Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


“Run to Goshen Regardless of Opposing Train”

Posted on | September 29, 2016 | No Comments

When I was growing up, on a summer night, with the bedroom windows open, I could often hear the far off whistle of a train warning of its approach to a nearby road crossing. The trains were leaving or entering my hometown of Goshen, New York; a small community known for its regional government center, proximity to New York City and a history of horse racing. The railroad track is gone now, replaced by a hiking/biking trail called the Heritage Trail and the downtown station now serves as the town police station. Much of the history of those railroad tracks is lost or forgotten, despite its surprisingly notable historical importance.

The quote “Run to Goshen regardless of opposing train” by a superintendent for the New York & Erie Railroad (see map) marked an event that had a significant impact on US history, as it spurred the development of both railroads and the telegraph. The first recorded use of the telegraph in the US to coordinate railroads occurred in 1851 when Charles Minot telegraphed ahead fourteen miles to Goshen to delay a train.[1] This electric communication marked the beginning of a radical convergence of telegraph and railroad technology that would have a lasting influence on the accelerating development of both technologies, and ripple out into many other aspects of American life.

Recently, this article appeared in the Goshen Independent newspaper.

Goshen Train and Telegraph

The convergence of the telegraph and railways would change the future of organizational management and pave the way for the modern corporation. It would also have a major influence on American life through the standardization of time zones, the national distribution of agriculture and industrially produced goods, as well as the regional coordination and arbitrage of commodity prices.

An appropriate historical starting point for this post is the chartering of the New York & Erie Railroad in 1832 to build a rail line across the length of New York. Enos T. Throop, the Governor of New York approved the Act passed by the state’s Senate to allow the railroad to build the 447-mile railroad line. It would connect the southern part of the state at Piermont, New York, a small town with a good harbor on the Hudson River just south of the Tappan Zee Bridge, with Dunkirk, a small village on the eastern shore of Lake Erie. The plan was to connect the ocean at New York City’s harbor to the Great Lakes and the natural bounties of America’s Midwest, elevating New York’s commercial status to the nation’s major entrepot. Innovations in transportation infrastructure would make New York City the country’s center of import and export, for finance and insurance, and for collection and the distribution of goods and services.

Construction of the New York and Erie Railroad began in 1835. Along with the increase in economic growth along the southern part of New York, it was meant to provide some balance to the expenditures on the Erie Canal in the north. The first section completed was from Piermont to Goshen, New York in 1841 at a cost of $20 million. Goshen was the government center of the area, known for dairy products (especially “Goshen butter”), and becoming famous for its harness horse racing. While the process of funding and building the railroad line had not been easy, the entire line to Lake Erie was finally completed in the spring of 1851.

On May 14, 1851, a train carrying President Millard Fillmore, Secretary of State Daniel Webster, and 300 other dignitaries set off on a celebratory tour of this historic railroad accomplishment. They took a steam ship up to the southern tip of New York on the west of the Hudson River and departed amid much fanfare. But by the time it reached Goshen, the locomotive was having trouble with its engine. At the next stop in Middletown, New York, Minot had to telegraph forward to Port Jervis on the Delaware River to have another engine ready. After changing locomotives, the train passed through the southern tier of New York and puffed on to its destination without incident.

The mishap left an impression on Minot who would come to value the role of the telegraph and its relationship with the railway. Shortly after, when the train engineers conspired to refuse to move the trains under such a system, Minot authoritatively issued an order that the telegraph would henceforth be used to coordinate all train movements.

During the intervening time, the telegraph was becoming more prominent. Ezra Cornell, who had worked with Samuel Morse in 1844 on the very first telegraph line, had followed up this historic accomplishment in 1845 with the construction of a major portion of line between New York and Albany. Cornell, the benefactor of the famous university that bears his name, was more involved in the construction aspect of the telegraph line and even patented machinery for laying cable under the ground. In 1848, he helped put together the New York & Erie Telegraph Company to build a line of telegraph wire from New York to Dunkirk along roads in the southern border counties of New York. The completed line was celebrated in 1849 but soon found its fate intertwined with the railroads.

    The record of the very first train order sent in the U.S. was documented by Edward H. Mott in his book on the history of the The Story of Erie, Between the Ocean and the Lakes. According to William H. Stewart, a retired Erie Railroad conductor, in the “fall of 1851,” Charles Minot was on a west bound train stopped at Turner, N. Y. waiting for an eastbound train coming from Goshen, N. Y., fourteen miles to the west. The impatient Minot telegraphed Goshen to see if the train had left yet. Upon receiving a reply of “no,” Minot wrote out the order: “To Agent and Operator at Goshen: Hold the train for further orders, signed, Charles Minot, Superintendent.” Minot then gave Stewart, who was the conductor of Minot’s train, a written order to be handed to the engineer: “Run to Goshen regardless of opposing train.” The engineer, Isaac Lewis, refused Minot’s order because it violated the time interval system. Minot proceeded to verbally direct Lewis to move the train but he again refused. Lewis then became a passenger on the rear seat of the rear car and Minot, who had experience as an engineer, took control of the train and proceeded safely to Goshen. Shortly thereafter, the Erie adopted the train order for the movement of its trains and within a few years the telegraph was adopted by railroads throughout the U.S.[2]

The telegraph industry was still struggling to take off. The next year, 1852, the New York and Erie telegraph line failed due to competition and declining prices. It was the longest line in the country at the time and it was hard to manage, but a partnership with the railroads soon changed its fortunes. With the urging of Minot, Ezra Cornell bought the telegraph business back and renamed it the New York & Western Union Telegraph Company.

With help from Minot, they transferred poles from the roadways and placed them along the railroad tracks of the Erie Railroad. They also agreed that railroad depot employees would be telegraphy operators in exchange for unlimited use of the communication lines. The telegraph allowed for a single track railroad that would be more efficient, less expensive, and safer for the passengers. Trains could be coordinated safely in both directions, even on a single track. Cornell took on the role of Superintendent of the company. He soon joined the company with other partners and it became Western Union in 1856.

The New York and Erie was the first railroad in the U.S. to utilize the telegraph in its management activities. Minot promoted Luther Tillotson to the superintendent of telegraphs in charge of the eastern half of the route even though he was only 19 years old. Tillotson became one of the pioneers in utilizing the telegraph for train dispatching and later developed his own company manufacturing and selling telegraph instruments to the railroad industry.

The railroad company also hired civil engineer Daniel McCallan to coordinate its railroad routes. He realized that the management of a line nearly 500 miles long was a different venture than one that was only 50 miles. His solution was a data processing and management information system based on telegraphy, record-keeping, and regularized reports. He also drew up one of the first organizational charts and required all employees to wear uniforms indicating the employee’s rank in the organizational hierarchy. But he also recognized the importance of reversing the hierarchy of information flow and stressed the importance of communications going from the subordinates up to managers, rather than just the opposite.[3]

The telegraph was soon being used to transmit hourly reports on the progress of trains and to precisely coordinate the movement of railroad cargo and passengers. Experimentation with the telegraph had been conducted by the Great Western Railway in Britain as early as 1837 but they inexplicably lost interest, probably because the technology was in its infancy and the codes used were cumbersome. The standardization of Morse code was crucial to the success of the telegraph.

Railroads had been reluctant to expand territorially because of the difficulties of managing such vast and complex movements. However, responding to many tragedies involving train collisions, the railroads took steps to synchronize their routes. Trains required precisely timed movements through spatial landscapes and needed the capability of telegraphy for communicating ahead for coordination.

In October 1861, Western Union connected telegraph lines from the east and west at Salt Lake City in Utah, providing the first nearly instantaneous transcontinental communication between San Francisco and Washington DC. With westward expansion, railroads and telegraph lines soon crisscrossed the country. As the Civil War erupted, both the North and South attempted to capitalize on these technological developments. President Lincoln, who had been a railroad lawyer, studied the railroad and telegraph strategies used by Napoleon III to help unify Italy in 1859. He set up a communications post outside the White House to execute the war by mobilizing troops and organizing supplies. Many military officers in both the North and South armies became logistics experts and went on to help create the post-War national economy.

These two technologies became highly dependent on each other. As railroads became the major mode of transportation for most parts of the United States, it also aided the construction of telegraph lines. The combination of the railroad and the telegraph allowed the modern corporation to emerge. Companies like National Biscuit Company (Nabisco), Sears, and Standard Oil used railroads and telegraphs to expand outside their originating regions. R.W. Sears, a telegrapher, quit his job to form a catalog supply company, the Amazon of its time.

Britain also developed a telegraph network throughout its empire with undersea links to India, Indo-China, and Australia. Expansion brought on new problems in coordination. The information flow of the telegraph networks stimulated new data collection and processing technologies that were crucial for managing logistics, marketing, and production. The telegraph, and the complexities of organizing information over geographical space brought on by the railroads (and steam shipping) built the foundations of the modern data processing industry.

To create this new type of organization, a standard ‘time’ needed to be determined. The Prime Meridian Conference in Washington DC convened to find a solution. In 1884, they chose Greenwich, England as the zero meridian and divided the Earth into twenty-four one-hour time zones to help facilitate the coordination of transportation and commercial transactions.[4] With a standard “railroad time” in place, complex tables could be produced by cross-listing train movements with cities, towns, and ports and as a result regularizing transportation schedules. This brought “time” to rural America and the western frontier.

Innovations in time-tabling worked with the telegraph system to choreograph the complex scheduling of railroad transport. Transportation schedules accelerated the number of journeys in a given time period and provided consistency for passengers and freight hires. This mode of sequencing time and transport proved crucial for the development of regional and then nationwide markets for mass-produced goods.[4]

If the railroads provided the muscle, the telegraph provided a rudimentary nervous system. Information about train delays, obstacles, needed repairs, and passenger numbers, all flowed through the telegraph to keep the railroad system running smoothly.[5] Eventually, another innovation that would prove crucial for the management of railroads was the punch-card tabulator, developed by future IBM founder Herman Hollerith.

The tabulating machine was based on the tickets that train conductors punched indicating the characteristics of ticket-holders such as hair color and sex. Hollerith developed a way to run electrical charges through the holes of the punch cards that turned dials, tallied numbers, and tabulated results. His punch-card and tabulating technology would be used to determine the 1890 US census, as specified in the US Constitution. The task had proved physically impossible to complete in ten years by manual labor due to population growth and the speed of immigration from Europe.

Hollerith’s tabulating machine and punch-cards were later used by the railroads in conjunction with telegraphy to manage cars and cargo. J.P. Morgan became a big believer in both technologies, and they became central to his strategy of “Morganizing” companies. His rise to financial notoriety began with railroads, starting with the creation of New York Central, but he was also known for consolidating other companies such as AT&T and US Steel. As American companies like Nabisco, Standard Oil, meat-producer Swift, and Western Union began to operate wide-scale businesses, the combination of punch-card tabulators and the telegraph became crucial management tools and the ancient forerunners of the Internet age.

So, what happened to the train track running through Goshen?
The Erie railroad was originally designed with unique gauge and spacing that was meant to keep the trains operating only in New York. But as this proved to inhibit its profitability, the entire train track was eventually replaced, allowing the rail to run into New Jersey down to the Hoboken station and as far as Chicago.

In 1984, with the approval of Orange County, the Metro-North Railroad ripped up the Erie Mainline between Harriman and Middletown, New York. The Metro-North Railroad chose not to recondition the historic line for passenger service. After more than 140 years trekking through Goshen, the railroad line was abandoned in favor of a longer route between Hoboken and Port Jervis for passengers commuting to and from New York City.


[1] Beniger, J.R. (1986) The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (pdf). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 230. Beniger’s reference for this information was from Edward Harold Mott’s Between the Ocean and the Lakes: The Story of Erie published in 1901 by John S. Collins in New York.
[2] A Monument to Charles Minot. Accessed September 26, 2016. A version of this article was originally published in the October 2006 issue of The AWA Journal, a quarterly publication of
The Antique Wireless Association, a non-profit historical society.
[3] Information on Daniel McCallan’s organization of Erie Railroad from Beniger, pp. 228-233.
[4] Anthony Giddens tied the relationship together between the telegraph and transportation in his work on administrative power and internal pacification in The Nation-State and Violence. (1987) San Francisco, CA: University of California Press. p. 174-175.
[5] This is from a short story about how the railroads and telegraph started working together.

AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at Hannam University in Korea and Marist College in New York. He started his career at Victoria University in New Zealand. He spent a decade as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. Originally from Goshen, New York, he now keeps a home in Austin, Texas.


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