William Henry Hunt: An Original Texter
National Public Radio aired an article on April 28, 2013 about the origins of the modern telephone system. This article inspired me to find out more about my 2nd great-grandfather William Henry Hunt’s ability to telegraph messages to far-flung places. If you think about it, telegraphs were truly the first time people text messaged one another but instead of using a phone and thumbs they used a telegraph transmitter and wires.
In today’s world of iPhones and smart phones the technology of telegraphs seems archaic, but at the time it was ground-breaking. The invention of the electromagnet (a device in which magnetism is produced using an electric current) by British inventor William Sturgeon in 1825 precipitated the invention of the telegraph. In 1830, an American named Joseph Henry sent an electric current over more than a mile of wire. This current then activated an electromagnet which caused a bell to be struck.
Samuel Morse was one of the first to realize the true potential of Henry’s work. Morse improved on Henry’s design to create what would become the foundation for a nation-wide telegraph system. Instead of ringing a bell, Morse used the electric currents to cause the electromagnet to move a marker which embossed a series of dots and dashes on strips of paper. Morse code was thus invented.
Morse gave his first public demonstration of the telegraph in 1838 but it didn’t overwhelm the crowds. It wasn’t until five years later that Congress provided the $30,000 needed to construct an experimental line from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland, a distance of over 40 miles. The first message, “What hath God wrought?” was sent on May 24, 1844 from the Supreme Court chamber to Morse’s partner in Baltimore and officially opened the lines of long-distance, near-instantaneous communication. Soon, companies were rushing to string telegraph wires and connect the country from coast to coast. Telegraph lines followed the expansion of the railroad; most times they were placed right next to the tracks.
One corner of the world touched by this new technology was Branchville Junction in Sussex County, New Jersey. William Henry Hunt was a long-time station agent and telegraph operator at the Branchville Junction Station on the Sussex branch of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. What events led William Henry Hunt to hold this position?
When the Civil War broke out, William was a young indentured apprentice under the tutelage of Abraham Rutan who was training him to be a blacksmith in Patterson, Passaic County, New Jersey. According to an affidavit found in William’s military service file, Mr. Rutan released William “from the bonds of apprenticeship” in 1861 and William enlisted in the army at 20 years old. He was not unhappy with his apprenticeship; he was just anxious to aid the efforts of the Union. William first tried to join a regiment from New Jersey but they were already at their limit. Instead, he had to travel to New York State to enlist. After serving as a private in Company I of the 70th Regiment of the N.Y. Volunteer infantry, William was honorably discharged on June 20, 1864 at Petersburg, Virginia. Just a short time later on September 02, 1864, William reenlisted but this time with Company L of the Signal Corps of the 1st New York Engineers with Captain Fisher’s detachment. The Signal Corps during the Civil War was responsible for sending visual messages by means of flags, torches, rockets, or lights, reconnoitering, intercepting and deciphering enemy messages, and receiving and sending telegraphic messages in cooperation with the Military Telegraph Service. This must be where young William was first exposed to the telegraph and learned to master Morse code.
After his second and final discharge from the army on June 30, 1865 at Richmond, Virginia, William made his way back home to Sussex County, New Jersey. It wasn’t long after this that William began working on the railroad. In his own words, William recounts his experiences:
“I entered the service of the Sussex Railroad about April, 1867, as fireman. After several years’ service as fireman, engineer, brakeman and conductor, I took charge of the blacksmith shop at Waterloo. Then the company built me a shop at Branchville Junction and I ran this shop for eleven years. Since that time I have been in charge of the station at Branchville Junction as agent and operator, where I still remain. Before long I expect to receive the glad tidings of my retirement by the company, and my highest ambition in life is to retire with honor and then go fishing until I am summoned to join my old comrades on the other shore.”
A retirement announcement in the local newspaper provides further favorable reviews of William’s service with the railroad. He is described as a trusted employee with a genial disposition and one who garnered no complaints from the thousands of passengers passing through his station.
While all of this may sound like a long and happy association with the railroad, a thorough search of his military file revealed some interesting facts about his railroad employment. Chronic rheumatism, which William swears he “contracted” during the Civil War, severely limited his ability to perform manual labor. William Busekist, a supervisor on the Sussex railroad, recounts in an affidavit:
“The first work he did when he [Hunt] first came on the road was to fire an Engine but he soon abandoned that then the company put him in a small repair shop to Waterloo on the line of the Sussex Rail Road. Our then superintendent Mr. Case took him out of that and built a small repair shop at Branchville Junction on the Sussex Road and put him there to work alone where all he had to do was to sharpen a few picks and a little other light work and turn the switches about 5 or 6 times a day and to the best of my belief and knowledge at no time was there exacted from him even half the amount of work that any ordinary man should do.”
One thing William could do that didn’t require hard manual labor was operate the telegraph at the station. He used the skills learned during his military service in the Signal Corps to keep messages flowing over the lines strung all over Sussex County and beyond. Even deafness later in life did not deter him from his duties. He is described as being very deaf but having the “peculiar faculty of distinguishing messages sent over the wires to him as readily as though possessed of his hearing.” Nothing in his military pension file indicates that his deafness was caused by a war injury. In fact, a number of doctors stated directly that his deafness was not service related. However, his obituary states that “his hearing was badly impaired by the explosion of a cannon at the battle of Gettysburg.” Whatever caused his hearing impairment, deafness was not an issue as telegraphs received can be decoded by feeling the vibrations coming in from the telegraph transmitter.
Is it possible that William passed along his telegraphic abilities to his descendants? His great-grandson William Charles Strait, Jr. was drafted into the United States Army and served as a radio telegraph/teletype operator. He completed a 15-week radio teletype operator’s course at The Southeastern Signal School, Fort Gordon, Georgia, in 1962. What can be certain is that William Strait’s training was much less trial-by-fire than William Henry Hunt’s training nearly 100 years earlier on the battlefields during the last years of the Civil War.
 Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromagnet : accessed 18 May 2014), “Electromagnet: History.”
 Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Henry: accessed 18 May 2014), “Joseph Henry.”
 America’s Story (http://www.americaslibrary.gov/jb/reform/jb_reform_morsecod_1.html : accessed 18 May 2014), “Samuel F.B. Morse Sent the First Telegraphic Message.” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Morse : accessed 18 May 2014), “Samuel Morse.”
 “An Honored Veteran,” The Railroad Employee, June 1907, 6.
1860 U. S. census, Passaic County, New Jersey, population schedule, Paterson, p. 7 (penned), dwelling 37, family 52, William Hunt; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 01 October 2011);
 Affidavit of Abraham R. Rutan, 08 October 1886, Hannah J. Hunt, widow’s pension certificate no. 852,451; service of William H. Hunt (Pvt., Co. I, 70th New York Vol. Inf., Civil War); Case Files of Approved Pension Applications…, 1861-1934; Civil War and Later Pension Files; Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
 Department of the Interior, Bureau of Pension Form 3-389, 02 April 1915, Hannah J. Hunt, widow’s pension certificate no. 852,451; service of William H. Hunt (Pvt., Co. I, 70th New York Vol. Inf., Civil War); Case Files of Approved Pension Applications…, 1861-1934; Civil War and Later Pension Files; Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
 A. W. Greely, “The Signal Corps,” Signal Corps Association (http://www.civilwarsignals.org : accessed 16 July 2013).
 “An Honored Veteran,” The Railroad Employee, June 1907, 6.
 Affidavit of William Busekist, 31 January 1887, Hannah J. Hunt, widow’s pension certificate no. 852,451; service of William H. Hunt (Pvt., Co. I, 70th New York Vol. Inf., Civil War); Case Files of Approved Pension Applications…, 1861-1934; Civil War and Later Pension Files; Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
 “William Hunt Retired,” retirement announcement, New Jersey Herald, 17 December 1908, p. 1, col. 7; Bound newspaper stacks, Sussex County Historical Society, Newton, New Jersey.
 Increase Invalid Pension Form 3-355, 26 April 1909, Hannah J. Hunt, widow’s pension certificate no. 852,451; service of William H. Hunt (Pvt., Co. I, 70th New York Vol. Inf., Civil War); Case Files of Approved Pension Applications…, 1861-1934; Civil War and Later Pension Files; Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
 “Death of William Hunt,” obituary (28 February1918); Bound newspaper stacks, Sussex County Historical Society, Newton, New Jersey.
 Form DD 214, William Charles Strait, SP4 E-4, Army, 23 June 1964. Military Personnel Records, National Personnel Records Center, Regional National Archives, St. Louis, Missouri.
 “William Strait Ends Signal School Course,” news article, undated newspaper clipping, circa 1962, New Jersey Herald [Newton, NJ]; Strait family newspaper clippings, privately held by Jodi Lynn Strait, Tucson, AZ, 2015. Inherited in 2010 by Ms. Strait from her grandmother Beatrice (Repsher) Strait Guirreri of Newton, New Jersey.