current face
harry fenning

harry, december 1909

harry, ca 1917

harry, ca 1917

10 years before my great-grandfather Harry donned this uniform as a Corporal in the Signal Corps, he was plying his trade as a 17-year-old wireless telegraph operator onboard a steamship in Lake Erie. His was a family in which everyone needed to work, but while his brothers and sisters worked as clerks and secretaries at fur companies, insurance companies and millinery shops at home in Newark, their father exchanged a dress uniform for Harry’s training and a job worked largely away from home.

Though Harry’s father Frank was not a hugely successful businessman in his line as a tailor, his trade survives as an important plot point in at least a couple pieces of family lore, including this one. Whether because Harry showed an interest in the telegraph, or whether Frank thought working as a telegraph operator would suit him, Frank made a free uniform for the head of a telegraphy school in Newark (probably Mr. John A. Sutherland, who is listed as having a private school of telegraphy in the 1908 Newark City Directory) and in exchange, Harry received an education.

I have been told that Harry worked as a telegraph operator in Vermont and in Silver City, New Mexico; I also know from the 1910 Federal Census, in which he is listed as residing at 289 Hunterdon Ave., Newark with his parents and siblings, that he worked as a telegraph operator for a railroad company. I don’t know any stories about these things, though I am working on it. I do, however, know a story about Harry’s work as a wireless telegraph operator onboard the steamer H.P. Bope, supposedly the first ship on the Great Lakes with “wireless apparatus” (1), in December 1909.

On the night of December 8, 1909, the steamship Clarion caught fire about 5 miles from Southeast Shoal in Lake Erie in sub-zero temperatures. While it was burning, the H.P. Bope “bumped” into it “with much force” (2) but didn’t stop and help save the ship’s crew. Instead, the Bope kept sailing, though wireless operator Harry Fenning sent out the message, received at Detroit and Cleveland, to alert others that the Clarion was burning. Only six men out of the crew of approximately 18 were saved by the steamer L.C. Hanna that night. The rest died of exposure or drowning after taking to lifeboats that disappeared out on the lake. The story of the Clarion and the Bope became a point of much contention and scandal on several points and accounts reverberate throughout the upstate New York papers during the rest of December 1909 (3). Not only was Captain C.C. Balfour of the Bope in trouble for apparently heedlessly ignoring the Clarion’s plight (he said in one account (4) that it would have been too dangerous for him to stop), but our Harry was also accused of ignoring incoming communications from a rival wireless company in Detroit because he was “jealous for his own company.” (5) As far as I could tell, this story wasn’t carried in New York newspapers — just in the Chicago Tribune — and thankfully the next day Harry was redeemed by his employers at the United Wireless Telegraph Co. in the person of Hugh B. Farrell, the superintendent of the Great Lakes division (6). According to Farrell, Harry’s accuser, one Bert B. Wender, was wrong, worked for a small potatoes company that the United Wireless Telegraph Co. would not even deign to compete with, and further, was just using the tragedy of the Clarion was a “sensational bid for publicity.” (6)

I wish I knew about how Harry and his family at home felt about the stories surrounding the Clarion, but maybe this brush with tragedy is the reason why 1910 found Harry living at home in Newark, working for the railroad as a telegraph operator.

A. Harry Fenning (1892-1955)

Articles Cited.
“Vessel burned; many of crew are missing,” Utica Herald-Dispatch, December 9, 1909, page 1. Accessed at Old Fulton Postcards, June 2, 2009.
“Say cry of distress was not heeded,” Syracuse Post-Standard, December 17, 1909, page 13. Accessed at Old Fulton Postcards, June 2, 2009.
For example: “Steamer burns to water’s edge as storm rages,” Utica Observer, December 9, 1909 (Evening), page 1; “Prayer for missing Ogdensburg seamen,” Syracuse Post-Standard, December 18, 1909, page 12; “In storm and flames,” Buffalo Standard, December 10, 1909, page 1; “Tugs vainly search lake for thirteen missing,” Ogdensburg News, December 11, 1909, page 1; “In defense of Captain Balfour,” Ogdensburg News, December 28, 1909, page 1; and many may more. Accessed at Old Fulton Postcards, June 2, 2009.
“Clarion’s crew accuse Balfour,” Watertown Daily Times, December 16, 1909, page 3. Accessed at Old Fulton Postcards, June 2, 2009.
“Jealousy costs 14 lives,” Chicago Tribune, December 10, 1909, page 1. Accessed at Footnote, June 2, 2009.
“Denies rivalry cost lives,” Chicago Tribune, December 11, 1909, page 4. Accessed at Footnote, June 2, 2009.

About rebeccafm

botanical gardens, ice cream, and family photos.


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