Braille Monitor               July 2023

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The End of an Era

by Peggy Chong

Peggy ChongFrom the Editor: Many of us are a combination of proud and grateful for what we have, and we credit the National Federation of the Blind and the citizens of the United States of America for helping us live the lives we want. When I read articles like the one that follows, I realize that blind people were successful before many of the programs I credit with playing a part in my own success. Enjoy:

In July of 1933, the telegraph in the Associated Press offices at the Denver Post transmitted its last message just before dawn. The room was silent. Slowly, the reporters, copy boys, and teletype operators left the room. The long-time telegraph operator, Charles Smith, sat over the telegraph machine with his hands on the keys for several minutes. With reverence, he touched the entire machine. With a tear in his eye, he stood up and left the room. His career of more than forty-one years was at an end.

Charles was born on October 19, 1878, in Peoria, Illinois, the son of a telegraph operator who died when Charles was only nine. Charles left school at age eleven to work as a messenger boy for Western Union in Muscatine, Iowa.

His family left Illinois about 1890 and moved to Denver where his sister Clara got a job as a manager at the Denver Western Union offices. Clara learned the telegraph system from her father. When Charles was thirteen, he joined the family in Denver. Clara hired her baby brother to work at the Western Union Telegraph office as an operator.

In 1897 Charles began work as a telegraph operator at the Metropolitan Stock Exchange. In 1899 he got a better job at Logan and Bryan Brokerage telegraph office in Denver. While at the brokerage firm Charles worked out of the Denver office, but was sent to Colorado Springs and Chicago frequently.

On August 29, 1905, Charles was playing catch with friends and was hit in the head with a baseball. Soon he lost all his eyesight. He lost his job as well.

Charles and wife Myrtle attended church revivals where the traveling preacher set up tents to preach the word of God. The preachers worked the crowd into a religious frenzy. They called all to the front to be healed. Charles had been raised in a religious family, so he held out hope that the Lord could do what the doctors could not. Several preachers came to town. With each service, Charles went up to be healed. After each service he left as blind as when he came. When God did not heal him, Charles gave up on organized religion.

After lengthy discussions, his old firm took him back part-time to take down New York stock quotes over the telegraph with a pencil. Although he could not see what he was writing, his handwriting was legible enough for the staff to read what he wrote. Worrying his handwriting was not going to be sufficient in the future, he taught himself to type.

In 1910, Charles left the brokerage firm when the offices relocated to Salt Lake City, Utah. Charles did not want to leave Colorado. To increase his keying speed, he approached the Associated Press (AP) offices in Denver and asked to practice on their machines. They agreed.

He applied for a job with the AP but was turned down. A friend took Charles’s application up to Melville E. Stone, the general manager of the AP. Stone instructed the Denver office to give him a trial at the next job opening.

Telegraph operators learned the “Phillips” code. It consisted of a telegraph shorthand. A letter could be an abbreviation for up to three words. A word might also mean a phrase. “POTUS” meant president of the United States. “HOR” was House of Representatives. Charles memorized the code and phrases. Knowing the subject matter, he could instantly translate the strange words into phrases without needing to run to the code book as the other operators frequently did before typing their clean copy.

Managers watched Charles listen and transcribe using the typewriter, and he was faster than some of the employees. His first copy was clean. They asked him to start as a vacation relief operator. Charles jumped at the job offer. His first assignment for the Associated Press was Colorado Springs on an irregular basis. The editors of the local papers were much impressed with his typing and clean copy right off the wire.

On November 12, 1911, Charles was given a full-time position in Leadville. Five months later, Charles was transferred back to Colorado Springs. The AP telegraph was housed in the Gazette newspaper offices.

Myrtle came to work with Charles for the first year or so to be his reader for any printed material he needed to transmit. Soon regular AP employees or those bringing in copy to the office read their material directly to him.

When he took down incoming news, Charles rolled in three sheets of paper with carbon paper between each into his typewriter. The first copy was for the Colorado Springs Gazette, the second was for the Colorado Springs Evening Telegraph. The third went to the files.

Charles typed directly to the typewriter, meaning that he took less time getting his copy to the editors. And he rarely made a mistake. Charles worked the shift from 6 p.m. till 4 a.m. He averaged 17,000 words a shift. News of how fast Charles could take down the messages spread throughout the company. Several sighted operators came to Colorado Springs for a friendly competition to out transcribe the blind guy. None of them could.

One evening a man came to pick up some local gossip for his show at the Burns Theater across the street from the newspaper offices. Local color personalized his shows, bringing audiences back repeatedly. The man was columnist Will Rogers. Rogers asked if there was any good gossip or local political scandals he could use in his show in a couple of hours.

“You have to talk to Charley for the details,” someone said.

Rogers heard typing in a dark room and wondered who could be typing in the dark. Will walked into the dark room and began talking to Charles between his incoming stories. The two talked about the local news, then some of the national news. Rogers was surprised to find the blind man so well informed.

The time passed quickly. The stage manager of the theater came running up the steps of the AP offices. “Mr. Rogers! The curtain was supposed to go up ten minutes ago. We have a full house tonight,” he exclaimed.

When Rogers walked on stage, he apologized to the audience. “I am sorry for being late. I was talking with the most remarkable man I ever met, Charlie Smith, the blind telegraph operator.” Everyone in town knew of Charlie, and all was forgiven.

When notable events were expected, townspeople gathered outside of the newspaper offices and waited. It was Charles who first heard the news on the wire and broke the news to waiting crowds that Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany abdicated.

Charles wrote an article for the local papers where he described the role of the AP telegrapher, himself, that early morning. At 1 a.m., the telegraph began to click. Armistice Confirmed! Charles could hardly believe it. He called to reporter Ford Frick, “Armistice Confirmed!”

“Are you kidding me?” Ford responded. He ran to the composing room, and it seemed as if a party exploded. There were shouts of joy everywhere. The editor of The Telegraph was wakened, and she ran from home to the newspaper office in her bedroom slippers.

As soon as Charles typed out the news, a copy boy or staff member grabbed it right out of the typewriter, ran to the open window, grabbed the bullhorn, and began to read.

The night was cold and snowing in the Springs. By 3:30, the streets were full of noise coming from the townspeople aroused and sharing in the excitement.

Crowds often gathered at the newspaper offices outside when news was anticipated. Charles got the sports scores, and they were rushed to the man with the bullhorn who announced them to the crowds in the streets. It was almost a real-time broadcast (before radio was invented) from the wire to the typewriter, then to the bull horn. National games and Sky Socks news sometimes meant the street below was so crowded for at least a block in each direction of the Gazette that no buggy or man on horseback could get through. Even when the Gazette-Telegraph installed an electric scoreboard, Charles still yelled the scores to the copyboy.

But the telegraph was on its way out. Colorado Springs kept Charles until the telegraph was no longer used at the papers. He was replaced with a teletype machine. AP sent him to New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Casper, Wyoming, where they still used a telegraph.

In 1928, Myrtle and Charles moved back to Denver, still working for the Associated Press, at the offices of the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post. But in July of 1933, it was over. For a while, Charles was kept on by the AP to manage the new teletype machines. But it was not the same.

Within a year, Charles opened a cigar and candy stand in the Kittredge Building in downtown Denver. The Kittredge Building housed the offices of attorneys and state agencies, causing a steady stream of customers.

Each night he brought home his money. He sorted the coins. Myrtle sorted the bills into piles. Charles counted the bills and added up each pile in his head and then all the piles together. He was rarely wrong in calculating the day’s total take.

After the end of WWII, they returned to Colorado Springs. Charles opened a newsstand in a small building next to the Gazette-Telegraph offices. Myrtle accompanied him on the bus to and from work each day. The store lasted no more than five years.

Charles suffered a heart attack that cost him his speech. He entered a nursing home. One of the healthcare staff knew Morse code. The two communicated by the staff member tapping Morse code into Charles’s hand and Charles doing the same. He died October 17, 1963, in Colorado Springs.

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