The First Telegraphic Train Order In The United States

The first railroad train ever moved in this country under instructions received by telegraph is understood to have been on the Rutland Road between here and Burling-ton in 1852. Both the railroads and the telegraph had been utilized but a few years in this country when an incident occurred on this railroad which was the initiation of the present general system of moving trains by telegraph.

Until that year, railroads had no telegraph service of their own. Trains were operated wholly by timecard rules, which provided that one train would wait at a certain station until another train had passed. If one train was late at the meeting point, the other was required to wait 12 hours, or until the other showed up. Such a condition existed on a winter morning in February 1852, when the first telegraphic train order flashed over the wires. The northbound train, due to meet the southbound train at Middlebury, was in a snow-bank in the Green Mountains between here and Rutland. Albert H. Copeland, who worked in the post office at Middlebury at that time, was also the local operator.

The conductor of the southbound train was, of course, unaware of the stalled train at the south, and only knew that he and his passengers had before them a wait at Middlebury anywhere from 12 minutes to 12 hours, when at the expiration of the latter time, his train regained its right to proceed to Rutland. As the length of delay increased, the restless, irritated passengers grew bold and wandered uptown from the depot. Some of them straggled into the post office and happened to tell Copeland of the delay. The operator thought a moment, then he said: “You bring the conductor up here and perhaps we can fix it so that you can go on to Rutland without waiting for the northbound train.”

The conductor demurred, but finally acceded to the demands of his irate passengers. Upon arrival at the post office, Mr. Copeland handed him a message from his superintendent at Rutland. It read something like this: “Northbound train in snow bank south of here. You come on down to Rutland and I will not let any train go north until you arrive.”

The conductor read his order, looked Copeland straight in the eye and said: “I am afraid to do this. I might be taking a chance. How do I know it is genuine? ” Copeland quietly replied, “I’ll ride on the engine to Rutland.” That settled it and the train went on its way, the passengers rejoicing and heartily thanking the operator, who kept up a wonderful amount of thinking while quietly sitting in the cab from Middlebury to Rutland.

Albert H. Copeland, a few years later, removed to Milwaukee, Wis., where he died about 1900 at the age of 85 years. He often referred to his experience in getting the train through and riding on the locomotive.


Based on: The Connecticut River Valley in southern Vermont and New Hampshire: historical sketches, Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Co., Marble City Press, 1929.

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