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.

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