Signal Corps Report - Washington Terr. Meeting 1999


MTC & SCARD Washn. Territory

(Letter of Transmittal)


The U.S. Army Signal Corps detachment of the Washington Civil War Association (based at Arlington, Washington State) had its first "regular" company meeting during the last major event of this season on August 14, 1999, at Ferndale, Washington. Within two hours, by-laws were ratified and the unit's field officers were elected for the year 2000.

Second Lieutenant Gary Fagan, late of Michigan, was promoted to the position of U.S. Army Signal Corps field commander. Kevin Saville was selected for the post of Overall Unit Chairman and Superintendent of Telegraphic Operations. Kevin also serves as SCARD's Washington Territory Representative.

Superintendent Saville reports "In the field, this unit (as well as others across the country) continues to be challenged by a shortage of telegraphers. On such occasions, the system runs on "autopilot" which is enabled by prerecorded 1862-64 telegrams fed via audio cassette player into a controller box which actuates the main line circuit. The operator usually does a third person impression, generally explaining the operation and the continuous-play of clicking telegraph equipment. Due to the impending operator shortage at larger West-Coast events, the telegraph interpretation is conducted 'in camp' during spare time between battles and other signal or staff obligations."

To show just how much pre-event advertising and on-site visibility counts, a spectator from British Columbia arrived at the Ferndale reenactment with a handcrafted Phelps camelback key, along with an 1860's style sounder and relay.

The key was 'hand-made' from a drawing he discovered on Tom Perera's web site ( The relay and sounder were fashioned after instruments found in photos. Although some things appeared to be a little out of scale, this gentleman was definitely on the right track.

In response to this beautiful surprise, dimensioned drawings and a photo of the pocket relay at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia have been forwarded to him with the hope that he may wish to duplicate the pocket (sometimes called vest or lineman's) relay.

Over Labor Day weekend, a one-station frontier telegraph office was set up by Saville at the Ellensburg (Washington) Rodeo and Kittitas County Fair. In addition to seven other old, original buildings, the Frontier Village has a cabin that is used as a post office. For this year's fair, it was also furnished for use as a telegraph office. The office commemorated the first telegraph line strung through Washington Territory (W.T.) in 1864 as part of an effort to connect the U.S. to Europe via Russia. The line reached Portland, Oregon, in May; Olympia, W.T., in September; and Seattle in October, 1864, according to Oslin's "Wiring a Continent" book. This Western Union line was not finished as a result of the second Atlantic cable being completed in 1866.

Throughout the Labor Day weekend, Saville answered questions about the telegraph and demonstrated Morse Code use. An unexpected visitor, Walt Mathers,of Glen Burnie, Maryland, was able to attend on one day. The two of them consequently connected one of Saville's pocket relays to the line outside of the cabin and sent messages back and forth via army dot code.