If you made a mistake you could cause a head-on collision

Posted by | August 23, 2012

Post News
Kingsport, TN
May 26, 1977

APPALACHIA, VA—Miss Georgia got aboard the Virginia and Southwestern train headed for Daniel Boone (then known as Albert Yard.) The year was 1907.

She showed her pass to the conductor, Captain Folmsbey. He snorted “Hmmmph. We’re going to have women operators on this line?”

“Yes,” she said and took a seat by the window of the passenger car.

Captain Folmsbey was later to become a great friend of the 17 year old wisp of a girl who boarded the train that day on her way to becoming the first woman employee of the Virginia and Southwestern Railroad.

Her name was Georgia Harrman but she married Dr. William B. Peters in October of 1911. Mrs. Georgia Peters is 87 years old and lives in Appalachia, VA, the last place she worked as a telegraph operator for the railroad.

first female telegraph operator on the Virginia & Southwestern RRMiss Georgia at her desk, Intermont Office of Virginia & Southwest Railroad, Appalachia, VA, 1911.

Miss Georgia had always wanted to study telegraphy. Her brother, Jr. R. Avent, was a dispatcher for the railroad.
“He helped me a lot when I took the telegraphy course,” she said.

When the train pulled into the Albert Yard that morning in 1907 the sun had not been up long. As a relief Telegraph Operator she was to work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., a shift that seemed a bit long for a 17 year old girl. She would spend all the daylight hours indoors on the second floor of the tower that served as an office.

“They had a semaphore that I had to pull down with a rope,” she said. “If the train saw a red light he stopped and picked up his orders. If there were no orders he didn’t stop.”

Railroad men drifted in and out of the office as the 17 year old girl they to learn to call “Miss Georgia” took her place at the telegraph key. There was skepticism of course. And there is little doubt that some of the men, when talking in private, predicted all sorts of doom and destruction due to befall the railroad now that the Virginia and Southwestern had hired a woman—no, a girl—to handle routing and sidetracking orders for the trains.

But the men quickly learned that Miss Georgia did not make mistakes.

“Some of the men wondered about it,” she said with a smile. “I think they wondered whether I would be a good operator, but all the railroad men were real nice and did anything they could to help me.”

It is not hard to understand why the men, particularly the engineers and conductors, were a bit wary. The operator took their routing orders.

“You really knew you had a particular job. If you made a mistake you could cause a head-on collision. You had to be careful,” she said.

It was an education for a young girl. An education in responsibility. The pay was not fantastic. Even though she made the same salary as the new male operators it still amounted to about $40 a month.

“I enjoyed the work. I learned a lot about people because I came in contact with so many different types,” she said.

In a year and a half Miss Georgia worked relief in the Bristol Yard office and the telegraph office at Benham. She was then transferred to the newly opened Glenita office (now known as Natural Tunnel.)

Intermont office of Virginia and Southwest Railroad, Appalachia, VA 1911View from window of Intermont Office of Virginia & Southwest Railroad, Appalachia, VA, 1911

If nothing else, if the hours were long and the pay short, Natural Tunnel was a beautiful place to work. The rock and laurel were stacked in front of the office window like a screen for nature’s own television program.

“When I was working at ‘the tunnel’ people from Bristol would come on a passenger train and have a picnic between the two tunnels. They would take another train back in the afternoon,” she said.

In 1910 Miss Georgia got her last transfer, to the Intermont office in Appalachia.

“I enjoyed my work at Appalachia best,” she said. “There was heavier traffic here. But I only had an 8 hour shift. Everywhere else the shifts were 12 hours.

“It was interesting work. I don’t see why more women didn’t go into it. It was a big responsibility then. At that time it was harder for a woman to get a job. It has to be easier for them to get a job now.

“I miss riding the trains,” she said glancing out the window at the mountains. “I wish we had them like we used to have.”

source: Post News, Kingsport TN, May 26, 1977; This version edited; original at: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=3GcPAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ZIYDAAAAIBAJ&pg=4033%2C1790763

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