Interesting Reminiscences from J. H. Capen, the First Operator---
Amusing Terror at the Mysterious Fluid---
Despatches Between Lincoln and Holbrook---
Bogus War News and Some Patriotic Old Democrats That Cheered.
Brattleboro's first telegraph operator was James H. Capen, who, if not the first, was certainly one of the first, to use the telegraph in Vermont. His first message was sent from a little room hardly of enough importance to be called an office, in Hall's long building which stood on the present site of the Hooker block on Main street. It was in the spring of 1851, two years after the Vermont and Massachusetts railroad had reached this town. Mr. Capen is clear as to the circumstance, for the late "Squire" Bradley came round in a sort of curious way and dictated the first message. It was to the operator in Boston in the form of an inquiry as to who had been elected directors of the Vermont and Massachusetts road at the annual meeting held there that day. This was about 8 o'clock in the evening, but the answer was not received till the next day. "And, had it come the next week," said the old operator in describing the event, "it probably would have been just as satisfactory to Mr. Bradley."
The telegraph line began at Springfield and followed the Connecticut as far as White River Junction, thence by direct line to Montreal, while another branch turned off through New Hampshire to Boston. It was built by the late George Benedict of Burlington and some 200 shares of stock were owned by Brattleboro people. The system was known as the Vermont and Boston telegraph company, and its construction was largely due to the efforts and public spirit of Mr. Benedict, who wanted a line to Boston and believed in its ultimate financial success. The operators used the old Bain system, then much in use on instruments being somewhat ingenious, consisting of a metal disk about 10 inches in diameter, covered with sealing wax, on top of which was a smaller brass grooved disk. From its centre protruded a post sustaining a brass arm with a wire pen which followed the grooves as the plate revolved. The telegraph wire was connected with the post underneath the table, contributing the current to the pen, which threw off a little of the metal and left the characters on paper covering the disk. The key was similar to those now in use, as was the relay, though the relay was not so distinct as those of today. When Mr. Capen took charge of the service here he was a job printer, and occasionally issued a little paper under the head of Capen's Independent, an advertising venture.
People knew little of the telegraph then, and, no wonder, were somewhat afraid of the mysterious fluid. Finally everything was ready, the wire having been quietly run into the business block on the corner of High and Main streets, when the lessee Joseph Steen, "caught on" and ordered the infernal thing removed forthwith. He declared it would attract the lightning and absolutely kill his insurance so Capen moved across the street into a back room where he rather timidly began business. So strong was the local prejudice against the new invention and so general the fear, that some of the oldest citizens refused to receive a message till it had first been opened and read by the operator himself, who delivered all messages. The late Charlie Waite was the operator in your city, but he used the old Morse system on the line between New York and Boston. This system was not always strong enough to get a message through to Boston on wet days, so it occasionally became necessary to use the "clothes line," as the Vermont and Massachusetts line was called. "This," says Mr. Capen, "could always be depended on, for no matter how hard it rained, the old Bain would work, though it was mighty faint at times, and the only the way the operator, one at Brattleboro, another at White River and still another at Nashua, could tell, was by close watching.
Waite would call me up," said Capen, and ask if the 'clothesline' was working, and I invariably answered 'Yes.' It was necessary to call me, this being the centre of the line, and I would stand over my repeater, constantly adjusting it, until the message was finished, if it took all night. When Springfield said 'good night,' then I would get out. The repeaters were always used in sending messages from Springfield to Boston. Some days when I could not hear the machine click, I could get the message just the same, for the pen would make a green mark on the blue paper no matter how weak the current." The operator was in his office from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., though he was able to carry on his printing business in connection with the telegraph. Mr. Capen was paid $150 a year, his salary for several years exceeding the receipts of the office. The tariff for 10 words was $1 to New York, 50 cents to Boston and 40 cents to Springfield and Greenfield. There was no press to handle then, and the daily average of messages received would not exceed three, and there were any number of days when there were none.
The longest message ever received by Mr. Capen was one of 1800 words from President Lincoln to Gov. Holbrook. This was in answer to a letter from the governor, recommending the President to call for 500,000 volunteers. It was the dark summer of '62, and the governor's suggestion was to have the loyal governors pledge themselves to favor the call, the Vermont governor adding that the Green Mountain state would quickly respond. This resulted in a call for 300,000 three years' men, and 300,000 nine months' men. Gen. Draper came to Brattleboro to confer with Gov. Holbrook, and the paper was prepared here for the signatures of the governors. Thus Gov. Holbrook was given credit for having suggested the scheme, so quickly approved by Lincoln. After the long dispatch had been received and read by the governor, young Capen's heart almost failed him, for it was repeated to Peter T. Washburn, adjutant general who left Brattleboro for his home in Woodstock a short time before its receipt here. Capen will ever remember the long message for it was the means of keeping him from a very important engagement that night and his was not the only sigh on account of it. But it took hours to get that message off the wire, and though others came from President Lincoln, none were so long as this.
During the war Brattleboro people were accustomed to "chip in" and get the news from the front. "Some times we got humbugged," continued Capen with a hearty laugh: "Richmond was taken on the wire several times, and once or twice victory was lustily celebrated by the townspeople. I remember one occasion when we got a dispatch to this effect and W. C. Perry, the old landlord, got out his cannon and read it several times in the hotel yard in rear of the house. This was Sunday. Silas Waite got the news about as soon as it came, and he bolted for the churches to inform the congregations. He rushed to the Centre and Unitarian churches, where the news was announced by the clergymen from their pulpits. I went out Elliott street to the Baptist church, where the news was enthusiastically received, and my enthusiasm grew apace till I arrived at the church in West Brattleboro, where I forgot to remove my cigar when I went down the broad aisle to give the pastor the news. The congregation applauded the happy announcement, and I returned to my office only to learn a few hours later that it was all a hoax, and I felt cheap enough, though it was not my fault." Capen was not only the operator, but the lineman as well. He was obliged to go out in case of trouble 10 miles either north or south, Greenfield operator coming up to Vernon. They used the old fashioned sickle shaped climbers with stirrup attachment, and once rode up a pole it was easier to slide or fall down than to attempt to use the climbers. Among those who served apprenticeship in Capen's office were Levi K. Fuller, Vermont's ex-governor and a son of the old operator who is now superintendent of the People's telegraph company in Cincinnati.
Mr. Capen was born in Brattleboro in 1828, being one of three children of James H. and Phoebe Platts Capen. He began his career as a printer with the late G. W. Nichols, who edited the Democrat here. Later he worked in the Ryther printing office until he launched out for himself. For 25 years he was Brattleboro's telegraph operator, leaving the office to enter the employ of the Estey organ company, where he was a faithful employee for 19 years, until two years ago, when, owing to ill health, he retired from the shop, and has since lived with his wife, Marie Pellerin, on Highland farm, which commands a beautiful sweep of country from its lofty elevation three miles west of the village.
Brattleboro Reformer, June 12, 1896.
Letter reprinted from the Springfield Sunday Republican, May 31, 1896.