Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Colonel Robert C. Clowry, From Messenger Boy to Head of the World's Greatest Telegraph System

When romance can be added to hard facts in telling the life-story of a man, such a narrative becomes more pointed and interesting than the rarest dreams of a fictionist; therefore, the true story of a man who has made himself cannot fail to be instructive as well as interesting. No other man in the United States, today, can look back on a more remarkable career than that of Colonel Robert C. Clowry, president of the Western Union Telegraph Company. Mr. Clowry was delivering messages for that company in 1852, with but one object in view, —to hold his position. He is the busiest man, perhaps, in America today, and has little time to spend with an interviewer. He dislikes the notoriety that the world gives to men who fight and win, but the story of siuch a man is of more than passing interest. It is an important, valuable, uplifting factor in the great compound that makes America. It belongs to the people. It is for their use to profit by, and, with this one condition impressed on Mr. Clowry, he agreed to tell what he knows about himself.

"I began my telegraph career on April 4, 1852," he said. "I shall never forget the day. I walked into the office of Judge Caton's old Illinois and Mississippi Telegraph Company, at Joliet, Illinois, and told the operator that I had come to learn the business. I can see the rickety building now, and the surprised expression on the operator's face when he looked at me.


"It had been living with my mother on a farm in Will county, not far from Joliet, and, having reached the age of fifteen, I thought it time to start out in the world for myself. Ever since I first heard of the telegraph, I was fascinated with its workings, and at that time my chief ambition was to be able to send a message over the wires.

"What kind of work do you want to do?" the operator asked me. I replied that I didn't suppose I was capable of doing anything but carry messages. 'Well,' he said, 'we don't pay boys anything the first six months; but, if you want to work, you will have a chance to learn the business. When you're in the office you can easily pick up the knack of operating the keys, and, eventually, you'll get an office of your own.'

"I hadn't expected to earn any money at first, so I told him I was ready to begin at once. That was the beginning of my experience in the telegraph business."

"But, if you received no money for six months, how did you live in Joliet during that time?" I asked Colonel Clowry.

"I was able to earn money by doing various odd jobs around town, and of course my expenses were very low. For a while I used to get my own meals. I had learned to do plain cooking at home, and it was no hardship for me to fry an egg or broil a piece of steak. Joliet was a very small town in 1852, and I had never been accustomed to luxuries living at home. I had to work long hours at the office. I was the only messenger, and had all the work to do, so I hardly had time to be homesick. After my life on the farm, Joliet was a regular metropolis in my eyes and I found much to interest me. Of course, I was discouraged at times. I was very young to be away from home and dependent on my own resources, and it was only natural that I should occasionally get the blues. But for the most part I was wrapped up in my work and occupied with ambitious plans for the future."

"Were you able to learn telegraphy in a short time?"

"Yes, it seemed to come natural to me. I always liked mechanics and didn't rest until I knew the function of every key and lever connected with the instruments in the office. Within two months, I was able to send and receive a message, and in four months I was quite as expert as the regular operator. He was surprised at the readiness with which I learned, and remarked one day that I wouldn't remain a messenger long. This encouraged me, of course, but I had no idea how soon I should be given an office of my own.

"I had various unpleasant experiences as a messenger. I learned that, no matter how zealous I was in my work, it was impossible to please everybody, and I was frequently accused of loitering when in reality I had hurried as much as possible. The telegraph was a new institution in those days, and people were always doubtful of its success. They seemed actually surprised when a message was delivered without delay."


"In the beginning I was discouraged every time a man scolded me and found fault, but after a time I realized that it was foolish to be worried over trifles. I was doing my very best and knew that my services were appreciated by the officials over me. When I had been working six months as a messenger, I was delighted, one day, by the information that the office at Lockport, Illinois, was vacant, and that I was to be placed in charge. I was not yet sixteen years old, but most people took me to be nineteen or twenty, and the superintendent said that age shouldn't count against ability. Lockport is in the same county as Joliet, so I was stationed near home, and my mother was delighted at the progress I had made."

"At such an age you must have felt the responsibility of having the entire office in your charge."

"Yes," said Colonel Clowry, "I think I did. It was my constant endeavor to appear older than sixteen, because I felt that business men might not have confidence in my ability if they knew I was so very young. I was fortunate in my work. Everything progressed favorably under my management, and, as the business rapidly increased, the superintendent was pleased with my work."

"Do you think the company would nowadays employ a boy of sixteen as manager?"

"That's a difficult question to answer," said Colonel Clowry. "I think, if the boy were capable and earnest, he would be given such a position. Merit is as quickly rewarded today as ever."

"I suppose you did not stay long at Lockport ?"

"I wouldn't have been satisfied to stay there long. It was my ambition to be manager of a more important office, and I tried to prove myself worthy of a better position. I took advantage of every opportunity to improve my education. I read every book which could give me any knowledge of telegraphy and electricity, and was especially interested in biography, travel, history, and geography. I was obliged to remain at the office until late in the evening, but often I sat up until after midnight, reading and studying. I think it is helpful for every boy to know what great and successful men have really accomplished. Among my favorite books were the journals of Lewis and Clark on their expedition across the continent in 1804, and, when I was discouraged or disheartened, it cheered me to remember the vicissitudes encountered by them."


"I always endeavored, while at Lockport, and in every other position I have filled, to perform more service than that which was allotted to me and to watch my employer's interests at all times, regardless of stipulated hours. It is a great mistake for a young man to think that his efforts to be efficient and to perform more work than is set apart for him will not be noticed by his employers or superior officers. The appreciation of such services may seem tardy, but it is almost sure to come, and, in my case, it came very soon. After I had served at Lockport for a few months, I was transferred to Springfield, Illinois, which is a more important station. I was not seventeen when I began my work there, but I felt myself to be quite an experienced person in the business, and capable of caring for almost any office. On account of my night study I had a thorough knowledge of the principles of telegraphy, and my practice as an operator had given me the necessary technical qualifications.

"Operators didn't receive as much then as they do now, but living expenses were low. When I went to Lockport, I believe that I was paid about a dollar a day, and at Springfield my wages were somewhat higher. In 1854, two years after I first began to carry messages, I was sent to St. Louis, as the company's chief operator, and of course that was a considerable promotion. I remained in that position until 1858, when I became superintendent of the St. Louis and Missouri River Telegraph Company, which was constructing many new lines in the border region. The company was not very rich, but it was very necessary that its system should be extended. It occurred to me that the citizens of the border towns ought to be willing to pay something to have the convenience of the telegraph; so, when the line was constructed to Kansas City, I raised three thousand dollars in Leavenworth to extend it to that place, and two thousand dollars in Atchinson to have it built to that city from Leavenworth. In this way we accomplished what the company was financially unable to do.


"When the Civil War began, I offered my services to the government, and was placed in charge of the military telegraph in the Department of Arkansas. Missouri and Kansas were subsequently added to my territory. I served through the war, and, at its close, when I was twenty-seven years old, I became a district superintendent for the Western Union Telegraph Company in the southwest. I have been with this company ever since, having served in various capacities in St, Louis and Chicago. This is my fiftieth year in the telegraph business, and I became president of the Western Union just fifty years to a month after I first entered the Joliet office and asked for work."

"Do you think that a young man starting in commercial Hfe to-day has as good a chance to rise as one had fifty years ago?" Colonel Clowry was asked.

"Yes, indeed; in my opinion the chances of success in commercial business, for the right sort of young men, have never before been so good as they are at the present time, provided that the young men are well educated, honest, industrious, and faithful, and not handicapped by mental or physical defects."

"But you had only a common-school education. Colonel Clowry."

"Yes, and that is quite sufficient in business if it is supplemented by some technical training. I have always thought that a full university course has a tendency to unfit young men for the rough struggles incident to the small beginnings of a commercial business career. It is advisable for boys to enter business early in life, so that they may be moulded to their work, and be in line for promotion when opportunities present themselves. Boys have an idea nowadays that they can leave college and immediately fill important positions in business life. There was never a greater mistake. Although I was in charge of an office six months after beginning work, it has taken fifty years to reach my present position."

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