Inspiring Kaylee to Learn Morse Code
I’m a very lucky person. Several years ago I was asked to be a reenactor at the Ashland, New Hampshire railroad station. It’s now a museum and each summer and fall other reenactors and myself treat visitors to a trip in a time machine.
This is the Ashland NH railroad station museum as of September, 2022. It was a grand autumn afternoon.
I’m the telegrapher at the station replete with sleeve socks, black paisley vest, electric-blue paisley bow tie, and period visor. I’ve been told my mustache adds a delightful finishing touch to the illusion.
You can’t believe how humbled I am to sit at the same desk where real railroad telegraphers listened to the telegraph sounder and then transmitted replies for nearly 100 years.
The Ashland station opened in 1849 and professional telegraph operators kept the trains running safely by sending and receiving messages to/from other stations up and down the railroad tracks.
You can get a fantastic book right here about the history of the Boston, Concord & Montreal RR that describes the full history. You’ll also discover the fierce competition between small railroads in New Hampshire in the early days of railroads. Just like today many businessmen, if not all, made shady deals with politicians to get charters to start their railroads.
Stopping in Ashland
The scenic railroad that operates on the historic Boston, Concord & Montreal Railroad line does weekend five-hour fall foliage trips from late September until Columbus Day in October. The round trip originates out of the Meredith, NH station south of Ashland, NH.
The train departs from the Meredith station about 10:30 AM heading north towards Plymouth, NH. It passes the Ashland station but doesn’t stop. Once the train arrives in Plymouth, the passengers exit the train and eat a relaxing buffet lunch inside a cozy restaurant.
On the return trip to Meredith, the train makes its stop at the Ashland station. Passengers are encouraged to get off the train to chat with the women in their stunning huge hoop dresses and bonnets as well as men and children dressed in period clothing. They also wander inside the restored train station to view all of the fascinating railroad memorabilia.
Jim Cluett, W1PID, is on the left. He’s the train conductor for the scenic train. Next to Jim is Winnifred in the white dress, John in the straw hat and crimson vest, and Sue in her stunning red dress and goldenrod wool coat.
This is just a small part of the historic memorabilia collection inside the station.
While inside the station, they’re also treated to me sending Morse code just like the telegraphers of old. If the chatter from the passengers isn’t too loud, my Morse drifts out the open station door to the platform.
On Sunday September 25, 2022, I was all dressed up waiting for the train to glide into the Ashland station on the well-worn iron rails. The train’s conductor provides a short twenty-minute stop in Ashland just after 2 PM. Ashland is about halfway between Plymouth and Meredith, NH.
Here I am in the fall of 2021 with my new black paisley vest. The sleeve socks and visor complete the costume.
Kaylee and her Mom
Last Sunday was unusual as I felt not many passengers got off the train to look around. When they walk into the station, the telegrapher’s office is immediately to the right and most people are polite and just pop their heads in the open door to see the source of the dihs and dahs resonating throughout the historic building.
The door into the telegrapher’s office is open on the right side of this photo. You can see into the office looking through the service window on the clipped corner.
I’m always looking out the window to try to spy any children who might be on the trip. While doing a ham radio demonstration about six years ago at a STEM school event with my Morse mentor Jim Cluett, W1PID, we discovered quite by accident that kids delight in hearing their name sent in Morse code.
“Hi! What’s your name?” Standing at the doorway with her eyes nearly as big as her oversized eyeglasses was a young girl with long brunette hair. The rhythm of me sending Morse must have captivated her like a siren’s song does a seafarer.
She was wearing a warm hoodie sweatshirt as autumn was in the air. My guess is this young lady (YL) was no more than ten years old. Standing next to her was her mom.
“Such a beautiful name! Would you like to hear what it sounds like in Morse code? Help me spell it so I get it right.”
“Sure! K A Y L E E, it’s got two e’s.” She said with a smile as big as the throbbing locomotive idling just down the tracks.
As often happens, Kaylee was drawn into the station by the sound of the Morse code like I’m pulled into my kitchen by the intoxicating aroma of my wife’s delicious fresh vegetable soup.
Kaylee’s eyes were laser focused on my right hand as I pounded brass with my Kent straight key. She reminded me of what our house cats look like when they’ve cornered a mouse that’s trying to set up home before a long New Hampshire winter.
My Kent straight key is in the bottom of the photo. A real key used by the telegraphers sitting at this exact desk is near the window.
Some adults love to hear their names in Morse too. Just before sending each letter, I tell them what I’m about to send so they can hear how unique each letter sounds. I then send it in real time as if I was pushing a telegram update to a friend or relative at a distant station through the miles of copper wire that used to hang beside the tracks.
Here’s a re-creation of what I said to Kaylee:
As soon as I stopped sending it, her face reminded me of my own children on Christmas morning. The entire station was ablaze with Kaylee’s happiness. Her mom was also glowing like a pile of coal in a steam locomotive’s firebox.
“Oh my gosh, that was so cool! Thanks for doing that.” Kaylee started asking questions faster than water shoots from a firehose. I answered each one and shared that in less than one month she could easily memorize the entire alphabet.
“Kaylee, how about you try to send a few letters?”
“Why of course!”
I then had her send a K and an A as those are both pretty simple letters in Morse code. She wanted to keep pressing down on the straight key as if it were a doorbell, so I had to show her how to hold the straight-key knob with her two fingers and thumb.
Moments later the train conductor, my Morse code mentor Jim, called, “All aboard!” He was out on the platform and it was time for the train to depart back to Meredith.
Kaylee’s mom asked for a photo of Kaylee and me, we said our goodbyes, and they both disappeared out the door.
I Want to Send Your Name
Moments later, Kaylee was back in the telegrapher’s office.
“I want to send your name! Can you show me how?”
You can imagine my surprise to see her. I glanced up and saw Jim standing just outside the office door with a huge smile on his face. He wasn’t going to release the train until the magic happened.
In case you don’t know it, a train engineer can’t move a train until such time as the conductor gives the order. Jim’s grin telegraphed to me that I might have just created the next new young ham radio operator.
“Okay, my name is really easy. It’s T I M. It’s just one dash or dah, two dots or dihs, and two dashes or dahs. Close your eyes and listen closely. Remember, Morse is auditory. You learn Morse the same way your mom taught you to talk. You just hear the distinct sounds.”
I looked at her face to make sure her eyes were closed tight and said, “I’m going to send my name slowly three times. Focus on the spacing and concentrate on each letter.”
Kaylee did exactly as I had requested. It was now her turn. She grasped the Kent key knob just right and started pounding her first bits of brass.
The first time she tried, it was a little sloppy. But the second time was perfect.
“Great job, Kaylee! That was excellent! You’re going to have a great fist!”
Kaylee’s face said it all and she rushed out the door past Jim hopping up onto the train. I was beaming myself as I was sure a new CW operator had just been born.
I walked out to the platform to wave to her as the train chugged away and she leaned out an open window slapping my hand with a high five.
The Highlight of the Trip
The next day Jim called me with news.
“As I was walking down the aisle of the train the little girl’s mother stopped me. She told me that your demonstration of Morse was the highlight of the entire weekend trip. In fact, while they were still on the train, Kaylee’s mom went to Amazon and purchased an inexpensive Morse oscillator so Kaylee can start to practice.”
I don’t know that it gets any better than this. It’s possible that moment in time in the Ashland railroad station may be tattooed in four minds for the rest of our lives.
It’s my hope that I hear from Kaylee or her mom one day. I did give her mom one of my business cards so we’ll see what happens.
Spending that time with Kaylee was magical for me too. I came home so excited about it I shared the entire story with my wife Kathy. Being a mom, she got it right away. Kathy’s got no interest in Morse but she’s all about making kids happy.