Telegraph Road

 photo TelegraphRoad-01_zps71f6caf9.jpg
“Telegraph sang a song about the world outside…”

Yesterday I built insulators and added wire to the telegraph poles that line the railway right of way.

Depending on era, the Port Rowan branch had a single wire telegraph line or a two-wire telephone line. I chose the single wire because I haven’t seen it modelled as often as more traditional pole lines.

I located the telegraph line based on prototype photographs and was pleased that it I could run it on the backdrop-size of the tracks through Port Rowan and St. Williams, as this would keep the telegraph line out of the way for operators – a particularly important consideration for me, since I like to wear cufflinks which would surely snag in a telegraph line!

I used EZ Line – the same stuff I used for the right of way fences through St. Williams – although for the telegraph line I was careful to not tension the EZ Line as I wanted it to arc from pole to pole. It was tricky to do, and the amount of drape varies between each pair of poles, but I like the effect regardless.

The line simply terminates on the last pole each end of the layout. When I build the Port Rowan station, I’ll connect it to the telegraph line. But since the station at St. Williams is finished, I added an anchor to one corner of the station and strung a line from the station to the rear of the adjacent pole. The connection to the main telegraph line is behind the pole, so I didn’t bother modelling it. You can just see the station connection over the top of the truck cab in this view:
Telegraph Road-St Williams photo TelegraphRoad-03_zpsc4cdfdfd.jpg
(To install the anchor, I had to remove the station from the layout – a process that required disconnecting the mechanism that operates the train order board. It worked as expected, which is a relief. While I had the station off the layout, I also painted some black onto the interior walls and order board mechanism and added glass to the door and window.)

While the pole line runs on the far side of the tracks through the two towns I’ve modelled, it crosses to the foreground through the Lynn Valley – as shown here at the Port Rowan end of the valley:
Telegraph Road-Lynn Valley photo TelegraphRoad-02_zps20c64f5a.jpg

I did this because I needed to get the telegraph line past the Lynn Valley water tank. As the above photo shows, the tank is located on the far side of the tracks from operators and is surrounded by trees. On the prototype, the telegraph ran on short poles across the track from the tank, which would place them on the aisle side on my layout. But that’s okay, because there’s no need to reach into the layout through the Lynn Valley during the course of an operating session.

I installed the telegraph poles ages ago, but deferred on adding insulators while I searched for a suitable source. In the end, I built my own.

I started with the brackets – simple pieces of strip wood:
 photo Insulators-01_zps0d6f16f0.jpg

I used scale 4″x4″ and cut a bunch of pieces a scale 16″ long (or, 1/4″ in our 1:1 world), as shown at “A”. I measured 4″ from one end and marked each bracket with a pencil (“B”), then cut the strip wood at an angle from pencil to end. Discard the scrap (“C”) and lightly sand the cut edge if required, and voila: a bracket (“D”).

Next, I drilled each bracket to accept a piece of .015″ wire:
Insulators-Step 2 photo Insulators-02_zps645c16e9.jpg

As the photo shows, I drilled into the square end of the bracket, parallel to the long edge. (It doesn’t matter if the drill breaks through the angled side.)

I finished each insulator one at a time. I stuck a length of .015″ wire into the hole I just drilled – but did not yet cut it. I used the wire as a handle to dip the bracket into some stain. With the bracket stained, I added a drop of thick CA to the point where the wire and bracket meet to glue the two pieces together.

For insulators, I used small translucent green beads I found at a bead supply store in the Garment District in downtown Toronto. The pill bottle in the photo below cost a grand total of 59 cents:
Insulators-Step 3 photo Insulators-03_zps9fc03d0b.jpg

Thread two beads onto the wire. Add a drop of CA to the wire at the bracket and slide the first bead into position. Then add a drop of CA to the wire and the top of the first bead, and slide the second bead into position. Now, trim the wire with a pair of side cutters, and the insulator is done:
Insulators-Finished photo Insulators-04_zps3736e2f6.jpg

The finished insulators and brackets are glued to the telegraph poles with thick CA – with the angled side of the bracket joined to the pole so the insulator sticks out at a slight angle as shown in the layout photos. I will admit they are a bit on the large side because I couldn’t find any smaller beads for the glass insulators – and my source had a lot of beads from which to choose. But I’m happy with the result: As the layout photos above illustrate, the insulators catch the light nicely and if I’m going to scratch-build little details like this, I’d like them to be big enough for people to see.

28 thoughts on “Telegraph Road

  1. These look great. my Mother-in-Law was a collector of insulators so I have had experience with these and how they look on and off the poles. Great.

  2. Thanks everybody. Appreciated.

    One of the things I’m really enjoying about this layout is that because it’s relatively simple (just eight turnouts, a modest requirement for locomotives and rolling stock, only a dozen or so structures) I can invest hobby time in things like building my own telegraph insulators.

    I actually learned to do this while working on my previous, On2 layout. I learned about using beads for insulators from my friend Dave Burroughs – an excellent On3 D&RGW modeller who is responsible for the many fine evergreen trees on my layout.

    Dave’s layout is also modest in terms of size and complexity, but extremely well executed. He’s one of the people who inspires me to do better. Check out his layout here – and enjoy if you visit.


  3. The colour of the beads is excellent, really nails it. I have an insulator and wood wedge on my layout room wall, looking business-like but not wired to anything. Now I need to find that brass telegraph key.

  4. Very nice detail, well done.

    I believe, however, that there would be two wires to the station for a single wire telegraph line. One wire to the East (North) and the second wire to the West (South). This because the telegraph worked by interrupting the current in the line. The ‘key’ had a shorting switch that closed the circuit when a message was not being sent, leaving only the sounder in the station’s circuit.

    A photograph of Dome Rock station on the South Park line clearly shows four wires connecting between the station and the pole outside to the two wire telegraph line.
    ..–.. .-.-.-

  5. The Western Union in Colorado in the late 1880s used a single wire and used the earth as ground. Each telegraph station was required to have its own battery. Same with the on train rigs, one wire was drapped on the telegraph line and the ground rod was pounded into the earth. These rigs did not operate on the move.

    • Thanks Tom – good to know.

      In fact, now that you mention it, there’s a passage in the book Down By The Bay – a History of Long Point and Port Rowan 1799-1999 that describes the telegraph batteries in the Port Rowan station. Tom Backus is quoted in the book as follows:

      “(Under the station agent’s desk), to provide electricity for the telegraph, they had a big glass jar, oh, maybe 7 inches in diameter and 8 or 9 inches high, open at the top. They had a zine electrode, kind of a crowfoot thing that hung down from the top of the jar, clipped over the edge of the jar and and the bottom there was a copper crowfoot electrode. There were two different chemicals in the jar, one was copper sulphate on the bottom and I think then top one was hydrochloric acid The two electrolytes were of a different specific gravity; they wouldn’t mix. You could see the fine line between the blue copper sulphate on the bottom and the clear hydrochloric acid on the top.

      “This was called a gravity battery. This could supply a very weak current for a long duration of time.”

      Great book, by the way, for anybody interested in this part of Ontario. Not railroad focused, but there’s lots of interesting information in it regardless.


  6. Kuddos to you Trevor for this unique detail. My dad was able to “talk” one of the wrecking crew to giving him one of the original green insulators and I am most blessed to have it displayed on a bureau in my living room. It is green and stands a little over 5 inches tall. Embossed in the glass are the initials H. C. CO PAT May 2 1893.
    As to OS ing the mixed train at St. Williams I have overheard Agent Dickie Thompson doing this as the train left eastbound…probably London DS wanted to know if the mixed was on time because eventually this train will leave the Simcoe Sub and enter the Cayuga Sub at Simcoe JCT. where you had 6 third class trains on the Wabash plus a Wabash/CN mixed train until 1955. Pierre are you listening?
    Also, Dick Thompson at St. Williams trained new operators Morse Code. He trained a cousin of mine, Elon Hoover and Ross Wood, a dear friend ,who is gone now.
    Ross was a switchtender at Duff, near Ft. Erie. His job was to facilitate movements into and out of the west end of Ft. Erie yard. Pierre would also appreciate knowing that many of the westbound Wabash trains would be exceeding yard limits “expecting” the west switch to be clear for their departure. This irritated Ross very much because he had to scramble a few times to prevent a derailment.
    My, those Wabash/N&W hoggers liked to run hot!

    Monte Reeves

    • This is great information as always Monte – thanks so much! Interesting that the train was OS’d at St. Williams while headed eastbound. As Steve Lucas notes elsewhere, trains had to register at Port Rowan (and Simcoe) so that info would’ve been passed to the dispatcher. So I have a reason to install a key at Port Rowan from that – and now from your information, a reason to add a key to St. Williams, too…
      All the best for 2014 – maybe this year we’ll meet up and put faces to names.

    • Monte,
      I am indeed “listening”. In fact there will be at least 8 3rd class trains on the Cayuga Sub, if not more. The timetable doesn’t show the extras that were in play that played a large role in balancing the power back and forth. And those 3rd class trains were constantly given “right” over the scheduled mixed trains.
      Rule one for the CN despatchers in St Thomas and London, “You don’t stop the Wabash!””

  7. Hi Trevor,
    This is a great additional detail, to your layout thanks for sharing how you fabricated these…

    Hoever a question does come to mind:
    So now with a single line telegraph line lining your stations, are your crews or at least the station operators and dispatcher – having to learn Morse Code??
    Just asking??? Cheers
    John Green
    Vancouver BC

    • Hi John:

      It’s actually a very good question.

      I was fortunate to operate on the 19th Century, On3 Denver South Park and Pacific layout built by Andrew Dodge before he tore it down to build his current, Proto:48 project. Andrew used telegraphs for dispatching, as outlined in features in Model Railroad Planning 1997 and Model Railroader June 2001. Andrew provided cheat sheets at each station, with entire sentences sequenced in Morse. It worked really well.

      So well in fact that I was going to use his system on my On2 layout – but I tore that down before I got to the operations stage, and started building Port Rowan instead.

      I could introduce telegraphs on this layout fairly easily – especially since the entire branch operated under Yard Limits and therefore there would’ve been little need for train orders. I suspect – and I’m sure someone who runs trains for a living can confirm – that there was no need to even OS train arrivals on a branch so controlled.

      It would be something to add to the layout to augment reality – and fairly easy too: I have space on the pull-out work desks and the gear needed is still readily available.

      Something to think about…


      • There was no need for operators to OS trains on a branch that was entirely within Yard Limits and did not have first- or second- class trains scheduled. The agent-operator could issue train orders with respect to slow orders. But 1951 UCO Rule 41 covered track work on most (if not all branches) and Rule 44 would obviate the need for slow orders. Tor these and other applicable rules, go to Jeff Smith’s website–

        • Hi Steve:
          Thanks for clarifying this. This is interesting – I actually do have a second-class train. As the schedules here show, M233 – The Daily Effort to Port Rowan – is a second-class train. So what does this mean for my layout? Do operators have to OS M233 en route to Port Rowan – even though the entire layout is within Yard Limits?
          On the return journey, as M238, the mixed train runs on a third-class schedule. So operators do not have to OS the train on the return journey (to Simcoe and beyond)?

          • Ian Wilson explains the rationale behind the third/second class status of the Daily Effort on page 138 of Steam Echoes of Hamilton. But CN’s assigning train 233 Second Class status means that yard limits mean nothing to it, per UCO Rule 93.

            “93. Within yard limits the main track may be used clearing the time for first and second class trains at the next station where time is shown. Protection against third class, fourth class, extra trains and engines is not required.

            Third class, fourth class, extra trains and engines must move within yard limits at yard speed unless the main track is known to be clear.”
            “YARD SPEED—A speed that will permit stopping within one-half the range of vision.”

            Any third, forth class, or extra train must either clear its time per Rules 86 and 87, or flag against it per Rule 99.

            86. Unless otherwise provided, an inferior train must be clear at the time a superior train in the same direction is due to leave the next station in the rear where time is shown.

            “87. (SINGLE TRACK) An inferior train must keep out of the way of opposing superior trains and failing to clear the main track by the time required by rule must be protected as prescribed by rule 99.

            Extra trains must clear the time of opposing regular trains not less than five minutes unless otherwise provided, and will be governed by train orders with respect to opposing extra trains.”

            But this last paragraph mentions REGULAR trains. This is the kind of stuff that operating rule discussions ensue from when dealing with the Daily Effort and extras–or a self-propelled crane which could be operated per union agreement with no train or engine crew on it, just the crane operator!

            Looking at the ETT in Ian’s book, the conductor of a train had to register at Port Rowan and Simcoe. This OS info would be forwarded by the agent-operator to the dispatcher–via that single-wire telegraph line, which means that I stand corrected from my earlier posts. It’s been almost a quarter century since I worked under train order, and I had to put myself back in that mindset!

  8. The comments on this post have really inspired me. I have plans for something new to enhance the layout as a result – stay tuned for more, in the fullness of time. In the meantime, I just wanted to say thanks to those of you who chimed in!

  9. Excellent work, Trevor. — I am a former railroad telegrapher and dispatcher, and long-time member of the Morse Telegraph Club. If you wish to replicate rail telegraph as used in North America (including Canada) you need to learn “American Morse” code, not the radio code. They are somewhat different animals. Again, check out the MTC info on the web. I worked on branches with one or two line telegraph circuits many times.

    As to batteries, the cells under the desk in most cases only powered the “local” circuit;within the station itself. There would be a relay connected to the pole line in series, and this relay keyed the local sounder. A simpler setup used on branch lines such as your model was the “Mainline Sounder” which was slightly larger than a local but was wired directly into the pole line and required no batteries at all. Only at the end stations of the pole line would there be a need for batteries (in later years replaced by a 110v rectifier working on commercial power.) Each station also had a switchboard to cut the local instrument and key out of the poleline when the station was closed. In the early 1800’s the individual wires usually led into one end of the building and out the other end, as in the Colorado & Southern depot mentioned previously; however, from the 1880’s on these were usually removed and replaced by a single cable running from one pole to the building. A wooden box, somewhat like a tall birdhouse mounted at the crossarms of the pole was the terminus for the short cable. Much easier to model but most folks do not do so, which is a shame… it is an easy detail. The earlier setup with wires actually passing through the building were found to be a real fire hazard during lightning storms. I could email you pics if you’d like.

    As to OSing trains in the yard limit, it is still a good idea, though not necessarily needed as far as train movements are concerned.

    Regards and “73” …. Skip Luke

    • Hi Skip:
      Well, you’re going to be my go-to guy for info on telegraphy now. You’ve been warned! 🙂
      Seriously: Welcome aboard!
      American Morse it is. Although I have to admit, I’d be happy being able to produce anything on a key that someone could understand. As I’ve mentioned, I have a Morse Code practice set, acquired from a local hobby shop back in 2011. I’m lousy at it, but I haven’t really had a reason to improve…

      Inspector Morse Code photo InspectorMorseCode.jpg

    • Hi Skip:
      Thanks for these. Unfortunately, I think your Office Local Circuit link and Mainline Sounder link are for members only.
      But I do like the cable box on the pole. I’ll have to add them to the layout.

      • Sorry about that….well, if you like, you can go to the websites manually and find those or similar diagrams. The main thing I wanted to share was about the cable connection. Many people think that cable is a very modern device, but has been used fo a long time. I look forward to seeing the progress on your railway.


  10. Well, you would not need to be fast for your needs. Simple meet or running orders for extras have a limited number of words. You might look at which is a project created by one of our members …. there are many of us now who use it to communicate via telegraph over the internet. It is also useful for practice, and there is one”wire” at least which sends the “news” continuously. Good for background “atmosphere” if you keep the sounder adjusted for minimal sound. Program is free and is small. We have a lot of fun on there and there are groups which gather on the “wire” certain days of the week.

    I will be glad to be of assistance on the subject or train movements if you have need.

    I am working on a relatively small HO switching layout set in 1900-1910, and your layout is a good inspiration for me.


Leave a Reply to Steve Lucas Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please prove you're not a nasty spamming robot thingy * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.