Train Orders
Train Order Stands

Tonight (Sunday November 6) I was at our Train Club Clubhouse and some members stopped in to make BS. The conversation got on to Steam Locomotives and the question was asked, "Why do they (the crews) always go out and grease and oil the side rods and bearings?"

Well, that was an easy question: When the majority of the Steam Locomotives were built, there were no such things as sealed bearings or slide bearings on the crosshead guides. Just GUESS where that Alemite, Oil and Grease WENT?

I've always thought a cartoon by Gil Reid showing thousands of droplets spewing away from the locomotive would be more appropraite than nothing at all. Steam Locomotives are SLOBS, folks.

Indeed, many was the story Dad told me of getting a nice shirt and tie spotted as a steam engine shot past and he was handing up train orders.

I noted Shorty Neinhaus was wearing a darker shirt in the Photograph Jack had of him in the last issue of The SOO.

Soo Telegraphers were also Ticket Agents in every town. In addition to copying Train Orders, copying messages, taking Yard Check, in some places doing the demurrage and billing, they also sold tickets to the traveling public.

In this capacity, the Soo Line wanted their Telegraphers to look "Presentable", which, from what I was told, amounted to wearing a clean shirt and tie.

This is fine. Problem was, Telegraphers had to hand up Train Orders to passing trains. Dad HATED having to hand up orders to Steam Locomotives for two reasons:

  1. 1. A fear ingrained in him at an early age of the Valve Gear thrashing around on the sides of steam locomotives giving the impression that if you happened to get too close to the track, the Valve Gear would grab you or you'd get sucked in by the wond of a passing train and chopped into a million pieces;
  2. 2. No matter what, when handing up Train Orders or Lists and Bills to a moving train drawn by a Steam Engine, you got "Spotted".

Dad originally called it "Getting Pissed On".

So, dressed in acceptable attire, after one train shot past that you handed up orders to, you came back inside the Depot with a spotted shirt, now ruined, because you got splattered with grease, alemite and oil flying every which direction off the side rods, guides and what not.

From head to toe, I will add.

In some places, many stations still had a stock of the old Bamboo Hoops. The Hoops were the forebearer of the later String Hoops. In the days of the hoop, the Bamboo was wetted and bent around a circular form, then tied off to create the loop the crew member put their arm through when catching orders. The crewman extracted the orders, messages, lists and/or bills and tossed the hoop back, some distance down the track from the depot.

At Dale, Wisconsin, Soo Eastbound trains came off Anton Hill at such speeds that tossing the hoop back was impossible, so the crews took the hoop back to North Fond du Lac with them. Westbound trains would throw off several hoops at Dale on their way past going much slower up Anton Hill.

Adoption of the wire ' Y ' hoop didn't necessarily make things better for the Operatror; you still had to get in close to the track to hold the entire production up for the trainman to grab.

Soo Line began installing Train Order Stands sometime around 1948. I don't recall hearing of them or seeing photographs of them prior to this.

They were simple enough; a piece of 1/2 inch square tubing was buried in the platform, which took in stand of 1/4 inch square tubing, upon which there were two hoops in adjustable slides, one very high up for the engine, one considerably lower for the caboose.

To Dad, train order stands were a God Send. He used them forever after that, only handing up orders by hand if a train was on a passing siding that passed the station he was working at.

Of course, by the time the Soo started installing train order stands, they were buying diesels. I suppose the law of averages with a large dosage of Irony works in there someplace.

Keith Meacham

Hi Keith & Group....

When I was working on the Western (Old Minnesota) Division, there was one station (I think it was Leal) where the agent had drilled a one inch hole thru the waiting room and outside wall. He had taken a rope and knotted one end so it was secure on the inside of the waiting rom. Then he knotted this rope on the ourtside on the other end to the exact length where he took his stance on the depot platform to hand up orders to a passing steam locomotive. He held onto the rope with one hand, and handed up the orders with the other. Suppose this gave him an additional sense of security.

Handing up orders to a double header at Valley City taking a run for the hill eastbound was a real challenge, but often a necessity. Dispatchers tried to avoid this one to the extent possible.

Jim Welton


Your story reminds me of my brief railroad career!

I was a student at UW-Oshkosh in 1955 and that summer I got a job with the C&NW at their South Oshkosh depot as a temporary Yard Clerk filling in for employees taking vacations. The regular Yard Clerks worked the other jobs for the vacationeers. I suppose that way they got some experience for the other positions. The first few weeks I worked the second trick job and then for the rest of the summer I worked the day job. On the day job I had to do a yard check and also deliver/pick-up paperwork at the Milwaukee Road and Soo Line freight houses.

On the night job I was the only one around the depot after 5:00 P.M. and usually by 9:00 P.M. the last freight train had come and gone, so after that there was very little to do until I went home at 11:00 P.M. When the switch crew tied up early I had a good time visiting with them, but otherwise it was pretty quiet unless the phone rang and someone ordered a car for the next day.

Usually the freight trains would stop to set out and pick up cars so that the conductor could walk up to the depot and pick up the waybills. Occasionally, if the train was quite long he would stay on the caboose and toss off his paperwork as they left the station. I would then have to hand up the waybills to him for the cars they picked up. The conductor would usually just hang his arm out the bay window and scoop the old bamboo hoop away from me as he went by. He would then remove the attached papers and throw the hoop back on the ground. I would have to watch where it bounced and go retrieve it after that.

There was one short-handled hoop that had bounced the wrong way at some time in the past and been run over by the train. I liked that one the best for handing up the waybills.

Many years later, my good friend Wes Foshay managed to glom onto most of the hoops from the South Oshkosh station and he offered me one for my collection. The little short-handled hoop was among them and that's the one I chose. You can see it today, in the depot in my basement - one of the few reminders of my brief railroad experience from 50 years ago!

Larry Easton

When I was a kid, it used to scare me when Dad had to hand up a train order to the engine, especially in the winter when it might be slippery on the platform. I could imagine Dad sucked under those huge driver wheels. Southbound trains went pretty fast through Weyauwega, but usually when they saw the train order board they might slow down to 50. If there was snow or ice on the platform, Dad had a supply of salt that he would use to melt it away at the spot where he had to stand. It was my job to pick up the hoops that had been tossed aside by the train crew. As a point of interest - when a train passed Anton - there would be a click on the telegraph sounder. Then by timing the passing at Weyauwega, Dad could determine the speed of the train - and sometimes it would be pretty fast. After the train passed him he would watch the ungated crossing where a fast train would reach in another 10 seconds or so.

Jack Nienhaus

I'm sure steam locomotives were probably the most dangerous pieces of rolling stock to try to hand up orders to the head end crew. Although, in 1978 at Ladysmith I recall handling up an order to the head end with diesels, the head end going past the diamond/crossing and the depot about 15-20 and the caboose going by at what sure seemed like 30 mph. In between the engines and caboose one could get back a distance to increase safety, but still had to watch out for steel banding from loads of lumber, etc that could theoretically (and actually did, I heard stories) cut the operators head off at speed or at least cause more than an Excedrin headache. The trick (like Ladysmith where the only light was hung from the depot and no train order stand was present) was standing in light at night, not being able to determine the end of the train and handlamps showing it, until the caboose was upon you. Not only were steam engines dangerous, it occurred to me more than once handing up orders, what if at speed some of these cars leave the rail due to defect in rail car/wheel etc. Hard to move fast enought to get out of the way of 70-110 tons of steel with a nondiscriminating attitude of destroying anything in its path once it leaves the rail.

And speaking of train order stands appearing about the convenient time steam engines were leaving, so was it with train orders and that nice pair of black hands from copying orders. About 1984 using a photocopy machine became legal. Recopying orders afterward was so much more a pleasure (well, at least not as much pain). Of course only 2 years later the rulebook changes, train orders are out and track warrants are in, and crews copy orders which operators can no longer get a timeslip for doing the operators job.

And so it goes.

Gerry Miller

I've also heard the stories about steel banding and how it was even worse at night. Not sure if it was the fellow who shared that same story with me that had a box car door come flying off a few yards after it passed him or if it happened to another operator where he was working (DT&I tower in Michigan).

I visited the Arcola, Illinois, depot in November of 1969, a working TO office for the IC at that time and the operator related the story how a large chunk of a brake show once broke free as the "Pan American" roared through town, splintering the bay window glass and frame above the desk, smacking the opposite wall and landing on the desk top. Left quite an impression on a 10-year-old minutes before the "City of New Orleans" was due! Yes, I stood well back and always have ever since!

Great stories gang - thanks for sharing!

Lance Burton

As long as we are telling stories I have a couple more. One night when 18 went through Weyauwega the baggageman kicked off a bundle of newspapers. They hit and went through the windows into the operator's position, busted the chair and cracked the desk in two parts. If dad had been working at that time I might have become an orphan.

Have another - The pilot wheel on a locomotive passing through at night came off the axle and just missed the depot, but went through the eight holer deluxe outhouse, came out the other side and continued across the road and several hundred feet into farmer Marty Vey's field. The ground was soft from a recent rain and when the section crew was unable to pull it out, they used the wrecker from the Chevy garage to winch it out. The railroad had to pay Marty for messing up his corn field.

Jack Nienhaus


In the days of Morse Telegraph train dispatchers always came up thru the ranks of agent-operators, so a good dispatcher would have consideration for a person trying to hand up orders without stopping trains.

If getting the orders ready for a train would be a close call for the operator without stopping a train, the dispatcher could instruct the operator to display his train order signal at stop position, and not move it to a "19" (caution) position until he had the orders ready to hand up. That way the oncoming engineer would reduce the speed of his train until he got the 19 signal displayed by the operator. Also, a good dispatcher would try to have the orders transmitted far enough in advance to give the operator plenty of time to get his coat on if weather was cold or inclement.

I heard a lot of horror stories peddled about how flying debris or loose bands injured people handing up orders, but can honestly say that I never heard of such an incident happening on the Soo Line. We no doubt were one of the lucky ones, as it most surely could be a possibility. One of the hazards of the trade that was always there. The same as staying inside a depot when a through train was passing through your station at high speed.

Jim Welton

Hi Group:

I remember going by the Waupaca train order stand, and missing the orders!!!!!!!! I was on Train #30 with two GP-30' s ..about 50mph and oh Sh.......! We had to stop and back up. Boy was I embarassed !!

If anyone remembers old "Overcoat Johnson", the engineer on Train #4 to Chicago. Well going by Duplainville at about 60 he would hold onto a flag stick, and reach out the window and catch the orders. This allowed him to sit in the seat, and never stick his head out!! If theres a will there is a WAY!!.

Later on the Milw. an operator ran out of string, and he put a wire coat hanger on the train order stand. An engineer reached out for the orders , and got the entire stand on his arm, and practically tore his arm off!! I think the operator heard from the Safety Dept. very fast!!...

Thanks for listening to old tales..........

Ron Kaminen

Hi Jim and all,

This thread about train orders brings up a question I've been meaning to ask: how long, and for what purposes, was telegraphy used on the Soo? I'm planning on modeling the Wheat Line (in the 50' or before, if necessary, because I want to use all the original telegraph equipment I've collected on my layout), and I'd love to know how long telegraphy survived on the Soo. I have some old Soo Liners from the 50s and they're full of old telegraphers retiring, which makes me think telegraphy was still going then, but as I said, I'm not sure...

Any recommendations on reading or sources for photos would be very welcome!


Tom Richards

Hi Tom & group....

Telegraph was the only means of communication between headquarters and outlying stations from the beginning of the railroad in the 1880's until displaced by the telephone on the busier main lines. It remained the only way to send messages in remote branch line towns until the early to mid 1930's. Some of the towns in ND and MT didn't even get electricity until the REA program came in the 1930's. The last telegraph on the Western Division happened in the early 1970's. Perhaps Stu or someone might be able to come up with more specific dates. I am a member of the Morse Telegraph Club in the Twin Cities, and there aren't very many of us around any more.

Jim Welton


Soo Line and it's predessor companies (WC & DSS&A) had Telegraph in use by 1890. Telegraph was THE way to communicate between the Dispatcher and the outlying stations. In addition to Train Orders, one got a Daily Car Report, Messages between various officials directed to a particular station, special handling instructions when necessary, and, in many towns, the Soo Line Depot was also the Western Union outlet for sending Telegrams. There was also a connection through the switching Jack Box to connect to the National Time Wire; at 11:58 every day, and continuing until 12:00 noon, a signal would be sent through this circuit that every station in the United States could set it's clocks by.

In the days before Dispatcher's Phones and the Telephone, Telegraph was the way everyone on the Railroad communicated.

I'm not really certain when Dispatcher's Phones started being implemented. By the early 1940's, I believe. It might have been even earlier. Telephones for handling Company coversation were in use by 1930 in some places.

Telegraph remained in use on most of the Branch Line stations in to 1972. Places like Greenwood, Loyal, most stations on the Superior and Ashland lines, were all Telergraph well in to 1972. Ladysmith and Prentice had Dispatcher's Phones because of their importance as junctions. I can imagine Stations along the Wheat Line were all Telegraph and no Dispatcher's Phones until the Soo Line removed the system.

Stations on the Main Line had Relays inside to further wire traffic along the "string", as Telegraph wires were called. Marshfield, Spencer, Owen, all had a bank of 8-10 Relay sounders clicking away with wire traffic of some import going from one station to the Wire Chief or to another station.

The entirety of the Telegraph system was removed in the summer of 1972. Dispatcher's phones were not installed in many branch line stations and the Telegraph remained the only way to communicate to the outside railroad world. All stations remaining as open agencies did get Company Telephones, which did away with the Telegraph.


Train Orders sent by Telegraph came out like this:

"SF SF SF DI" (SF: Marshfield, Wis. DI: Dispatcher West Stevens Point)


"19 COPY 3 WEST" (Form 19 Order, 3 Copies for a Westbound Train)

"SD WEST" (Train Order Signal Displayed For Westbound Movement. i.e., the blade had been set at Yellow, denoting to the on coming train there were Orders or some such to be picked up)

"ORDER NO. 119" (Train Order No. 119)

"C&E NO. 25" (Conductor & Engineer of Train No. 25)

"MARSHFIELD, PERIOD" (Order Copied At)


HAS (Harold A Sparks, Superintendant)

COMPLETE 11:30 A.M. (Order called Complete by Dispatcher and time)

Signature of Operator; in this case we'll say it was Dilbert Q. Numbnuts.

Of course, this order would actually go out to Spencer, Riplinger, Owen, Thorp, Stanley, Boyd, Cadott, and CF Yard, but I'm simplifying here. Every station would copy and repeat for accuracy.

AND, the crew os # 26 would get this order as well, but, like I say, I'm simplifying.

The order I gave is a running order for No. 25 giving them Time Table Authority OVER No. 26. On the Soo Line, Eastbound Trains were Superior by Direction, so in this made-up scenario, # 26 might be having problems getting over the road and No 25, her Westbound counterpart, is making good time. The normal meeting point has been moved to Stanley since it is apparent to the Dispatcher that 26 won't be able to make Owen.

The "stinger" O put on the end lets the Train Crew on # 26 know that when they see 5002 that that is # 25 and they are cleared to go after that train has passed them at Stanley.

There were some great Dispatching articles authored by Ed Brunner in TRAINS magazine some years ago ("Dispatching On The Rock In The 1970's: Of Form Y, SE, SC And The Bow And Arrow Counrty"), and Ken Brandvold authored another TRAINS article ("Omaha Brasspounder") on being a Telegrapher for the Omaha (C&NW) some years ago as well. Both of these authors touched in depth on the "art" of Train Dispatching and Telegraphy and I recommend them for your own referencing if you want to get more education on these crafts. Very interesting Reading.


Interestingly, a friend and I made a railfan trip through northern Wisconsin during the winter of '71 - '72, IIRC. Yeah, I know it's nuts to drive around northern Wisconsin during the winter, but carpenters don't work steadily during the winter, and I was certifiable anyway.

As we were talking to the agent at Barron one day, the telegraph sounder clicking merrily away in the background, he suddenly interrupted our conversation, slid into his chair, and started sending furiously. I'd never seen anything like it; never seen someone send Morse before, other than a cousin who was trying to qualify for a ham radio license, and that's a different code. When he returned a couple of minutes later, we asked him if the Soo was still sending train orders by telegraph. He chuckled and replied that no, there weren't enough "Morse men" around anymore, and an order couldn't be transmitted by telegraph if all the stations addressed couldn't understand it. He went on to say that it was the car distribution clerk, he was an old timer who preferred to take the daily car reports via telegraph, as he made less errors that way.

This must have been the very tail end of working telegraphy, and I'm glad I got a chance to see it. I never saw it again.

Dennis Storzek

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