For much of the twentieth century, train order poles were the most common, and certainly the most essential tools housed in any train station. As it was completely impractical for every passing train to stop for messages, the poles were a simple way to pass on orders and return messages to the station.

The hoop on the top (above) is a bamboo pole, made from a single piece of wood that was heated and bent around a cylindrical object. Orders were attached within this hoop and the pole was then held up to a passing train. The crewman on the passing train would stick out his arm and “catch” the hoop with his whole arm. After pulling off the order, message, list, or waybill, the hoop was then tossed off the train and the stationmaster, or telegraph operator, would then have to trek along the track to recover the pole and, occasionally, a returned message. Standing beside the tracks and holding a bamboo hoop for a steam train was a risky and messy business. Steam trains were notorious for spraying hoop operators, and were generally dirty machines. Bamboo hoops were eventually replaced by “Y” or string hoops (shown above, bottom). This didn’t really solve anything for the hoop operators, as they still had to stand and hold the “hoop” for the train. The one major difference was that only the string that closed the hoop was taken onto the train and the pole was left in the hands of the stationmaster. Today, orders are relayed to trains using modern electronic technology, and the art of passing messages with a hoop is mostly forgotten.

Both hoops were on loan this past summer from Jim Harte of McBride. They were displayed in the stationmaster’s office at the restored Dunster train station. Visit us this summer as we explore and share more of Jim’s train memorabilia!