Equipment belonging to the beloved telegraph operator is back in Stillwater – Twin Cities


Those who traveled by train or steamboat from Stillwater in the first half of the 20th century likely bought their tickets from Joseph “Papa Joe” Carroll.

Carroll, who worked at Stillwater Union Depot for nearly five decades, was 105 when he died on March 11, 1979.

In addition to being the local ticket agent, Carroll operated the depot’s telegraph machine. A Morse code expert, he shared the joys and sorrows of his clients by telegram from 1903 to 1948.

When the Union Depot closed in 1954, Carroll, then 81, received the telegraph machine, a training machine, an instruction manual, and other items.

After Carroll’s death, the equipment was passed on to his son, Mark, who died in 2003.

Joseph “Papa Joe” Carroll, pictured here in 1954, worked as a telegrapher at Stillwater Union Depot for decades. The equipment he used was donated to the Washington County Historical Society in July 2022. (Pioneer Press)

Today, the equipment is owned by the Washington County Historical Society, courtesy of Mark Carroll’s five children.

“We wanted him to stay in Stillwater,” said Jodi Anderson, one of Carroll’s daughters. “That’s what Grandpa would have wanted.”

When Joseph Carroll acquired the equipment, his son mounted the battery-operated telegraph machine on the arm of his favorite chair, said Anderson, who lives in Houlton, Wis.

“He was ticking, ticking, ticking on the machine like he was still at work,” she said. “He never forgot how to use it. He said he could have returned to work the next day. He didn’t send messages to anyone; he was just doing this to stay in practice.

Carroll, known to everyone as “Papa Joe,” was one of those people “who just grabs the hearts of the whole community,” said Brent Peterson, the historical society’s executive director. “To receive these (gifts) is to keep his memory alive for another generation.”

There’s even a rooftop restaurant — Papa’s — named after him at the Water Street Inn in downtown Stillwater, Peterson said.


Born in 1873 in Sainte-Flavie, Quebec, Carroll grew up speaking only French. When he was 12, he was sent to Minneapolis to visit an uncle — a visit that lasted three years, according to Peterson.

During this time he attended school, learned to speak English, and worked part-time at the Bemis Bros. bag factory. and delivered bicycle messages for Western Union.

Back in Quebec, he learned telegraphy at the station near his home. He then worked as a telegraph operator for the Great Northern Railroad in Stanley, ND, Fort Benton, Mont., and Butte, Mont.

Carroll was fired in 1896 and returned to the Twin Cities to work at a sawmill. Within a year, however, he was working as a telegraph operator for the Northern Pacific Railroad. It was stationed at Carlton, Duluth, Cloquet, Rutledge, Hinckley, Rush City and White Bear Lake before landing at Stillwater in 1903.

“I sold train tickets by the hundreds and steamboat tickets all over the world,” Carroll told the Stillwater Gazette in 1965. “I realized so much that by looking at someone I could say what he wanted. I liked to take them in hand and do everything I could for them, except put them on the train.

As part of his job, Carroll handled the visas and passports of his clients. He told the Gazette that he “went through a lot of red tape to get a man back to Italy to marry his old darling and bring her back to the States.”

“When he got back there, his old girlfriend didn’t look so good and he wanted to marry someone else,” Carroll said. “We…really sweated blood before he came home with the second one.”


The telegraph equipment that belonged to Joseph "daddy joe" Carroll was donated to the Washington County Historical Society in Stillwater.  Carroll, who died in 1979 at the age of 105, was a long-time ticket agent and telegraph operator at Stillwater Union Depot.  (Courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society)
Telegraphy equipment that belonged to Joseph “Papa Joe” Carroll was donated to the Washington County Historical Society in Stillwater. (Courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society)

Carroll and his wife, Margaret, and their 10 children moved to a second-floor apartment in Union Depot in 1936. They lived there until his retirement.

At age 97, Carroll wrote a book, “Exploring the Great Northwest and the St. Croix Valley.” In 1973, at the age of 100, he was named Grand Marshal of Stillwater’s Lumberjack Days Parade.

Anderson recalled her grandfather rolling down a hill at his high school graduation party in 1978. “He was 105,” she said. “He liked to be the center of attention. He liked to stand on chairs, dance and sing. He drank a glass of cognac every day.

Instead of smoking a cigar or smoking a pipe, Carroll would “cut a cigar in half and put it in his pipe and smoke it through the pipe,” she said. “I don’t know why he did that.”

Carroll never learned to drive a car, she said.

‘He taught telegraphy at the Quonset huts (in Houlton) and he used to walk across the bridge (Stillwater Lift) all the time,’ she said. “Even when he was 100, he was walking up and down the Main Street stairs.”

Anderson’s uncle, Bernard Carroll, suffered from tuberculosis and was quarantined on an island in the middle of the St. Croix River, she said. “My grandfather was walking from downtown Stillwater to where the Boom site is,” she said. “Then he would row a canoe down the river to bring supplies to my uncle. He walked a lot. He was still walking.

Carroll lived in his South First Street home until his death. When he was 104, he spent a month at Maple Manor Care Center in Stillwater, but he wasn’t happy being in a nursing home, she said.

“He was like, ‘When is Mark coming with the machine’ – he called the car a machine – ‘to take me home? I have to get out of here. There are too many old people here,” she said. “He was 104 and he thought there were too many old people in the nursing home.”

Carroll’s gear will be part of a rotating exhibit at the Washington County Heritage Center in Stillwater. The center opened last fall.


Joseph “Papa Joe” Carroll’s telegraph equipment will be on display at the Washington County Heritage Center in Stillwater until September 30. The center located at 1862 S. Greeley St. is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $8 for adults, $3 for children 6-17, and free for children 5 and under. Members of the Washington County Historical Society enjoy free admission to all WCHS historic sites. For more information, contact the Historical Society at 651-439-5956 or email [email protected]


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