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Charles Burnham Leek

(Asst. Telegraph Operator at the Ashtabula Depot)


Born: Sept. 28, 1850 in Peacedale, Rhode Island. He was named after his father -

Charles B. Leek Jr. 


He had a child out of wedlock with Miss Armenia Turner, whom we do not know much about.


Married: Ida Adaline (Britt) Leek in 1886  (They had three children) Clarence E. Leek (Born Jan. 1880), Edna L. Leek (Born Oct. 1882) and Elizabeth Leek (Born Nov. or Dec. 1886).

Charles Leek Died:  May 18, 1901 in Ashtabula, Ohio - Buried in Chestnut Grove Cemetery.



During the research process for this film, a new historical figure was discovered. He was not tucked away in a public archive or listed on any website. He was hidden in the pages of an old book published in 1900, entitled the “History of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad.” He was rediscovered by film team member and railroad historian, David Tobias, while reading the old book late one night. The book was given to him by his friend and film team member Fritz Kuenzel. Needless to say we were all thrilled by the discovery, which points directly to the fact that Ashtabula County was a strong abolitionist community. In fact, Ashtabula County is the only county in Ohio that refused, and never once, sent an African American slave back to the south before or during the civil war.

Chales B. Leek's Story:

Charles Leek’s father, John L. Leek was born into slavery near Richmond, VA and freed by his master when he turned 21 years old. John L. Leek then drifted to the state of Rhode Island, where  he married Miss. E. Rodman. They had three children: Charles B. Leek, William Leek & Clara Leek (Howells). 


Charles B. Leek was born in Peacedale, Rhode Island - Sept. 28, 1850. When Charles B. Leek was three years old his father moved his family to Ashtabula, OH and opened a business near the depot waiting room called the Lake Shore Depot Restaurant and ran it for 40 years. As a young man Charles B. Leek helped his father in the restaurant and became acquainted with John P. Manning, the head of telegraph operations in Ashtabula. Mr. Manning, impressed with the young man, his outgoing personality and his eagerness to learn, offered young Charles Leek a job. On May 18, 1869, at the age of 19, Charles B. Leek started his job on the railroad as a messenger boy for the telegraph office under the supervision of John P. Manning. John P. Manning took the young man under his wing and taught him telegraph operations, which he learned in five weeks: an LS & MS Railroad record. Within two months Charles Leek was working as a full-time telegraph operator. At this point, Charles Leek became the first African American telegraph operator in America. With his new skills, Charles Leek received his first assignment in Saybrook, Ohio where he worked nights for one year. He then went on the "extras list" and worked in Geneva, Ohio for three months. Then he worked a short time at Perry, Nottingham, Dock Junction, Girard, and Conneaut, Ohio. He then worked eight months in Kingsville, Ohio. His travels helped him make connections and gain the respect of many people in Northeast, Ohio.


Charles Leek also trained two other African American men to be telegraph operators. Messrs Albert (Not sure of the spelling of the first name, it was not clear in the obituary) and Garrett Richardson. Charles Leek taught both of these men telegraph operations while he was stationed at the Saybrook, Ohio depot. This again was another breakthrough for the African American community because black people in those days did not hold prominent positions.


At some point, Charles Leek retired as a telegraph operator and returned to Ashtabula, but luck would soon come his way again. The night operator at the Ashtabula depot kept falling asleep at night and was missing important messages. He was relieved of his duties a number of times and then finally fired by John Manning. Now John Manning was in a pickle. He did not have anyone to man the telegraph at night until he remembered his faithful telegraph student Charles Leek. Immediately John Manning retained his services and Charles Leek became the night operator at the Ashtabula depot telegraph office.


The night of the Ashtabula Train Disaster, (Dec. 29, 1876) the 26-year-old Charles B. Leek stayed with John Manning at his post for fifty hours straight with no breaks or rest, sending telegraph messages to Cleveland's Union Station and receiving instructions back. During the seven days' excitement after the accident, many reporters, family members, citizens, and officials were sending telegraphs around the country reporting the news and trying to identify people lost or injured in the disaster.


People paid to send telegrams! With the high number of telegrams being sent during the disaster, at one point there was a total of $700 in receipts at the Western Union Telegraph Company in Ashtabula, a huge amount of money at that time. This cemented Charles Leek’s reputation as a valuable man to the railroad and would set the stage for his future promotion.


On Sept. 29, 1883, Charles B. Leek had a son with Miss Armenia Turner. The son was named after his father, Charles B. Leek. At this point we find no marriage record for Charles B. Leek or Armenia Turner, nor do we show the family unit ever living together in any census reports. We do find the boy listed in his father’s obituary with three other surviving children. He was listed: (Charles B. Leek now living in New York). More research needs to be done.


During Charles Leek’s time with the railroad, he never made a single mistake or cost the railroad any money. With that impressive record, when John Manning was transferred to be the head railroad agent of the Ashtabula Harbor, Charles Leek was promoted to head of telegraph operations at the Ashtabula depot. At the time no African American had ever reached to the height of employment or responsibility as he had. He also had several white operators working under him, something that was unheard of then. In 1886, at the age of 36, Charles B. Leek married Ida Adaline Britt, a white woman, and Irish immigrant. (Note: We also found another paper that listed her name as Ida Adaline Good, but we feel this was a mistake because more then one record lists his wife as Ida Adaline Britt). They had three children together, two of whom were born before they were “officially” married. The children's names were Clarence E. Leek (Born Jan. 1880), Edna L. Leek (Born Oct. 1882) and Elizabeth Leek (Born Nov. or Dec. 1886). In one article about Charles Leek, it indicated he had entered a “marriage agreement” with Ida Adaline Britt. Interracial marriage in Ohio became legal in 1887, but in some states, it would stay illegal until a Supreme Court ruling on June 12, 1967.  The people of Ashtabula truly loved and respected Charles Leek as a man of the community, and ignored what some in society of the day looked down upon.


When Charles Leek’s son Clarence was old enough to work, he trained him to be a telegraph operator. His son went on to be the operator on the Bessemer Railroad in Greenville, PA.


Charles Leek was also an extremely gifted and talented composer of music and played a number of instruments including the violin. He even gave lessons to the locals. People said he was a great teacher and composer. (It would be wonderful if we could find any published music of his?)


He was also the conductor of "Leek's Orchestra" and was the leader of it for 20-years. It later became "Richardson's Orchestra" possibly after Charles Leek's death. He also played with the Commonwealth Minstrels in Ashtabula, but from my research, I think he only did this as a part-time player for them on an as-need basis.


On March 1st, 1900, Charles Leek took a leave of absence from the telegraph office for health reasons. He worked in the restaurant his father (John L. Leek) had left him after his sudden death just two years earlier. At the time of his father’s death, Charles Leek made the comment that he hoped when it was his time to go, he would die as his father did. Charles B. Leek never returned to the telegraph office, and instead chose to work in the restaurant because he felt it was better for his health.


In 1901, the new Ashtabula Depot was being built and Charles Leek was hoping to take charge of the new restaurant that was being built there, but this would never be. At 8:30 PM on Saturday, May 18th, 1901 at the age of 51, Charles Leek was leaving the restaurant at the Ashtabula Depot, returning home with his wife in a carriage when he suddenly collapsed of a heart attack and died before medical aid could reach him.


(Note: One Obituary has his death on May 4th, but I feel this date is wrong because the date of May 18th, was listed in three other articles with more details of his death.) Charles B. Leek had one surviving brother and one surviving sister listed in his obituary: Mr. William Leek and Mrs. Clara (Leek) Howells. They also supposedly lived in Ashtabula.


Charles B. Leek is currently resting in the Chestnut Grove Cemetery in Ashtabula, OH.


Further facts and research compiled by Len Brown, Executive Producer of the documentary film “Engineering Tragedy: The Ashtabula Train Disaster.”


Thank you David Tobias of Ashtabula, Ohio for rediscovering Charles B. Leek and his story during your research! He would have been another lost figure in American History if it were not for you.





Original wooden depot building Charles Leek & James Manning worked at.

Grave Maker of Charles Leek at Chestnut Grove Cemetery, Ashatbula, OH.

Commonwealth Minstrels, Ashtabula OH.

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