Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Thomas W. Milburn and family in Washington DC

Thomas William Milburn came from Washington, DC, where he was born on 20 January 1855. He was the son of another Thomas Milburn and his wife Pamelia Sawyer. At home TW had an older sister called Alice, born about 1848. He should have had an older brother George, but that boy died the year before TW was born. We know about George from the notice run on 6 July 1854 in a District newspaper,
On Sunday, the 2d instant, at Vineyard Farm, Charles County, (Md.) George W., aged 17 months, only son of Thomas and Pamel[i]a Milburn, of this city. 
Another sister was born in 1858 or 1859 (there is some difficulty settling on the year) and was named Ada Violet. Two more babies, born during the time of the Civil War, we know only from their graves in the family plot in Congressional Cemetery, where they were buried with no given names recorded. And then one more child, the youngest sister, called Eva, born in 1866. She brings the Milburn family up to its largest number, the four children shown in the census of 1870, Alice, Thomas, Ada, and Eva.

TW’s father, Mr. Thomas Milburn, was described in his census records as a carpenter. That term evidently was applied to the occupation we might call contractor  or builder. Although Mr. Thomas Milburn is very little mentioned in the newspapers, there is one article, reporting estimates submitted for constructing “the new asylum,” which shows him turning in a $34,950 bid. Now, which building might this have been? I’ve never found any asylum in the city to match the date of construction and the architect talked about in the article. The Milburn bid was not, by the way, either the highest or the lowest of the ones recorded. Mr. Milburn seems to have done well enough at his business. He is mentioned in another article carrying $170 in gold on him, which he lost to a pickpocket! In addition to getting on with his business he was a member of both the Odd Fellows and the Masons, and he was elected Commissioner of his city ward (the Seventh). He was evidently a pleasant enough fellow of the common sort, well enough liked, but there isn’t so much to tell about him.

One possibly interesting thing, to me, is the appearance starting in 1869 of advertisements for the partnership of Angus & Milburn. Mr. Angus worked in Northwest Washington. Our Milburns lived and worked in the Seventh Ward, which is to say Southwest Washington. I think the early signs of the decline of that latter part of the city must have already been felt in the 1850s with the coming of the railroad. The B&O eventually crossed through Southwest, in fact right beside the Milburn home. A nuisance of itself, what with the noise, soot, and embers, the train also changed a small scale residential and commercial neighborhood into a more industrial one. Then, after the Civil War was ended, the population of the area started to grow dense from newcomers to the city. So when Mr. Thomas Milburn found a partner in Job Winans Angus, a very well respected builder who flourished in a far more illustrious quadrant of the city, that alliance might have begun a transition to a better established business, in a prosperous and expansive locale.

from an 1869 directory

Mr. Thomas Milburn died in 1872. He was just 48 years old. The paper says it was “after a lingering illness.” Perhaps that was tuberculosis—quite common. And Mr. Milburn’s death was not the only loss happening for the family. Mr. Milburn’s sister Margaret died in 1869 (definitely tubercular), his sister Mary Ann in 1870. In 1874 his little daughter Eva, TW’s sister, went to her grave in May; and old Mrs. Milburn, Mr. Milburn’s aunt, who had been the guardian of the family property, died in November. The following spring the family split into opponents in a lawsuit over some of the property, and TW joined up with the Signal Corps bound for Texas.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

A minor blasphemy

It must have been around 1970. My sister Carolyn was back at home for some occasion or other. At the dinner table my father returned thanks in his usual way. “Father, bless this food to our use and us to thy service. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.” Then in those seconds of silence before the clink and clank of the table restarted, Carolyn was saying brightly, “All things come of thee, O Papa.” You could hear her grinning. My mother set her jaw and gave a brief shake of her head, like a tiny tremor. That was her sign of unacceptability, My father looked puzzled for a moment. I burst out laughing.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Thomas W. Milburn on the frontier in Texas

At this point I’ve got to bring in the letter—the one that started it all. A while back my brother e-mailed me with a transcript of an old letter he had found. It turned up among some of the papers that got cleared out after our father died. My brother wasn’t altogether sure about who had written this letter. I knew it had to come from our great-grandfather Milburn. Three pages give an account of what was going on when he came to Texas so long ago.

Tom Milburn writes:

This is a story of a young Washingtonian who landed in Denison, at the terminus of the Katy railroad, in 1875. There was one other railroad, the Central, from Denison, through Dallas, to Houston, with branches from Bremond to Waco, and from Hempstead to Austin. The young buck came to Texas to serve with the U.S. Army Signal Corps, in the construction of a military telegraph line connecting all of the military posts in Texas, for the purpose of giving quick information concerning marauding Mexicans from the south and Indians from Indian Territory—now Oklahoma.

This single wire line started at Denison, down through the hamlet of Pilot Point, crossed over to the hamlet of Jacksboro, thence north through the only other hamlet (Henrietta) anywhere around, thence along the Texas line to Fort Sill and Lawton hamlet. The main line continued southwest from Jacksboro to Graham—just a spot—thence to Ft. Concho—San Angelo, another small spot. There was nothing in between Graham, Henrietta and San Angelo but the bald “staked plains,” with wild buffalo and wild horses—deer, turkeys &c—not an inch of fencing and no inhabitants in that vast territory reaching up to Colorado and New Mexico. The telegraph line branched at Concho, one line going west, to Ft. Stockton and Ft. Davis and to Ft. Bliss, at El Paso. The other leg ran through Ft. McKavett Menard, Mason, Boerne, San Antonio, thence through Castroville, Uvalde, Ft. Clark (Brackettville), Eagle Pass (Ft. Duncan), Laredo (Ft. McIntosh), Rio Grande City (Ft. Ringgold), & Edinburg, winding up at Ft. Brown, at Brownsville.

(I prepared a map to show the places connected in this large project and the tremendous extent of it.)

All of these lines were built by detachments of troops from the Forts above mentioned (excepting some miles of the line, in the Stockton El Paso region, which were carried upon 3-inch wrought iron 20-foot pipes, which came by water from Norfolk, Virginia, to Galveston). Texas red cedars, from the river territory of Texas, were furnished by contractors who cut them & trucked them to the holes, as staked out by Army Engineers.

The telegraph offices at all of these points were manned by civilian operators & linemen who had enlisted in the Signal Corps for a term of 5 years.

At this point the speaker suddenly shifts to the present, and to progress and abundance.

This Washington youth has now reached the senile age, without having improved with the country but attributes his longevity to the salubrious climate of this grand state—to his having survived the stage robbing and Indian treachery periods and to his never having had any employer to designate his working hours. But it is a source of pride to note that one half of this largest state in the Union, which in 1875 was uninhabited, is now dotted, from end to end, with fine towns—that a country in which a scouting party of a Cavalry Troop died from thirst, now produces artesian water at 20-feet depths, more cotton than they have storage for, great quantities of finest melons, grown by irrigation, vast sheep and goat ranches from which millions of pounds of wool are gathered and vast herds of beautiful white-face cattle which have drowned out the old Texas longhorns and don’t forget the vast areas of oil and gas wells and other things which have come to a land which, a few years ago, was given over to the cactus, to millions of buffalo & horses, millions of colt-high jack rabbits, and—but what’s the use spreading it on? Newcomers to Texas find the thing all ready for them to settle down in security.

The transcription above has been lightly edited for clarity. You can see the original, handwritten on four unruled pages.

I keep calling it a letter, but without a salutation, direction, date, or signature, is it really a letter at all? Why did he prepare it? And who saved it? With that boosterish summing-up at the end, it occurred to me that this could be the text for a speech—maybe a speech intended, say, for his company colleagues on the occasion of his retirement. Did he mean for it to be preserved? Or did somebody in the family just silently tuck it away?

• • •

Let’s step back to that small paragraph where Tom Milburn brings up the staff at the telegraph stations. He mentions civilian operators and linemen with a five-year term of enlistment. His own five-year term began on the first of June, 1875, and lasted until the end of May, 1880. This information can be found in the Army registry of enlistees. The registry also tells us that he was already a telegrapher in Washington, DC, at the time when he was assigned to the Signal Corps.

The Signal Office made a report to Congress each year reviewing the stations, their staffs, their equipment, etc. The reports from this period mention T.W. Milburn, and in fact show him at his first post at Denison, Texas, as soon as 1 July 1875. Every so often he might be relieved at one post and move on to take another position at a post down the line. In 1876 he was working at Boerne and at San Antonio. A very interesting civilian’s name appears in the report. Working alongside T.W. Milburn was none other than Miss Anna Pollmar, his future wife. She was about a month shy of seventeen years old at the outset of her employment in 1876, and she was a civilian operator. Her name continues to appear in the Signal Office reports—and sometimes she was in charge of her station—until the spring of 1879, when she was Mrs. Anna Milburn. She would have been pregnant with their daughter, Pamelia, who was born that year in May.

One more civilian of note at the stations was J.K. Dunbar. This was the same man who, we’ve seen, later headed the exchange at San Antonio. The astute family historian, knowing that Tom and Anna Milburn’s son was named Jack Dunbar Milburn, will already have guessed that it was in honor of this Mr. Dunbar, telegraph and telephone man.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Thomas W. Milburn in San Antonio

When Thomas Milburn died on 12 November 1944, the Dallas Morning News printed only a short death notice. “Milburn, Thomas W., passed away at residence, 3519 Lindenwood, Sunday. Survived by wife, Mrs. Anna Milburn; one daughter, Mrs. R. C. Mynatt; one son, J. D. Milburn; two grandchildren, Miss Dorothy Ann Mynatt, Mrs. Cathryn Milburn Cate; two great-grandchildren.” There was no obituary (that I've found) in the Dallas papers. Nor was there any in San Antonio, where Thomas lived before he moved to Dallas.

Here’s an early mention in a newspaper. Printed in the Galveston Daily News on 29 August 1878, in a series of items from San Antonio: “Miss Annie Pollmar and Thomas W. Milburn were married this morning [the 28th]. The bride is the daughter of Mr. Pollmar, printer, of this city; the groom is one of the telegraphers at this place.” (It’s interesting to me that their marriage was deemed worth reporting in Galveston. Was it the Pollmar family, or was it the telegraphy?) So Thomas was at that time associated with the telegraph, a fully standard piece of communication, unlike the very new-fangled telephone.

Looking at Morrison & Fourmy’s 1881 San Antonio city directory you can find the listing for Thomas Milburn which tells that he was simply a clerk at the Signal Office, which is to say a telegrapher. The same volume, in a sort of preface called San Antonio: Future Commercial Metropolis of Texas, carried this brief article pointing to the future.
A few months ago a telephone exchange was established in this city, under the management and control of Mr. J. K. Dunbar, and the patronage already extended to it makes its success a foregone conclusion. The present number of subscribers is about one hundred, and this number can be increased indefinitely. The lines are already extended all over the city, and into the suburbs, and it is safe to say that no one now enjoying its privileges would consent to give up this great aid to the business and professional man as well as private citizens.
Thomas took his experience of wired communications to a position working for Mr. Dunbar at the young telephone company. These were hectic years when the monopoly telephone system was taking shape, merging and acquiring and reorganizing its holdings over and over, doing battle with rivals like Western Union. Thomas was soon managing local and then regional operations, promoting long-distance service and encouraging the proliferation of exchanges in towns across Texas.

Studio portrait, with short hair going gray at the temples, a thin neck, large eyes. Suit is tight and straight.
Thomas Milburn in the 1880s.
And Texas was booming. After 1877, when the railroads connected Texas cities, the population swelled rapidly. Galveston had for a long time been the largest city in the state, but now San Antonio, which had been second, came to be for a while in first place. Before the Civil War a little more than 8,000 people lived there; by 1910 there were over 96,000. New people and new businesses, and sooner of later they all required telephone service. The growing telephone company was called early on the Erie Telegraph and Telephone Company. By the turn of the century it was known as Southwestern Telephone and Telegraph. It must have seemed as if the “indefinite increase” was the surest thing in the world.

An early title for T.W. Milburn at the phone company was South Division Superintendent. At some point he came to be called Circuit Manager. Thomas began, after some years in the operation at San Antonio, to shift toward Dallas. Newspapers in the mid-1890s talk about his travels around Texas, and little items mention him in Dallas in this period. He starts to show up in Dallas city directories. In April of 1899 it was announced in the Dallas Morning News that T.W. Milburn would shortly be taking the position of General Superintendent of the North Texas Division.

Someone made this picture of Texas telephone men meeting at the Akard Street headquarters in Dallas. An arrow points to the figure of Thomas Milburn standing somewhat apart on the steps near the doorway.

A row of men seems small in front of am imposing two story building with very large windows. Some are in shirtsleeves, some in suits.
Managers meeting at the Telephone Building, Dallas, about 1900

In 1900—the year, more or less, when this photo was made—the census records Thomas boarding at a Dallas hotel. His daughter Pamelia was with him. (The children must have accompanied their father to Dallas from time to time. Jack at fifteen was eager to follow his father into the modern world of telephones.) Anna, however, was still living in the house in San Antonio. She may have been reluctant to give up her life there, or she may have remained behind to care for her father who was ill (he died in 1902). But sometime shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, probably by the time that Pamelia married in 1903, Anna followed Thomas to Dallas, and the Milburn family was gone from San Antonio.