Manitoba History: A Memoir of the CPR Telegraph Office
by Fred McGuinness
In 1942, the Winnipeg office of Canadian Pacific Telegraphs was a combination of vast space, strange noises, and a high level of human activity. It was located immediately above the CPR ticket office on the corner of Portage and Main. To the insiders this was known as a “commercial” office involved mainly with telegrams, cables, and dispatches for Canadian Press. It had little to do with the operations of the trains.
I reported for duty at 5:30 each afternoon and worked until one a.m. As soon as I had punched in on the time clock, I reported to the evening wire chief, Jack Greenway. Most evenings this friendly fellow just pointed to a far corner of the Morse section and said “The usual.”
My usual assignment was distressing in the extreme. It was known as the ‘casualty wire’ for a stated reason; it dealt only with casualty messages reporting on sailors, soldiers, or airmen who had been killed, wounded, missing, shot down, or otherwise brutalized in the war in Europe.
This office, known as “WN,” was a major transfer office. It received all the bad-news wartime telegrams for Manitoba and Saskatchewan and then re-transmitted them to their destinations.
I had been the subject of one of those casualty messages. When I was 18, I worked in WN as a Morse operator. I joined the navy as soon as war was declared. My naval career was cut shot in September of 1940 when the sub-chaser on which I was the “sparker” was involved in a mishap. The injuries I suffered caused me to spend 11 months in hospital in Halifax. I was one of the early “returned men” of WW2. I was now a student by day and a Morse man by evening.
For my entire shift, barring a 30-minute lunch break, I would copy telegrams on the identical format:
Some day you feel like a challenge, type thirty of those messages every hour and check to learn if you are still love life.
There were three sections to WN. Nearest the windows were the teletypes, four rows of typists seated in front of keyboards, transmitting telegrams to major cities in Canada and the United States.
Next came the Morse section, with 25 or 30 stations, each of them equipped with telegraph keys, sounders, typewriters and chairs. All telegraph typewriters typed only capital letters. Some of those sounders clattered away all day and all night with news of births, deaths, and nonstop orders for commodities.
WN’s third section was technical, with dozens of banks of metal frames carrying the gauges and instruments, which kept the telegraph wires in operation, and also carried the daily programs of the fledgling CBC national radio service.
This was a friendly and interesting place to work, and it gave only one small hint of future troubles. In prominent view in the maze of equipment was a black metal box about five feet tall. I always thought that the Morkham-Kleinschmidt Teleprinter, to give the box its name, had a sinister appearance. When this equipment was hooked up, it would direct the affairs of scores of pairs of copper writes carrying teletype signals; when this machine went to work, there would be no more need for Morse operators. This transformation might not happen for a couple of years, but for practitioners of the dot-and-dash world, the end was clearly in sight.
I must digress here and make a comment on these persons called “brass-pounders.”
They came in all shapes and sizes. They included black, white, and yellow colours. They were never asked about their educational attainment; all that mattered was that they had mastered Samuel Morse’s curious mechanical language. The majority were sons or daughters of railway station agents. Their railway-depot living quarters were filled with the sounds of telegraph sounders.
The man who directed this body of 45 or 50 operators was R. J. McInnis, a man whose name will last forever in Alberta history books. At exactly 4:10 a.m., April 19, 1903, “R.J.” was on duty in the Calgary office of C. P. Telegraphs. He was transmitting messages to the village of Frank, Alberta, when the wire went dead. He reported this to the wire chief and went about other duties. Not until he arose later that day did he learn that the face had fallen off Turtle Mountain, and Frank now was buried under broken rock, which killed 70 of the villagers.
McInnis now had a new responsibility, which kept him busier than usual. He spent part of each day searching for Morse operators who were in retirement; it was his job to get them back on the payroll. I had not been at St. Paul’s College for more than a couple of weeks before he tracked me down by telephone. I was offered all the work I could fit into my study schedule.
As being impecunious is the student’s natural state, I was always interested in a spot of overtime. My quest for dollars reached a pinnacle on Christmas Day, 1943. A week earlier, McInnis had gone through the Morse section with a handful of cards. Each described the two-hour shift an operator had to work on Christmas Day. As the only bachelor on the crew, I was offered many of those cards. I reported for work at 8 a.m. and worked right through to midnight. Every two hours the wire chief would ask me my name, and over that tedious day, I became, in turn, Murphy, Dooley, McCready, and so on with a new name every other hour. Sixteen hours of double time caused me to bless old Kris Kringle.
One other event still causes me to smile. One St. Patrick’s Day, I looked around the Morse section and could see: Murphy, Casey, Dooley, McCready, Mulhearn, and Marcovitch. Marcovitch was the only one wearing a shamrock.
My research on the end of Morse is only anecdotal, but I believe it is fairly accurate. There was a clear division at age 45. Operators older than 45 generally refused to knuckle under and become teletype operators. They felt they could always find work on smaller railways, or in the United States. Several brokerage houses had Morse men working for them. Those operators under 45 were inclined to grumble about their ill luck, but they became, in effect, production typists. If you have been a Morse operator, you can only conclude communications via keyboard has no soul.
I still have my “bug,” that being the name of my semiautomatic Morse key that will make dots as long as I hold that lever over. Once in the mid-1960s I won a wager based upon Morse. The CPR superintendent in Medicine Hat, Bill Flett, took a party of pheasant hunters to Bassano, Alberta, in his private car. The evening before the hunt, we were having dinner when the subject of railways came up. I mentioned that I had worked as a Morse operator and my buddies refused to believe me. Proof was easy: we walked to the depot where a co-operative station agent gave me a sheaf of messages, which I transmitted to Calgary. There was amazement all around. Back in the rail car, I collected my winnings.
Gordon Fraser, a friend now living in retirement in Brandon, had been one of those station agents. In a recent meeting he told me of the sequence of events which led up to the end of Morse in rural settings. There was no dramatic end-of-Morse day. Instead, rail officials picked and chose individual stations, deeming them redundant. The shutdown took several years.
And that’s my story; at 22, I became a victim of technology. Morse may be gone, but the memories are still clear and strong.
Page revised: 24 November 2014