Gray, James Sylvester
46 Manuscript Diaries of Joseph Sylvester Gray, of Western Pennsylvania, Telegraph Lineman for Western Union Telegraph Company, including his 1866 diary kept while working in Montana and taking a Missouri River steamboat from Fort Benton, Montana to St. Louis, Missouri -  1866-1918.

Extensive Collection of 46 diaries and 2 cash account books, comprising 8,202 manuscript pages in all, plus 20 pieces of paper ephemera (store receipts, blank checks, business card, hunting permit, check stub  book, tax receipts, etc). Five of the diaries are three days per page diaries, the other forty-one are two days per page diaries. All of the diaries have an entry for each day, except the earliest diary of 1866, which contains entries for 21 January to 28 August, 1866 completed, and one other diary has two days that were not used. The two cash account books are for 1868 (76 pp.), the other for 1875 (6 pp.).

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The earliest diary is from 1866 and the last diary 1918. The only years missing are: 1867, 1882, 1902, 1904, 1912, 1916 and 1917. The diaries measure approximately 3" x 5" to 4" x 6" and were manufactured by Excelsior. Many of them are leather bound, with folding flaps, although some are cloth bound. The diaries are written in ink, in a legible hand and tend to be in good condition, with only minor wear to bindings.

Joseph Sylvester Gray was born in October 1839. He is found in the 1850 Census enumerated with his parents and siblings at Derry Township, Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, more specifically, he was likely living at what was called "Gray Station" in Derry Township. Joseph was the son of John (b. 1807) and Margaret Gray (b. 1810). In the 1860 Census Joseph is listed as being 20 years old and still living with his parents and siblings at Derry. The census of 1870 and 1880 are less clear as he was on the road for work most of the time, however when the 1900 Census was taken, he is found enumerated at Brownsville, Fayette Co., Pennsylvania, with his wife Jemima and two of their children, Lelia M. Gray (b. 1897) and Joseph W. Gray (b. 1899). He had married Jemima A. Dusenbery in 1896. His wife Jemima was only 27 years old in 1900, Joseph was 60.  Their home at Brownsville was about 55 miles southwest of Gray Station. Gray Station was about 45 miles east of Pittsburgh.

He is found back at Derry (Gray Station) in 1910, returning in 1901 after purchasing the farm of John D. Gray from John's son Peter and Peter's wife Emma. (This Peter may be a brother to Joseph). In 1910, Joseph was now 70 years old, still living with his wife, the couple had another child, Nellie E, Gray (b. 1904). He was still in Derry (Gray Station) with his family in 1920. Joseph S. Gray finally submitted to death on 10 May 1925 and was buried the following day. His wife Jemima lived until 1940.

According to family "folklore"1, Joseph S. Gray worked his way from Pennsylvania to California laying telegraph lines, and made his "fortune" there in gold dust. The Gray family is said to have "come from England, because Joseph was once contacted about claiming an estate in England." His response was "I didn't leave anything in England, and I'm not going back for anything." The family folklore states that Joseph was not an immigrant and that the family could be traced back to the Mayflower. Another story has it that he may be "related distantly to the author Zane Grey."

According to James D. Reid in his book on the Telegraph in America2, Joseph S. Gray worked in the Eighth Eastern District for Western Union Telegraph Company:

"This District is a peculiar and important one. It includes Pennsylvania, west of the eastern slope of the Alleghenies, and portions of New York, Maryland and West Virginia. It covers the oil fields of Western Pennsylvania, and the Superintendent's headquarters are at Titusville. A large portion of the lines of this inland District are on the highway, and require the care of a number of faithful men for repair and maintenance. Upon these men the usefulness and value of the lines largely depend. Some of the better known among these are J. S. Gray, G. G. Chadbourne, M. Brown, J. J. McNerney. J. Denny, R. S. Thompson, W. C. Gibson, J. Landis, Geo. Morris, J. Housers, W. B. Mier, Robert Hazlett, J. O'Rourke, all good men. The District contains 21,000 miles of wire."

Information contained within the diaries shows that Joseph worked for Western Union from 1868 to about 1893, or for about twenty-five years. One of the cash account books in this collection is a Western Union booklet. Gray traveled throughout Western Pennsylvania in the 1870s and 1880s and elsewhere for his work. His work involved repairing and maintaining the telegraph lines, but also new work such as hauling poles, digging holes for the poles and stringing the telegraph lines.  The diaries give great insight into the life of a lineman working in some difficult situations and weather. Occasionally, in the fall, we find Gray on hunting excursions in Michigan, where he likes to hunt and fish. Once at Bay City in 1883, he bagged rabbits, deer, and an owl, another time in 1886 at Negaunee he shot four bucks, paying his camp fees and supplies with two of them. He also hunts in Pennsylvania as well.

In 1896, Gray marries. He is not working with Western Union and appears to be in a semi-state of retirement as he is often "tinkering around," as he describes, only occasionally actually taking on jobs. By 1901 when he purchases a farm from his family, he then begins to work on his farm.

Before he worked for Western Union, Gray was in Montana and the earliest diary represents his time there. As this first diary (1866) begins he is working and living in a town called Hot Springs, Montana which is about 30 miles (according to the diary) from Virginia City, Montana, which was one of the most popular gold mining towns in the state. According to an online history of Virginia City3 we find the following:

"All of Montana has the deepest pride and affection for Virginia City. No more colorful pioneer mining camp ever existed. Dramatic tales of the early days in this vicinity are legion. Rich placer diggings were discovered in Alder Gulch in the spring of 1863 and the stampede of gold seekers and their parasites was on! Sluices soon lined the gulch and various "cities" blossomed forth as trading and amusement centers for free handed miners. Virginia City, the best known of these and the sole survivor, became the Capitol of the Territory."

His entries begin on January 22nd, he is working at various places in southwestern Montana, traveling on foot and by pony. Then in July he heads for Fort Benton and boards the steamer Gallatin on July 30th to head home to Pennsylvania. He spends 25 days on board the steamer from Fort Benton to St. Louis, Missouri. From St. Louis he takes a train to Cincinnati, where he boards another train to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and from Pittsburgh he appears to have walked home that evening after spending 28 days to reach Pennsylvania from Montana. His entire Western trip during this 1866 diary lasted almost 8 months.

While in Montana he mentions the NY & M. Co., which is either the NY & M. Steamboat Company. The Montana diary mentions a man by the name of "Dancing Bill" who is found in Montana history to be one of the colorful characters in the Jocko Valley area.4 Further entries show this to be William "Dancing Bill" Latham, who with his "dusky Indian maidens" entertained miners in the Northwest.5

The diaries of 1868-1869 show Gray working for Western Union Telegraph. He is mainly in Western or Southwestern, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. The 1868 Cash Account Book is from when he was working with Western Union.

          Examples from 1866 Montana Diary:

"January 22nd, Today I take tramp to Virginia City from Hot Springs, as distance of 30 miles. Arrive late. Tired and hungry. Takes lunch and goes to bed. Weather pleasant."

"January 23rd, I buy boots, get shoes ment & start at 12 M back to 8 mile house. Take Supper and stops to morning."

"February 21st, Whip sawing forenoon. Afternoon puts floor in kitchen. Weather snows all day with wind in the afternoon."

"March 3rd & 4th, Digging on Tail race of mill. Sprains my back unloading a load of timber. Weather pleasant...Goes to store and gets a bottle of painkiller for my back. $1. Weather clear and pleasant. Windy in afternoon."

"March 18th, Washes some clothes and goes off 1 ½ mile to buy a sheep skin. Subscribes $5.00 for the benefit of J. Bracker. Weather Clear and pleasant."

"March 25th, 26th, 27th, & 28th, Payed off and starts for Virginia (City). Stops on road and buys a pony for $60 greenbacks. Stops all night. Weather clear and warm...goes on to town. Arrives about six o'clock P.M. Weather blustery. Snows all day....Does my shopping and starts back. Gets as far as 8 Mile House. Stops for the night. Weather warm and thawing....Leaves 8 miles house. Goes to Meadow Creek to get my pony. Stops for the night. Weather warm and thawing." [Sterling Hot Springs]

"April 11th, To Meadow Creek and back. To Sterling on way shoots a mountain sheep with revolver but miss. Weather same, winds from N.W."

"April 17th & 18th, Sells pony and starts for Virginia City. Arrives late in evening. Weather thaws some....Buying grub and coocking [sic] utensils for trip to Elk Creek diggings. Weather clear and thawing."

"April 20th & 21st, Cross Stinking Water, Beaverhead and Big Hole. Shoots 10 rabbits for supper. Weather clear and pleasant....Leave Big Hole Bridge and go 10 miles to halfway house. Weather snows in morning. Afternoon clear and pleasant."

"April 24th, Travel 20 miles. Pass Silverbow Camp on Deer Lodge. Shoot two grouse. Weather clear and pleasant." [Cottonwood, Flint Creek, Bears Gulch, Elk Creek]

"May 8th, Scoring timber for frame of a house for Dancing Bill. Weather clear and pleasant."

"May 22nd, Representing Peter Donnelly's claim in Bear Gulch. Weather changeable with thunder." [He heads to Reynoldsville now]

"June 26th, Cutting logs for self, half day and half for frame of Butcher shop. Weather heavy frost in morning. Very warm at noon."

"July 11th, Cross the river and starts for Black Foot. Crosses Flint Creek catches 8 trout in Flint. Weather clear."

"July 15th, 16th, 17th & 18th, Arrives at Helena. At noon stays around town in afternoon. Weather clear...Goes around town hunting for work. Hoping to find some. Weather clear and pleasant...Goes around town hunting a cheap stage for Benton. Weather clear....Leaves Helena for Benton Camp. 20 miles from Helena. Weather cloudy with rain..." [He travels 25 miles and gets to Sun River Camp arriving at Fort Benton on July 22nd]

"July 23rd, Engages passage on Steamer Galiton [sic] to St. Louis for $50. Catches mess of fish. Weather clear."

 "July 30th & 31st, Gets aboard Steamer homeward bound. Leaves Benton at 2 P.M. Weather rainy in forenoon...Pass wreck of Marion. Shoots at mountain sheep. Weather clear. Pass Judas"

After boarding the steamer, he travels down the Missouri River. They get stuck on a sand bar and he gets his first sight of a buffalo, which he in turn starts to shoot at:

"August 2, Make bad headwayBars & Lay at head of all night.  See first Buffalo, Weather windy."

"August 3, Forenoon on bar with boat. Shoot 2 Buffalo. Bars & land on one in evening, Weather windy."

"August 8th, Leave Fort Union at 7 A.M. Make good run. Pass Yellowstone. Weather clear. B. O. wood 4 times."

"August 14th & 15th, Bad run. Pass Crow Agency. Meet and pass steamer Only Chance. Bars 3.Wood 3. Weather clear and warm...Bad run. Pass the Wreck of Steamer Pocahontas. Sunk. Bars many. Wood 3. Weather windy."

They pass Sioux City, Omaha, St. Joe, Lexington, Jefferson City and finally St. Louis where he boards the train for Cincinnati, and from there a train to Pittsburgh, where he makes his way home.


1. Genforum - Gray family history , as viewed on May 12th, 2014.

2. The Telegraph in America and Morse Memorial by James D. Reid. New York: John Polhemus Publisher, 1886, page 651.

3. Virginia City, Montana, , as viewed on May 12, 2014.

4. History of Montana 1739-1885. Chicago: Warner, Beers & Co., 1885, page 226.

5. Early years of the Canadian Northwest