Leon J. Pollom

Forrest Gump of the 1800s

The subject of this post crosses a busy Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh in 1908. He is not afraid of being run over by the present. He helped create it. He and Forrest Gump had a way of brushing against history.

This is the first in a series of posts on the memoirs of T.B.A. David, an unheralded man involved in many historic events. He introduced Pittsburgh to telephones, typewriters, and the word “hello.” In this segment, he tells of working as a telegraph messenger with boys who became world shapers, and I venture down a few curious sidetracks. (To read other posts in the series, see menu at left.)


History Has a Fickle Memory

A 74-year-old guy you never heard of is walking downtown Pittsburgh in 1908.

He looks quite cool in an old-fashioned way. He wears a black bowler hat. His white beard is neatly trimmed. The gentleman frames out a three-piece suit pretty well for someone his age

A bright chain flashes in the sun as it sways from the timepiece in his pocket. For him, time is running out.

A cane helps him sidestep horse droppings, now mostly smashed by the rubber tires of horseless carriages and electric trolleys.

Despite the traffic on Fifth Avenue, he pauses and smiles wryly. He’s looking at the tire tracks in dung, but that’s not what makes him shake his head.

From office windows one story, four stories, 10 stories up — on both sides of the street — comes the insistent ringing of telephones and the clatter of typewriters smacking paper. Remember, there was no air conditioning then, so windows are wide open.

Everywhere, he hears people saying, “Hello.”

The word wasn’t used before telephones. It probably didn’t exist. But, language leaves a faint trail to follow.

Alexander Graham Bell wanted people to say, “Ahoy!” when calling. The answer would be “What is wanted?”

In the street, under the old man’s arm, is a portfolio of papers. They reminisce — he reminisces — on changes as they happened. Among them is a note from Thomas Edison:

Dated Aug. 15, 1877, it says: Friend David, I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What you think?

P.S. First cost of sender and receiver to manufacture is only $7.

Before Dial Tones

At the time, Edison and Bell and this man in Pittsburgh were thinking of the telephone as a talking telegraph. It would be for business, with the line always open. One would just shout into the device for attention. There was no number to dial (or key in). And the call would be heard hundreds of miles away — by those close enough to the receiving device.

The old man looks up and into the office windows. Everyone up there could look down. All they would see would be an old man, someone of no consequence to them.

They’d have no idea he was once a Western Union executive who introduced telephones to Pittsburgh, and the first typewriters, and the word “hello,” and . . . well, he doesn’t want recognition for himself.

He’d just like the younger people of 1908 to be aware of how their world came to be.

He sees himself as extremely fortunate. He thinks he lived through an amazing time. He worked with the likes of Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Abraham Lincoln and scores of others.

He is like the character played by Tom Hanks, in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump. Gump always happened to wander into historic moments and people.

However, most of the future-builders this guy met were much like him. They didn’t devote their lives to self-promotion. History remembers those who do. Like Edison, Carnegie and Lincoln.

His name? T.B.A. David.

No, T.B.A. doesn’t stand for To Be Announced. It would be appropriate, though.

The “T” stands for Thomas. I don’t know where B.A. comes from.

People just call him Captain. The title came from his time in the Civil War. You’ll remember Gump ended up in the Vietnam War. T.B.A. David is said to have led the first telegraph crews ever to follow a moving army, stringing communication lines as it went.

As an old man, the captain often strolls into the offices of the Pittsburgh Gazette Times to share with columnists a longer view on people and things in the news.

Newsrooms, at this time, are a circus of telephones, typewriters, and his specialty: wire services. In fact, many newspapers are called The Telegraph.

He resisted requests to write memoirs, but his son died, and he needed a distraction. So, he composed 40 typewritten pages. He also wrote more in a letter to a favorite columnist.

It is those reflections under his arm that underpin this Now Then, Pittsburgh series.

Probably, they are of more interest today than in 1908. You can decide. Let him speak:

I was born in Lawrenceville November 16, 1836. . . Father died when I was a child, which necessitated my becoming a wage earner at an early age. My real work began as a telegraph messenger (at 14) when the lines diverging from Pittsburgh were single wires. . .

Only one message at a time could be transmitted on each wire. Once received, uniformed boys rushed the translated dots and dashes to intended recipients.

“Telegram, sir!”

It just so happens, another boy the same age as T.B.A. David was delivering messages at the same time and place. His name was Andrew Carnegie, a poor chap from across the river at Allegheny City, now Pittsburgh’s North Side.

A whiz at interpreting telegraphic code, Carnegie soon impressed a regular message recipient — the regional head of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Carnegie parlayed that into a corporate rail job, investment advice, and, in only a few years, he was running the railroad’s regional operations himself. Then, he became the richest man in the world.

Carnegie also went on to fund development of telegraph lines for the Union when it didn’t have the money, and arranged wire staffing for the Union cause.

But, let’s get back to before the war.

MY HAT’S TALLER THAN YOURS! Reaching new heights seems to be the fashion goal of posers aboard a stagecoach in Washington County. According to T.B.A. David, the money in their pockets may not have been worth much by the time they got to where they were going. But, keep that under your hat.

Wildcat Money

Those were the days of the stagecoach and the canal boat, and, I might add, “wild cat money” – notes issued by banks of more or less doubtful solvency, and which were subject to frequent, and sometimes appalling, fluctuations.

A man starting on a journey might have his pockets bulging with notes that would buy him anything he wanted at home, but along the course of his journey he would find them steadily depreciating, until finally at his destination they would not buy him a dinner.

When I was local manager of the Lake Erie Telegraph Company there was at one time a panicky feeling abroad, and the treasurer instructed me to check out (withdraw) all the money on deposit. Two days later he “wired” me to redeposit it, which I did — in the same banking house from which it had been withdrawn, taking the same notes that had been paid to me, but in the interim they had depreciated twenty per cent.

Was this 1850s bank note from New Orleans worth $500? You couldn’t be sure.

It was no uncommon thing for a merchant, when a customer tendered a note of some distant bank, to ask him to be seated while a messenger made the round of the banking houses to ascertain its value.

Establishment of a federal banking system in 1913 finally brought the measure of stability we take for granted in 2020.

Things moved with sluggish pace. Merchants bought their supplies six months ahead of the time of their expected delivery. There was no occasion for haste, and the telegraph was but little used.

Pay day was by no means a fixed date with us. I remember one occasion when the company’s credit had sunk so low that the manager had difficulty in finding a livery man who would “trust” him for the hire of a horse and buggy to go “out the pike” to repair the broken wire. The charge for “the rig ” was only one dollar and fifty cents for a whole day.

T.B.A. David says there were two telegraph offices in Pittsburgh. The Atlantic & Ohio line ran between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia along the Greensburg and Philadelphia pikes. The Pittsburgh, Cincinnati & Louisville line was on the pike to Steubenville, then along the Ohio River to Wheeling, and west from Wheeling on the National Road, today’s Route 40.

Pikes were wide, relatively smooth toll roads built by the state with investment by farmers living along them. The rising or descending plank at a tollgate is called a pike.

The farmers were to get a portion of the tolls, but they never did (or rarely did). Still, their investment was considered wise. It became much easier to get goods to market. Travelers, though, had to navigate cows, chickens, pigs, sheep, etc. as they were walked down the center of the road, eventually to dinner tables.

This little piggy went to market . . .

TELEGRAPH MESSENGERS

The Boys Who Made it Work

It may be well to state here that at this period (about 1850) the key of the whole telegraph business of the country rested at Pittsburgh. . .

The duties of a messenger in those days were various, and the hours long. I do not remember of any complaints. There certainly were no strikes. Necessity was too close to our heels to inspire the aid of a child labor society.

We had to “sweep out” the office, clean the batteries (an exceedingly unpleasant task; poor McCargo lost an eye at that work), and were sometimes required to assist in repairing the wires.

In delivering messages we had at times to cover long distances without any of the modern aids. There was an “omnibus line” (two open horse-drawn buses) to Lawrenceville, and a ferry boat from the foot of Grant Street to about Tenth Street (on the South Side), and another from the foot of Penn Street (at the Point) to “Saw Mill Run” to help us on our journey; but in other directions we had to walk.

When I entered the Telegraph service there were still some incredulous people, and some amusing incidents occurred. 

I delivered a message to a house where a woman and her three daughters, all adults, lived. They were reluctant to receive the message, and when one of them did at last take it, she was seized with fear about opening it. The mother would not break the seal and passed it on to Jane, who in turn handed it to Mary, and thus it passed from hand to hand, each saying, “No you open it,” until I finally was appealed to to tear open the envelope. No sooner had I done it that there was a chorus of voices, “Don’t read it!” When they got control of themselves, I was permitted to read, “We have a new baby.” In the midst of the confusion that followed, I made my escape.

Presumably, he left without a tip.

One morning when I was “sweeping out” a man came in the office and said he “wanted to see a letter go.” I told him to go outside and watch the wire. “Oh, no.” he exclaimed. “You can’t fool me. I live out the pike and have watched the pole in front of my house ever since it was put there.”

Apparently, not seeing anything, he eventually tired and came to see letters inserted into the wire. Not being an operator yet, David could not demonstrate the telegraph key for him. That came soon enough.

The latter part of 1852, all of the Telegraph lines in Pittsburgh were combined in a working arrangement and moved into one office, at the corner of Wood Street and Third Street (now avenue), and later became part of what is now known as the Western Union.

Hopping Trains to the Future

At this time the wires were all on the highways, or along the canals. . .

Railroads were only starting to roll. T.B.A. David’s messenger buddies hopped aboard.

. . . when Carnegie was Superintendent of the Western Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, (Robert) Pitcairn was Superintendent of the Middle Division, McCargo was Superintendent of LaCrosse Railroad, and I was superintendent of one of the divisions of the Western Union Telegraph Company.

Carnegie, Pitcairn, McCargo and myself were nearly of the same age, and became telegraph operators about the same time, though Carnegie learned to ” read by sound ” sooner than the others.

I was a full fledged operator when I was 15 years old. In those days we read from impressions made on a strip of paper by a needle on the end of a movable bar. Long after we could “read by sound,” we were required to use that paper to guard against errors.

Mistakes did happen. He recalled a simple business message passing through Pittsburgh in which the declaration of “Loan made” became “Lone Maid.”

I never knew when I learned to read by sound. It came to my consciousness by feel in a somewhat astonishing manner. I had gone “out on the lines” with the repair man. . . It was a rainy day and I was standing in the mud. The moment I touched the wire I felt the pulsations and read distinctly a message that was being sent by an operator named Kelly. It is one of the characteristics of operating that each operator has a style as distinctly his own as his penmanship. I told Jack (the repairman) of my discovery, but he was incredulous, and called me a blanked fool. . .

Years after, I had occasion to use this method once when no instruments were at hand.

The ease of hacking telegrams that way is one reason codes were used regularly.

Young Techie a Subject of Wonder

There was even at this time still much mystery surrounding the Telegraph, and one who could operate was thought to be above the average of men.

On one occasion when I went with the lineman “out on the pike.” We were not able to repair the break before night was upon us, and we had to “put up” at the village “tavern.”

During the evening, the lineman happened to make some remark that referred to me as an operator, which caused the landlord to ask, “Can that boy telegraph?”

Being assured that I could, he disappeared, and soon the villagers came straggling in to get a look at me. It was an embarrassing situation, and I was glad to slip off to bed.

In 1854 there was an epidemic of cholera, and the number of deaths caused widespread alarm. The Telegraph lines were used more than usual. Some of the operators became panic-stricken and left the city, but we boys (the ones who went on to such success) “stood our ground like men.” (Or, young fools.)

By the time T.B.A. David was 18, he was sent to manage the telegraph office in Wheeling.

He found Americans there thought very differently than Americans in Pittsburgh. Sound familiar? The nation was about to officially recognize that difference, and split in two. Facebook and Twitter, er . . . I mean the telegraph, was at the center.

And, so was T.B.A. David.

NEXT: Divided We Stand — T.B.A. David asked to help a slave escape; Wheeling rally cheers talk of killing Lincoln; Abe’s only visit to Pittsburgh; how Lincoln sneaked into Washington after sleeping with a female detective . . . get your mind out of the gutter!

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