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Redfield Depot Reconnects the Past with the Present

Monday, August 03, 2020

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The development of the telegraph in the 1830s revolutionized the way the world communicated. A nomenclature of dots and dashes was created representing each letter of the alphabet so that a “telegrapher,” using a telegraph key, could tap out a brief message that could be sent over a wire connected to another station almost instantly. It was a mind-blowing innovation that immediately changed long-distance communication. The thin, taut copper lines naturally followed the railroads. By the 1870s the telegraph had reached the Territory of Dakota, connecting the eastern industrial empire with one of the last regions to be settled west of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

The telegraph was the forerunner of the modern telephone, evolving from decoded messages to phone exchanges, party lines and the individual phones that became ubiquitous across America. Over a century later, following the advent of the Internet and the Information (Digital) Age we look back at the telegraph as “quaint,” something you see in a museum or more commonly, at the train station.

Rick Mills, Museum Director and Curator for the South Dakota State Railroad Museum in Hill City, knows a lot about the telegraph, and he wants to share that knowledge with as many people as he can through an exciting new program that brings the telegraph back to life through the use of the Internet, which has provided the ability to fully integrate the old technology with the modern. Mills, who refers to the telegraph as the “grandfather of the Internet,” is developing an interpretive program to re-connect the telegraphs between local stations, such as Redfield and Hill City, only this time, wirelessly.

It all began as a simple experiment, just to see how people would react. “One of the things that we identified here at the Railroad Museum was that when we put out a key wired up to regular power was that people were just fascinated by it,” explains Mills. Not surprisingly, it was the younger-aged, tech savvy visitors who embraced it. “The first few years we had our telegraph operating you could hear that and the old the typewriter chattering, you know, with the kids typing on them. They were fascinated by it because they've never been exposed to it.”

City of Redfield DepotBased on the reaction, the idea was hatched to expand this experience to other stations, since nearly all of them still have their original equipment. The interest in participating was instantaneous. The City of Redfield was one of the first to jump on board, says Mills, who initially worked with Kathy Maddux, and then with Mary Lou Schwartz, to bring the project to life. From an economic aspect for the Redfield Depot it’s low cost, making it very attractable, in addition to dovetailing nicely with their interpretive mission. “It's basically another way that we as museums and historical sites can tell the story of how South Dakota and the region's culture evolved simply because of the locations of the railroads and because of the resulting location and proximity of telegraph lines.”

In addition to the railroad museum in Hill City and the Redfield Depot, the other entities involved in the project are the depot at the Prairie Village outside Madison, the Fort Pierre Depot, the South Dakota State Historical Society, and the Friends of the Middle Border Museum in Mitchell. “It has a really remarkable application now for folks and groups that want to do something that doesn't really allow them to visit another location.”

The benefit from Mills’ perspective is that it's a nod back to a type of technology that really revolutionized the way that South Dakota and the nation did business. “It's something that is so important in today's society, maybe even more so now, for people to realize how unique these types of communication are simply because newer versions of them, the telephone, and then of course, now the Internet, are ways that we as society and as individuals communicate with each other.”

The revival of the telegraph line provides a new “old way” for museums and interpretive centers such as the Redfield Depot and Prairie Village to interact with each other. Mills looks at the project as another learning opportunity, describing it as “more of an interactive situation that really, museums are needing to go back to.” The success of the idea has already led to interest from neighboring states to participate as well.

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