J. Casale - W2NI
A Monument to Charles Minot
T he New York and Erie Railroad was the first railroad in the U.S. to use the telegraph to coordinate the movements of its trains. Its introduction was the result of the efforts by Charles Minot. Born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, August 30, 1810, Minot came to the N.Y.& Erie RR with both legal and railroad backgrounds. He graduated from Harvard in 1828 and practiced law for several years in Suffolk County, Mass. before becoming an engineer and superintendent for the Boston and Maine Railroad. By 1849, Minot was hired as a superintendent for the N.Y.& Erie. He had a reputation of being quick tempered, bluff and rude in speech, but very democratic in his manner with his men. He is also credited with developing some outstanding railroad and telegraph people from his staff.
In 1850, Minot was promoted to general superintendent of the N.Y. & Erie. That same year, Ezra Cornell, who constructed Samuel Morse's experimental telegraph line from Washington D.C. to Baltimore, was building a line between New York City and Lake Erie. Cornell built his line along wagon routes and across fields of southern New York State. He had hopes of it becoming a major competing trunk line connecting the Atlantic seaboard with western lines. The name of his enterprise was the New York and Erie Telegraph Company but it initially had no connection with the railroad.
Charles Minot became very interested in Cornell's work and subsequent conversations about telegraphy between the two resulted in Minot convincing officers of the N.Y.& Erie to build their own line along the railroad's right of way. It was to be used for the general business of the railroad. The new line was built in sections by railroad workers connecting Piermont, N.Y. (the railroad's eastern terminus located just north and across NYC on the west side of the Hudson River) to Dunkirk, N.Y. on the east coast of Lake Erie. Cornell supplied the railroad with Morse instruments (by J.W. Norton-NYC) and insulators.
In 1851, Minot appointed two junior superintendents to manage the east and west sections of the telegraph line: Charles L. Chapin in the west and 18 year old Luther G. Tillotson in the east. Minot used to call his superintendents to Turner, N.Y. (now Harriman, N.Y.) for monthly meetings held at the station's telegraph office. Soon after these appointments were made, the idea to experiment moving trains using the telegraph was suggested.
Train movement on a single track railroad up until this time was controlled using a time interval system - a system where a ruling train had the right of one hour against an opposing train of the same class. This meant an express train had to wait for an hour at a station or siding for the opposing ruling express train before it could move. After the hour expired, the waiting train could then proceed slowly behind a flag man until the ruling train or its flag man was seen. Once spotted, one of the trains would have to back up into the nearest siding. Also, local trains tried to time their departures to reach sidings in time to allow express trains to pass. An expensive way to reduce these long delays was to build a railroad with double tracks. But by using the telegraph, a single track railroad with enough sidings proved to be more efficient, considerably less expensive, and much safer for the traveling public. Now trains could be coordinated safely in both directions and in the same direction on a single track.
The exact date of the first train order has been questioned over the years. At the time of Mott's correspondence with conductor Stewart, he was 85 years old and could not remember if it was sent in 1851 or 1852. And the exact wording of Minot's order was the best Stewart could recall. The "fall of 1851" was later determined in a report made to the New York State Legislature in July of 1852 by telegraph line builder, Henry O'Reilly. Nevertheless, Stewart's story was later corroborated by other Erie employees of that era and 19th century telegraph authorities are in full agreement that it was because of Minot's efforts the telegraph was introduced and used for train movement. George Prescott, 1860: .."strict justice requires, that to Charles Minot, Esq. is due the credit of its conception and completion, in the face of great opposition on the part of other officers of the road."
In 1910, E.P. Griffith, the superintendent of telegraphs for the Erie Railroad, introduced resolutions at two major national conventions to recognize Minot's work; first at the Association of Railway Telegraph Superintendent's Convention in Los Angeles and at the Old Time Telegraphers and Historical Association's Convention in Chicago. His resolution called to recognize "a great epoch in railroad and telegraph history," that railroad operation by telegraph was conceived by Charles Minot and that the first train order was issued from Turner, N.Y. He called for a monument to be erected at the site of the original Erie Railroad station at Turner, N.Y. and to "commemorate the historical event in granite and bronze so that future generations may be impressed with its importance." The resolutions were unanimously passed at both conventions and it was determined $3000.00 was needed for a suitable monument.
A highly detailed tablet was designed for the monument by sculptor, Charles Keck of New York and casted by the Gorham Mfg. Company, of Providence, RI. It was 6'x 3'3" in size made out of United States standard bronze and included a vignette of Charles Minot along with the inscription of the first train order. Other details included the engravings of the actual telegraph instruments used and the train order in Morse code on the register's tape.
After collecting $1700 of the fund, E.P. Giffith wrote the widow of railroad magnate, Edward H. Harriman requesting that the granite stone for the monument come from the Harriman summer estate at nearby Arden, N.Y. She enthusiastically agreed to donate the stone and the necessary cutting. The large granite monument was placed on the site of the original Turner station on the south side of the eastbound track. It stands nearly 13 feet tall on a 14 x 12 1/2 foot base. "What Hath God Wrought" was cut into the stone in an arch and the bronze tablet was mounted below.
The dedication ceremony took place on May 2, 1912. Two special trains with about 400 guests came up from the Erie Station at Jersey City, N.J. One train consisted of two Erie railroad and one Western Union private cars along with a first class coach and a combination coach. Over a hundred school children each waving an American flag gathered in a semicircle around the monument along with several hundred townspeople. Some of the VIP's included a who's who of both railroad and telegraph fields including: Thomas A. Edison; presidents of the Erie, NY Central, and Delaware, Lackawanna & Western railroads; Theodore Vail, president of AT&T and WU; and telegraph engineer and author William Maver Jr. Four New York messenger boys stood guard around the base of the monument draped with the American flag. David Homer Bates, a former telegrapher for President Lincoln and E.P.Griffith's daughter unveiled the monument and presented it to the Erie Railroad Company. In Bates presentation address he talked about the role the telegraph and train dispatcher played during the Civil War following the battle of Chickamauga. He gave the example of how 23,000 troops, horses, and baggage were moved in eleven days from the Washington D.C. area into Chattanooga over a wide 1200 mile single track route in order to reinforce a desperate Union Army.
The Monument Today
Around 1980, the bronze tablet was removed from the monument by Conrail. When local citizens noticed it missing, Conrail initially stated it did not know of its whereabouts. The tablet was later found mounted in a rail station in New Jersey. After being pressed by local officials, Conrail's corporate offices stated the tablet had been removed to protect it from vandalism but finally agreed to return it. In the early 1990s, it was again discovered missing and it has been missing ever since. It is not known if it was indeed stolen this time or if it is being stored at some undisclosed railroad property.
Although the monument is in poor shape today, local Harriman officials are making plans to preserve it. Hopefully the tablet will be returned and the railroad and village will come to an agreement on the now vacant railroad land that surrounds the monument. The last depot was demolished this past May. While walking along the abandoned track bed, a few decaying rail ties protruding from the ground are all that is left to remind you of the once grand era portrayed in the 1912 photo. It is also hopeful that not only the monument commemorating the introduction of the telegraph in U.S. railway service is preserved, but, equally important, the combined historical efforts of two entire organizations made back in 1912 are respected: .."that one of the most important events in railroad telegraphic history may be worthily remembered by future generations."
published in the October 2006 issue of
"The AWA Journal," the quarterly journal of
The Antique Wireless Association.
( A nonprofit historical society )