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Morse Code Electric Telegraph Key

Date: c. 1875


Description: This telegraph key was once used in the train station in Leeds, which was once part of the Illinois Central Railroad system. In this time trains could not travel long distances without stopping for fuel. Thus railroad stations had to be built every 8 to 15 miles or so, depending on the train and type of fuel. One of the last stops trains would make on the Illinois Central Railroad before entering Sioux City was the station at Leeds, built around 1889. When the train came in the telegraph operator would send a message to the depots in Sioux City, passenger or freight, and let them know the train’s status: whether it was on time, whether there was room for the scheduled cargo or passengers, and the like. Sioux City had telephone lines as early as 1879, but they mainly connected the businesses in downtown, so telegraph was still the primary means of fast communication over longer distances.


Telegraph operators were only some of the people in Sioux City who were employed because of the railroad. Sioux City was a major terminal point for several different rail lines, meaning they were an endpoint for that particular line. Terminal cities are important because they are a major area where passengers and freight switch trains, and they are also a major site for repair. Four different railroad lines had repair shops here, employing a huge chunk of the city’s population. The Chicago North Western system had the largest shop by far, employing 900 people at its peak, fixing locomotives, cars, wheels, and many other kinds of maintenance. The shops for the Milwaukee Road, which employed over 400 people at its peak, are now a railroad museum in Riverside. There were many other jobs as well: were people loading and unloading cargo, shipping cargo to other lines, ticket sellers and station workers. Businesses also ran inside these depots, like restaurants, coffee shops, and tourist shops, and these would have employed their own set of workers. Railroad company executives hired local administrators to oversee their business in the area. All of these sectors and buildings need people to build them, clean and maintain them, travel companies to get people to and fro, and scores of other jobs. Truly, the railroad was an incredible lifeline for early Sioux City.


Donor: Ron Millage

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