Belle Kelly - Piermont's Legendary Telegrapher

Marian Belle Byram came to Piermont in 1908 from Watkins Glen, NY. Just 20 years old, she had already been trained by the Erie Railroad in the art of telegraphy and assumed the duties of ticket agent and telegrapher, here, at the busy Piermont Station of the Northern Railroad.

Women had been working as agents and telegraphers since the mid-1800s, mostly in small rural railroad stations, and have been referred to as some of the earliest telecommunications workers in America. They held complex and demanding jobs, and participated fully in an important chapter in the development of transportation and communications in the country. Belle Kelly was an example of the strong and courageous young women who left home at an early age to go work on the railroad.

Telegraphers got to know each other personally over the wire. Most used code names like “Lightening”, “134” and “Magenta”. They could recognize each other through what was referred to as “the fist” or their own unique cadence of their “dots” and “dashes”. Insiders called it “the touch” and Belle loved what she heard from the telegrapher from Nyack before she ever saw him face to face. Before long, the Nyack telegrapher, Thomas Kelly, was courting Belle.

Belle and Thomas were married in 1913. Two years later they had a son, also named Thomas. Belle gave birth on the second floor of the train station in September 1915. Young Tom was only 4 years old when Belle was left a widow after Thomas Kelly died at the age of 30.

Along with a young child and a round-the-clock job, Belle continued life in the upstairs apartment, which for many years had no running water for drinking, cooking or bathing. Tom remembered coming home from school “to make kindling and haul water from a nearby house.”

As ticket agent she was responsible for keeping track of all the trunks and baggage moving through the station when Piermont was a bustling resort town, and she managed ticket orders for as many as 48 trains a day. She sent and received stacks of messages for the paperboard factory, and functioned as the station’s bookkeeper as well. Newsflashes came via the telegraph at the time, and in later years Tom Kelly reminisced proudly saying that “all the kids used to come up to the station to get baseball scores. On election night, the company would send up a special operator” to help keep up with the flood of information.

After 32 years in Piermont, in 1940 Belle Kelly moved to a new position as ticket agent for the Erie’s Main Line in Rutherford, N.J. and remained there until retirement in 1959. She worked for a total of 51 years for the Erie Railroad. 

The last train ran through Piermont in 1966 bring the era to a close. The railroad shut down and the tracks were soon taken up. But the family attachment to the old station survived. In 1969, Tom Kelly bought the building and over time refurbished the downstairs of the station to make it a more livable space for his mother to return to in her final years. Belle became ill and increasingly frail, and died at Summit Park Hospital in Pomona at the age of 88 in May of 1976.

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