Former Sabetha resident shares experience as telegraph operator

Ken Bauman, of Sabetha, who passed away Friday, Dec. 4, 2020, shares stories of his time working on the Union Pacific Railroad, among other things.

Before Ken Bauman’s passing, he stated he was the oldest living railroad telegraph operator in northeast Kansas. During his later years, he wrote a memoir of his life, which included his time working on the railroad.

In his memoir, Ken started out his telegraphing journey at a business college in Chillicothe, Mo., that was offering a one-year telegraph course. Ken was able to enroll thanks to his boss at the time, Glen Weaver, but he unfortunately could not finish the entire year due to his struggles with pneumonia and finances.

Before he left, Ken saw a job listing by Union Pacific for a telegraph operator. Planning to take the train to Kansas City to turn in his application and forms, Ken went to the Hiawatha railroad depot and was told instead to go to Marysville for a job. He passed a written test and began student training at a station in Morrill.

Ken worked there for two months before being transferred to Fairfield, Neb., to start training on train orders, which were instructions from dispatchers given to operators at outlying stations via telegraph. Those instructions were translated from Morse Code into written instructions and then given to train operators, either when the train stopped or as it passed by the stations.

The train orders were written on yellow paper, folded several times, and attached to a string through two slip knots for a secure hold. The orders were attached to a Y-shaped hoop with a long handle. The engineer would lean out the cab window of the train and grab the order with his hand.

In Fairfield, Ken was taught how to hand up an order to a train. The Fairfield agent showed Ken how to do it first, but it didn’t go as planned.

According to Ken’s memoir, standing by the tracks with a train going at least 60 miles per hour, the agent accidentally hit the engine cab with the hoop when handing the order up to the engineer. The train had to stop to get the order. By the time the train stopped, there was a mile between Ken and the head-end of the train. Ken walked all the way to the head-end, with the order attached to the hoop, and handed the train order to the engineer.

“On my first day, I learned a valuable lesson,” Ken said. “Don’t hit the cab or anything else when handing up orders to the engineer on a moving train.”

Once finished with student training, Ken went back to Morrill to start his first permanent job. Ken traveled often from job to job, assignment to assignment, depending on where he was needed. During most of his traveling, he did not have a car because he sold it during college.

After his first assignment in Morrill, Ken went to a small town in Nebraska to relieve the second trick operator – trick meaning “shift.” He stayed in the operator’s house for a while because there were no vacant places available. Ken often rented rooms in people’s houses during his travels.

After that assignment, Ken was sent to a station in Hanover, Kan., and then to Alexandria, Neb., in December of 1949. There, Ken was the telegraph operator at a bridge that was being built across a river. During December and January, Ken hadn’t received much work due to winter weather.

At a small meat company in Hiawatha, the owner offered him extra work while he wasn’t on the railroad.

“The owner told me if I’m not working on the railroad and wanted to get in some extra work, I could stop by and he would put me to work doing something,” Ken said. “That something turned out to be shucking the casings off wieners. So that was okay, as it all paid the same.”

At the meat company, a girl he knew worked as a bookkeeper. Not too long after working with the meat company, he and the bookkeeper, Maxine Merkel, decided to get married. They were united in marriage on Feb. 18, 1950, at the Brethren Church in Sabetha. In February 2020, Ken and Maxine celebrated their 70th anniversary.

The morning after their marriage, the couple traveled by train to Edgar, Neb., for Ken to relieve the agent there.

Since they didn’t have a car, they traveled by train from job to job. Ken received a book of train passes from the railroad company so he and Maxine could travel.

After Edgar, they went to Marysville to work third trick at the Marysville yard office. Ken worked a couple more jobs until he was able to afford a car. He and Maxine traveled to Robinson, Kan., and bought a 1938 Chevrolet.

Once they had a car, Ken was able to work second trick, from 4 p.m. to midnight, in a place called Upland, which is a rural unincorporated community in Dickinson County. In his memoir, Ken said this job was difficult because he had to stand on a brick embedded in the platform in order to hand up orders to the train.

“You had to maintain your position with your foot on the brick or you would miss getting the order to the engineer,” Ken said. “It was a difficult place to hand up orders.”

His jobs after that were mostly in Sabetha, Hiawatha and Seneca. Ken and Maxine lived part of that time in Sabetha.

A little after that, Ken enlisted in the Air Force for four years, starting in November 1951 and was discharged in November 1955. In the Air Force, Ken spent almost two years leading a crew to put up the first microwave transmission communication towers in Belgium.

After his discharge, Ken worked at the Hiawatha agency for five years, at the Seneca agency from 1960 to 1967, at Hays for two years, back at Seneca from 1969 to 1971, at St. Joseph for a few months, at Lawrence from 1971 to 1980 and at the Topeka agency from 1980 until his retirement in 1992. While still a telegrapher, Ken was promoted to depot agent at the Seneca, Lawrence and Topeka agencies.

Ken worked almost 40 years on the railroad, and in that time, he worked at many stations from all over Kansas and Nebraska, and met many interesting people he called “characters.” He quite enjoyed his job.

“I liked my job and never hated to go to work,” Ken said.

In his memoir, Ken shared more tales about the characters he had met and the things he did in his various jobs. While he is passed, his stories will live on.

Editor’s note: The Sabetha Herald started working on this feature story prior to Ken and Maxine’s passing. Maxine passed away Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020.


Erin Herrmann100 Posts

Erin Herrmann is a reporter at The Sabetha Herald. She specializes in school board reporting, features and advertising design.


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