Dear Call Box: I was cleaning out my mother's belongings after her death and found a telegram that had been sent to my father in Pearl Harbor announcing my birth. That made me curious about the history of Western Union in Jacksonville.

K.D., Southside

Dear K.D.: When inventor Samuel F.B. Morse punched out the first telegraph message from Washington to Baltimore in 1844, the four words went down in history. “What hath God wrought?”

What, indeed.

The telegraph brought messages of births, deaths, marriages, business transactions, news, congratulations, proposals, money orders and opinions for or against legislative bills.

It came to Jacksonville in 1859. Morse operators said it took about six months to learn the code and operate the “bug” efficiently. A good Morse operator could send up to 90 first-class messages in an hour, a Times-Union story said.

The telegraph had a storied history in Jacksonville when the city was the relay station for telegrams coming into Florida. By 1969, messages were transmitted directly to their destinations through automatic switching centers.

Floyd Houser, who went to work for Western Union in Jacksonville in 1916, recalled his almost 50 years of service in a 1971 Times-Union story. When he started, the company had 200 Morse operators, he said.

During the 1925-26 real estate boom in Florida, Western Union became so busy that, in addition to the main office it had occupied at Bay and Laura streets since 1895, it opened seven branch offices.

During World War II, it handled as many as 40,000 telegrams a day, including messages to and from Naval Air Station Jacksonville and Camp Blanding because the government had no telegraph circuits of its own, Houser said. Runners from Camp Blanding, for example, would bring in suitcases full of telegrams from servicemen, and when hurricanes downed wires in South Florida, trains would bring them in suitcases, another operator said.

Then there were the “Western Union messenger boys,” smartly attired in regulation uniforms and peaked caps. Their ranks included Thomas Edison, inventor of the incandescent light bulb and phonograph. At the other end of the spectrum was outlaw Clyde Barrow, pre Bonnie and Clyde notoriety, of course.

In Jacksonville, many of the messenger boys went on to become prominent businessmen and government leaders. John Alsop, mayor from 1923-37 and 1941-45, was among them.

“Back in the ’20s, the ’30s and the ’40s, there was keen competition among messenger boys,” Houser told The Times-Union. Postal Telegraph Co. was doing a good business, and most places of business in Jacksonville had call boxes for both Western Union and Postal. Many times businessmen would push both buttons simultaneously, and messengers from Western Union and Postal would hop on their bikes and speed to the scene and pick up the telegram. Whichever messenger boy got their first received his 2-cent fee.”

When the Western Union offices were moved to a five-story building at Duval and Laura streets in 1931, the second floor was dedicated to the welfare of messenger boys. They were inspected daily. They were required to take daily showers. Their uniforms had to be crisp and freshly pressed and they were tutored in the art of courtesy and the advantage of speed.

As late as 1940, there were still almost 50 of them in the Jacksonville office, which now houses the Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art.

But by 1971, there were only five full-time “messenger men” who delivered telegrams by automobile, not bicycle, with a delivery cost alone of $1.50 per message, The Times-Union reported.

On the flip side, larger offices provided “matrons,” Estelle Gillen, who was hired by Western Union in 1919, told the Jacksonville Journal when she retired in 1969. Their duties included seeing that young female operators dressed properly, did not use too much makeup and did not wear their dresses too short.

“If an operator called in to say she was ill, the matron called on her at home, sometimes to find her out on a date,” Gillen recalled.

Gillen witnessed the merger of Western Union and Postal Telegraph in 1943. She witnessed the transition from Morse code with its dots and dashes to microwave transmission. While it was more exciting to see dozens of young men and women skating from one part of the large operating room to another as they carried telegrams for transmission, the speed and ease of modern electronic transmissions was more relaxing, she said.

She also went through a couple of moves. The main office was moved from Duval and Laura to 510 N. Hogan St. in May 1961. It occupied one floor and 8,300 square feet of space, according to a 1960 Jacksonville Journal story.

The last Morse code message transmitted from the Western Union office was on Oct. 13, 1961. It was sent to the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad agent in Lake Butler and read, “The End of an Era.” The Morse transmitters were removed from the office and electronic equipment took over.

Over the years the cost of sending telegrams increased until the fees surpassed telephone tolls for personal messages, the 1971 story said.

By the mid-1970s, Western Union also suspended its singing telegrams. Originally it was a publicity stunt to stimulate sales. The first was sung to singer Rudy Vallee by Lucille Lips, a telephone operator. It became a national fad. But the company said it couldn't make enough money, and finding operators willing to sing them was difficult.

You can still send a telegram, though not through Western Union, which sent its last telegraphic transmission on Jan. 27, 2006. At the telegram's peak in 1929, more than 200 million were sent. By 2005, that number had dwindled to 21,000, mainly because of competition from other communication services such as email. The company now concentrates on financial services and communications.

Telegram service in the United States continues to be available through iTelegram. You can also send singing telegrams through other services.

If you have a question about Jacksonville's history, call (904) 359-4622 or mail to Call Box, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL 32231. Please include contact information. Photos are also welcome.

Sandy Strickland: (904) 359-4128