Messenger for a Thundering Giant

A marriage took place on this day 103 years ago in Pocahontas, Missouri.  A  farmer’s daughter would marry a railroad man, and this marriage would lead to this couple living near a railroad for most of their lives.  The bride getting married on that day was a member of Zion Lutheran Church in Pocahontas, and the groom was living in Wittenberg, Missouri at the time of their wedding.  The bride was Frieda Kieninger and the groom was William Richter.  Here is an image of their marriage record in the Zion Lutheran church books.  They were married on May 2, 1915.

Richter Kieninger marriage record Zion Pocahontas MO
Richter/Kieninger marriage record – Zion, Pocahontas, MO

I am going to start with the groom today.  William Richter was the son of Alvin and Amalia (Mueller) Richter of Altenburg.  He was born on March 3, 1891 and baptized at Trinity Lutheran Church in Altenburg.  His mother, Amalia, had been married previously to a Moeckel.  They had a son named Paul Moeckel whose story was told in the post titled, Tin Man.  That means William Richter and Paul Moeckel were half brothers.

In 1910, five years before his marriage, William was living in Wittenberg.  This census from that year shows him living with the Otto Lueders family, with William serving as a salesman in a general store.

William Richter 1910 census Wittenberg MO
1910 census – Wittenberg, MO

Otto Lueders was the proprietor of the Lueders Store, so I am almost certain that is where William worked.  I included a larger portion of this census because it is also important in this story.

Before I move on, I must say that Frieda was the daughter of John and Amelia (Mueller) Kieninger of Pocahontas.  She was born on March 12, 1892 and baptized at Immanuel Lutheran Church in New Wells.  Zion Lutheran Church in Pocahontas would not be established until 1894.

The Kieninger family arrived in America in 1858 when they landed at Baltimore, Maryland.  Here is a passenger list showing several Kieningers arriving there, including Frieda’s father, John (Johann), who was just 3 years old.

Kieninger passenger list 1858
Baltimore Passenger list – 1858

In 1917, William Richter registered for the World War I draft.  Here is his form.

William Richter – WWI draft registration

It says that William was a telegrapher for the St. Louis and Santa Fe Railroad in Wittenberg.  His previous employer, Otto Lueders, was the registrar on this form.  It also says he had a wife and a child.  That child was Helen Richter.  Her baptism is recorded in the church books of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Wittenberg.  She was born in 1916.

Helen Richter baptism record St. Paul's Wittenberg MO
Helen Richter baptism record – St. Paul’s, Wittenberg, MO

I am going to do a little speculating here.  If you look at the above 1910 Wittenberg census, you will see a Henry Steger working as a telegraph operator for the railroad and living in the Birner Hotel.  According to my reckoning, the Birner Hotel was right next door to the Lueders residence.  I think it is possible that Henry Steger may have taught William Richter the telegraph trade.  I wrote another previous post which told the story of Henry Steger titled, I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad.  In that post, it is stated that Henry Steger was living in Wood River, Illinois in 1916.  I think William took over for Henry at the railroad depot in Wittenberg working as the telegrapher.  The 1920 census also shows William as a telegrapher in Wittenberg.  We have this photo of the train depot in that river town.

Wittenberg train depot

Another child was born to this family in 1919 and baptized at St. Paul’s, but he died one year later in 1920.  His name was Lenert Richter.  Here is his baptism record.

Lenert Richter baptism record St. Paul's Wittenberg MO
Lenert Richter baptism record – St. Paul’s, Wittenberg, MO

Before the 1930 census was taken, William must have moved up the tracks to another train depot located at Menfro, Missouri.  Here is a map showing the relative locations of Wittenberg and Menfro.

Wittenberg Menfro map

Here is a photo of Menfro that shows the railroad in the background.

Menfro aerial view

This 1930 census shows the Richter family.

William Richter 1930 census Menfro
1930 census – Menfro, MO

Two more children were born into this family.  Their baptism records are included in the church books of Trinity Lutheran Church in Point Rest, MO.  We do not have the actual church records at our museum, but we have some transcriptions of them.  Here is the record for Edna Richter.

Edna Richter baptism record Trinity Point Rest MO
Edna Richter baptism record – Trinity, Point Rest, MO

Another child was born in 1927, but the records we have only go up to 1924.

When William filled out his World War II draft card, it said that he worked for the railroad in Menfro.

William Richter – WWII draft card

I looked into what the job of railroad telegrapher entailed.  Here are a few items that I found interesting.

  • Telegraphers knew that the telephone could ruin their occupation.  Therefore, they protected themselves by limiting who would be taught the skill of operating the telegraph.  They would only teach the skill to family and friends, so that only a limited number of people would have these skills.  They also unionized to keep the influence of the telephone from infiltrating their business.  Because of these efforts, the railroad business relied on the telegraph long after better means of communication existed.  If Henry Steger taught William his skills, it may be because he was passing along this exclusive skill to a friend.
  • Railroad telegraphers were needed to get messages to the train engineers.  They would sometimes write the messages they received from a telegraph onto paper and attach the paper to a big hoop.  They would then go out and stand very near the tracks, and a person on the train would grab the hoop from the telegrapher as it went by so the train would not have to stop.  It was quite a dangerous activity, and there are reports of several arm and hand injuries that resulted from its use.  Here is a photograph of one of these train order hoops.
Train order hoop
Train Order Hoop
  • If you would like to read more about the work of a railroad telegrapher, here is an interesting article.  It was at the end of this article that I ran across the description of a railroad telegrapher that I used as the title of this post, messengers for thundering giants.

It appears that one of the children of the Richters moved to Dearborn County, Indiana, and William and Frieda moved to that area later in their lives.  They both died and are buried there.  Here is William’s death certificate.

William Richter death certificate Indiana
William Richter death certificate

Even his death certificate indicates he was a retired telegraph operator.  Both William and Frieda are buried in the New Cemetery in Rising Sun, Indiana, but there are no photographs of their gravestones.

In closing, I will add this.  Both Kieninger and Richter are what I would call Wittenberg names.  However, William and Frieda are not really that closely related to the Richters and Kieningers that are normally associated with Wittenberg.  Frieda and the grandfather of the Kieningers that are part of the group we call the Wittenberg Cousins were cousins.  Also, I could not find any connection between William’s Richter family and the descendants of Ehregott Richter who populated Wittenberg back in the old days.  However, we do know that this Richter/Kieninger couple did spend an important portion of their lives in that little river town.









2 thoughts on “Messenger for a Thundering Giant

  1. To my recollection, like Ken Hadler, my Dad and Uncle Tom considered Bill Richter more than a telegrapher but that he was “The Frisco” in Menfro. This is confirmed by the 1940 census that lists his occupation as “Agent Frisco Railroad.” (and living 2 census stops away from the Henry Hadler family.) I was also interested to note that on his Draft Registration his phone is listed as the “Eggers Store”, a short walk across the creek and the tracks.


  2. I have memories of Bill Richter as the “railroadman” in Menfro in the late 40s/early 50s. I think they were members of Zion in Crosstown. They lived across the creek from the train depot, almost next door to my uncle. I also remember my parents getting bushels of BIG oranges every fall through the efforts of Bill Richter.


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