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Vintage telegraph returns to the Great Northern Depot

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Princeton telegraph

The vintage telegraph equipment is now up and running with the ability to send messages across the depot yard in Princeton.

Telegraphed dots and dashes are now traveling on a live telegraph line in Princeton. 

After more than 60 years of silence, the telegraph connection has been restored between the Princeton Great Northern Railway depot and the adjacent Long’s Siding Great Northern Railway depot. 

“It seemed a logical goal to have,” said Barry Schreiber of the Mille Lacs County Historical Society, which is housed in the Princeton depot.

There are several telegraph keys in the historical society’s archives, Schrieber said.

The telegraph project was triggered by the gift of the little Long’s Siding Great Northern depot to the Historical Society by Pete and Mary Davis in 2016. 

“With the move of the 34-foot structure to Princeton depot property, we had the opportunity to reestablish the original electronic communication between the two depots,” Schrieber said.

The telegraph was vital to railroad operations from the day the train came to Princeton in 1886 until reliable telephone connections replaced it in the 1950s.

“We couldn’t have done this project without the help of our good neighbors across the street, Princeton Public Utilities,” Schrieber said.

Princeton Public Utilities stood up two vintage cedar poles to carry the telegraph wires between the two depots, and provided a safe and expert line crew to climb poles and attach the telegraph wires to the insulators. The insulators carried the wires from the stationmaster’s office in the massive 215 foot long brick and stone Princeton depot down to the agent’s office in the Long’s Siding depot. 

“We followed the lead of Historical Society member Garlan Hulbert in getting the components of the telegraph system organized,” Schreiber said. “We had the incredible good luck to have the national expert on Great Northern Railway telegraphy, Gary Lenz, join in the project from nearby Winsted, Minnesota.” 

Lenz provided rare parts and skills needed to bring the telegraph line to life.

Telegraph team members Jon Brooks and Chris Rotz played key roles in bringing the dots and dashes back to life in Princeton.

The telegraph was a revolution in communications in the 19th Century, much like the Internet has revolutionized communications and life in the 21st Century. Before the telegraph, the fastest communications were letters carried by horses. 

Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph message in 1844 from Washington, D.C. to nearby Baltimore. Early reports describe the telegraph as delivering messages “with the speed of lightning”. Morse also developed a code system that assigned “dots and dashes” to each letter of the English alphabet. 

“Telegraphed Morse Code was the original texting”, Schreiber said. “The Mille Lacs County Historical Society wants to give kids of all ages the opportunity to see and hear the original texting of the telegraph,” he said.

As the pandemic continues, the MLCHS has limited hours in its Princeton depot home, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays. For information, call Barry Schreiber at 763-607-3195.

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