The Telegraph Office is Open
By Jim Andera, KØNK

Even if the HF propagation had been a disaster, our Pony Express Special Event Station would have been a success. As it turns out, propagation on August 26 was not all the good—yet not really a disaster either. We worked only about 20 stations on 40 m and 20 m CW—but perhaps more importantly we worked several hundred festival visitors, face to face.

One of the neat things about the Hollenberg Pony Express Station Festival is the impressive number of visitors that stop by our amateur radio station display, which is disguised to look like an 1860’s telegraph office. Our “Telegraph Office” blends into the old-west theme of the Festival. Many of the visitors live in this very rural area of Kansas; others have traveled 100+ miles to be here; and at least one visitor this year was from France. It is a day long festival depicting early American life at this Kansas historic site. 2007 was the eighth year that our Telegraph Office/ham station was part of the festival.

This uniquely preserved Pony Express stations sits on the plains of north central Kansas about two miles east of the nearest town of Hanover, Kansas. From the Hollenberg grounds visitors can look across a field at the Cottonwood-Creek crossing on the historic Oregon Trail. It is said that in the peak of the westward movement in the mid 1800s, that as many as 1000 covered wagons a day crossed the creek here. In addition to being a general store and a stopping point for the wagon trains, the Hollenberg served as a stagecoach stop, living quarters and even as a tavern before being pressed into service as a Pony Express Station. Today, it is thought to be the only Pony Express Station in the nation that has been preserved and left on its original foundation.

During the annual festival the Hollenberg Station is alive with pioneer activity. Visitors can observe a covered-wagon camp, hides being tanned, brooms being made out of corn husks, butter being hand churned and muskets being fired. A circuit-rider preacher offers a Sunday morning church service, a western-style meal is served at noon and Pony Express riders races through the Hollenberg Station later in the day.

Considering that the Pony Express existed for the sole purpose of bridging a 2000 mile gap in the telegraph line in 1860, our station fits perfectly into the theme of the festival. The Pony Express operated only from April 1860 to October 1861. Riders took about 10 days to travel between St. Joseph, MO and Sacramento, CA. When a telegraph line was finally stretched across the plains and through the mountains, the Pony Express became a part of history.

The visitors that show up at the telegraph office may be railroad telegraphers from years gone by, or kids barely tall enough to reach up to the Morse code display on the front counter of the telegraph office. They can try their hand with a straight key and sounder, or a straight key and a bug connected to a CPO. The more adventurous will try to operate the iambic keyer.

Everyone gets a short verbal introduction to the land-line telegraph, and then we move on to how hams employ the Morse code today, along with other modes. Posters on the side of our display supplement our verbal explanations. Most visitors are amazed to learn that in 1861 a 10-word telegram sent from San Francisco to Chicago cost $5.60, with $0.50 for each additional word.

One thing that makes our special event station unique is that three of the four frequencies we operate are in the CW portion of the band (7.040, 14.040, 14.245 & 18.085 MHz). During the 7 hours we are on the air, the phone frequency generally gets only limited use. After all—this is supposed to be a telegraph office!

We operate with the call KØASA, which is the club call of the Crown Amateur Radio Association in Olathe KS, about 175 miles from the Hollenberg Station. The CARA is made up of employees of Honeywell Aerospace who design, build and repair Honeywell and Bendix/King avionics. Being this operation so far from home, we enlist the help of the local Marshal County Amateur Radio Club to support the Pony Express Special Event. This year, Dennis Mason, KØBYK, and Melvin Seematter, NØLS, assisted.

Our station is a very simple one. An Alinco DX-70 or Kenwood TS-50 mobile HF transceiver operates off a marine deep-cycle battery. A 40 m inverted Vee in the trees and a Cushcraft R-5 vertical replace the telegraph line of the 1860s. This setup provides a good opportunity for us to explain to visitors how hams can communicate over long distances without the need for any man-made infrastructure. It also serves as a great lead-in to let us explain ham radio’s role in emergency communications.

When we really want to sound authentic, we can connect a sounder to the output of the radio, so the visitors hear the Morse code in clicks and clunks, while the radio operator listens to the tones in the headphones. But most of the time, we just let the sound of the dits and dahs flow out of our speaker and draw in the crowds. We’ve even had Buffalo Bill and his wife stop by!

No outdoor operating activity is without its problems. This year the wind was strong enough to constantly blow our papers away and our hats off. In fact it was so windy this year we did not put the tarp over the top of our display booth. Some years have been way too hot to be comfortable, and occasionally we have to deal with a rain shower or two. Local audio-QRM can be a problem when horse-mounted marksmen are firing their six-guns only 75 feet from the Telegraph Office. To make up for these little inconveniences, we get to cash in on a great catered BBQ meal.

Stations that work us are eligible for a QSL card and a nice Pony Express Station Special Event certificate. As an extra, country hunters are glad to be able to work this rather rare one--Washington County, KS. And like any project, it is not over until the paperwork is finished. We usually spend 1 – 3 hours processing the QSL cards and certificates when we return to Honeywell. About 35% to 45% of the contacts request certificates.

Our participation is genuinely appreciated by the Hollenberg curator, the festival organizers and the many visitors we meet. Many of the QSO we’ve made from the Hollenberg have resulted in further exchanges of information and ideas. Operators from around the country seem to enjoy stepping back into history and contacting a working 1860s Telegraph Office.

Each year we pick up a tip or two worth passing on to others contemplating a similar operation:

  • 40 meters does poorly at supporting communications within 200 miles during the bottom of the solar cycle.
  • Handouts are handy. Generic handouts on amateur radio are good, and we also have a handout that blends together a little bit about the telegraph, the pony express and ham radio.
  • The sound of CW seems to attract visitors—some of them very pretty YLs. For many visitors it is their first chance to observe communications taking place in Morse code.
  • A 90 - 100 Ah battery will provide for 7 hours of operation at the duty-cycles typical in a special event operation.
  • A DC powered fan blowing on the face of the operator on a hot day can be of real value—even if it does not look authentic.
  • Manning the front counter can become a full-time task, although a most rewarding task.
  • Use of a memory keyer has proven to be a great asset during a special-event-station operation.

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More information is available in a 2001 article on the ARRL website:

"Hey Buddie (the telegraph-office dog) you got any messages to go out?"