roundhouse to ask for my job back as a depot agent. I told the man behind the counter I had five years seniority and would like him to see about a position for me. He left the room for a few minutes to check it out and when he returned said there was an opening on the branch line in Minnesota.  I declined the offer, because I wanted to stay in Iowa so that was the end of my telegraphing and railroading career!

Many thanks for reading my story.  Looking back, it sure was a fun and exciting time!  The telegraph key, conductors, engineers, dispatchers, and the railroad depot agents were all a part of the great steam engine era.

Never forget how to dit, dit, dit, dah. I'm sure Hedy Lamarr would like that!

Tom Shepherd as a young sailor.