Sick With Solitude: Jobs of Extreme Isolation

“I was happy then, and content with the lonely life that is burdensome to so many young men.”

The Railroad Telegrapher, 1915

When we talk about telegraph and railroad history, we often think of these technologies as great connectors- machines that allowed people to communicate with far off places and easily travel to previously remote places. But these industries also created new jobs where isolation was a prerequisite.

Boon Island Light tower, Cape Neddick, Maine c. 1950. Library of Congress.

Lone telegraph operators and railroad signalers, working out of small shacks dozens of miles away from the nearest neighbor, were posted along the rail and wire routes that crisscrossed the United States. Lighthouse keepers often made their homes on lonely islands and isolated peninsulas. Before electricity and radios allowed work to be done remotely, these were jobs that required men and women working at lonely posts (sometimes for months on end) to keep the American network running.

And these aren’t the only isolating jobs of the past- there are plenty of accounts of ranchers, rural mail carriers, miners, and many others struggling to work in places where human contact was few and far between.

Teletype Operator in the Telegraph Office of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad in Seligman, Arizona, 1943. Library of Congress.

In Julie Fenster’s book “Race of the Century,” an account of the 1908 New York to Paris auto race, she includes several excerpts from Italian competitors who were stunned to meet some Americans living and working in almost total isolation in rural Wyoming:

In open country, the Italians generally followed the telegraph wires, which followed the railroad tracks. Towns dotted the route: eighty or one hundred miles apart, a full day’s travel in a car at that time of year.

Over long stretches, the only signs of civilization were isolated shacks occupied by telegraph operators or railroad signalers. At one telegraph shack, otherwise surrounded by nothing but hundreds of miles of brown earth, they were intrigued to find a neat little house sitting right next door. Since the operator, an elderly man, lived in the shack, they couldn’t imagine who lived next door- who else would choose to live in such a lonely spot. They learned that a Japanese man lived in the house with five grown sons who rarely left his side. Sirtori badgered the operator, asking him how six people could possibly support themselves, without hardly leaving the house, but the old man only shrugged. He had been interested in his neighbors house at first, he said, but not anymore. They hadn’t spoken to each other in years. The Japanese man would only smile when Scarfoglio asked him how he made a living and why he lived in that desolate spot. At that, the Italians shrugged too, climbed back into the Züst, and drove away from the two shanties, sitting right next to each other, or so it seemed at first glance.

Stopping at a ranch in a tiny outpost called Wamsutter, the Züst team was greeted by cowboys, dressed in sheepskins and bandanas whipping in the wind. Though most of the west was as civilized by 1908 as a Boston suburb, with amateur basketball leagues, advertising agencies, and candy shops, the rangelands were not. In Wamsutter, at least, the ranches were in a continual state of war. At lunch, which was served in a shed, the Italians eyed their cowboy hosts, each one sitting with his gun next to his plate, a bridle hanging handy over his shoulder. At any moment of the day or night, they were ready for battle.

Farther on, the Züst stopped in front of a railroad post perched on the banks of a creek. As usual, Scarfoglio had to see who was inside. Scarfoglio, the man who complained of loneliness even when he was in the midst of a cheering crowd, couldn’t help being fascinated with the isolated signal-keepers he met along the way, people who were “sick with solitude,” at least according to him.

The woman who lived in the railroad cabin had been installed there, long before, solely to tend the signal lamp on the bridge spanning the creek. Every six months, a train stopped with her supplies, her mail, her tobacco. Other than that, she was completely cut off. “She spoke nervously,” Scarfoglio said later, “laughing with every word, interrupting herself, losing the thread of each sentence, picking it up again, and asking us the most ingenuous and puerile things.

“Do the ladies in town still wear green?” she inquired, “and black feathers?- and velvet?- and tailor-mades?” But they just didn’t know.

Shack by the Railroad near Caruthersville, Missouri, 1938. Library of Congress.

After I read this account I became more interested in other memoirs and historical accounts of these types of isolated jobs. Below are a few I’ve found, if you can think of any others let me know! I’m also wondering…what are the most isolated jobs of today? My first thought is that there are a lot of computer jobs people are doing remotely these days that could be just as lonely as the telegraph operators and rail signal workers of 100 years ago. I wonder if the isolated jobs of today will show up in memoirs one day too?

Fire tower keepers
“‘Freaks on the peaks’: the lonely lives of the last remaining forest fire lookouts,” by Rory Carroll (2016)
“The Final Days of the Fire Lookouts,” by Tom Nardi (2019)
Jack Kerouac, “Desolation Angels” (1953)
Phillip Connors, “Diary of a Fire Lookout” (2008)

Lighthouse Keepers
J. Candace and Mary Louise Clifford “Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers” (1993)
Historical Bibliography of Keepers, Assistants, and other Lighthouse Employees compiled by the U.S. Coast Guard

Railroad Workers
-“The Signal Man,” by Charles Dickens (1861)
“Sounders and Silence: Some Isolated Train-Order Stations in Fiction,” by John Stilgoe (1987)

Rural Postal Carriers
“The Early Post Office in Minnesota,” by J.W. Patterson (1966)

Prairie Farmers
“The Isolation of Life on the Prairie” by E.V. Smalley (1893)
“Is the Silence of the Great Plains to Blame for ‘Prairie Madness’?” by James Gaines (2022)


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