Mattie Ma Kiley
Born: 01 March 1880
Died: 30 July 1970
The development of commercial telegraph networks in the mid-19th century was important in all kinds of long-distance communication. Nowhere was the telegraph's significance more obvious than the railroads, which depended on instant communication to operate safely. For many years, the railroads depended on skilled operators to run the telegraphs, most of whom were men. But when Ma Kiley first tried her hand operating a telegraph key, she learned that she possessed the skills that would allow her to succeed as a railroad operator. Kiley’s subsequent career in railroad telegraphy would make her a symbol of both the American working class and women’s participation in the 20th century labor movement.
Ma Kiley was born Mattie Collins on 1 March 1880 in Atascosa, Texas. Mattie’s parents divorced when she was a young girl, and she was obliged to help support her family. While working at a boarding hotel in Del Rio, Texas, Mattie was introduced to telegrapher Henry Hall, who suggested that she consider a career in railroad telegraphy. Hall taught Mattie the basics, and in 1902 she received her first job as a railroad telegrapher in Mexico. Although only twenty-two, Mattie had already been divorced twice and faced the hardships of raising her young son by herself. Even with all this responsibility, Mattie was able to master Morse Code and telegraph operation. As she gained fame in the telegraph operator community, Mattie became known as “Ma Kiley,” adopting the last name of her second husband. Kiley traveled through Texas and Mexico moving from railroad to railroad, working as a telegrapher, station operator, and dispatcher.
Although perhaps the best known woman telegrapher; Ma Kiley was not the first woman to enter the field. Women had made successful careers for themselves in the railroad industry from as early as the 1830s, but they were vastly outnumbered by male operators.
Ma Kiley’s career lasted forty years until she retired in 1942. In 1950, Railroad Magazine published her autobiographical story, called “The Bug and I.” In it, she revealed her cherished relationship to the profession and the obstacles, both personal and professional, that she was able to overcome during her life’s work. Ma Kiley spent the remainder of her life in California, where she died on 30 July 1970.