Up until the about the mid 1950's, railroaders were a breed apart from the rest of us. They controlled powerful machines, they traveled to far off and exotic places, and they had the respect and admiration of every little boy - and most grown men. The closest modern day job to hold the same admiration and esteem is probably that of airline flight crew, with the pilot having the same status as the engineer of old.
The trainmen were part of a fraternity that worked their way up the ladder. They lived dangerous lives. In one month in 1887, 34 railroaders died in on-the-job accidents. That is a fraction more than one a day! In the entire year of 1888, 2,070 railroaders were killed on the job. Another 20,148 were injured. Be that as it may, railroaders scorned other professions, for theirs was the adventure of the age. Here then, is a description of the various jobs these iron men of Olympus held when our grandparents, great grandparents and even great great grandparents were taming Nebraska.
This job probably had the sharpest contrast to that of conductor. There were two types of Firemen. The one learning the trade, called the Switch-engine Fireman, who worked in yard and never left on a traveling or "Road" Engines, and the Road Fireman, who traveled with the freight or passenger trains. The fireman's main job was to shovel coal into the firebox of the engine. Early engines burned from 40 to 200 pounds of coal per mile, depending on the quality of the coal and on the engineer. Another job of the Fireman was to keep the cylinders on the drive wheels oiled while the train was underway. Prior to 1888, this could only be done by climbing out on the running boards and creeping forward alongside the hot boilers and pour tallow on the valves. This duty ended when a device was invented that mixed oil with the water that was turning into steam. This allowed a self-lubrication to take place in the drive piston cylinder and all of the related valves. The fireman new that if he did his job well, in about three years he would move up to Hostler, and then to Switch-engine Engineer before becoming a journeyman Engineer. The Fireman's job paid $2.40 a day.
Prior to about 1900, Flagmen were called Freight Conductors. The Flagman is the senior brakeman. He had worked his way up the ladder by being competent, avoiding being killed, and he had to be able to read, as he would pick new orders for the train at various stops along the way. He may also be responsible for collecting fares from passengers that would ride in the inexpensive boxcars on the freight trains. If, or maybe I could more accurately say when, a train wreck occurred, or when a train was required to stop for some unusual reason, and would be blocking the main set of tracks, the Flagman's job was to set flares and warning devices along the track in the direction of any expected train, then they were to station themselves at a visible point as far down the tracks as possible to be able to warn any oncoming train of the dangers ahead.
Railway Mail Clerk
The Station Agent was the man in charge of the railroad station. In smaller towns, this job also included being ticket agent, baggage handler and telegraph operator. One station agent in a small town described his primary job as learning "...the art of killing time while being lonely." The high points of the day would come just before the arrival of the morning train and again just before the arrival of the evening train (which would be headed in the opposite direction of the morning train). Usually, the whole town would turn out to see if anyone was arriving or departing the train. Enterprising farm wives would show up to sell fresh eggs and produce to the train crews and passengers. This was the break in an other wise boring day for the lonely station agent. [Note - on the even more lonely "whistle stop" locations out on the plains, the long periods of shear boredom could be interspersed with periods of shear terror - see the job description of telegraph operator below for a story about an Indian raid at one whistle stop]. Some Station Agents found constructive ways to manage their slack time. When my grandfather was station agent in Auburn and Brock (Nemaha County). During the depression he made use of this slack time by planting a huge garden for the community on the station grounds. Since this was during the depression, it not only gave him something to do, but it fed many hungry folks, as the produce was free for the picking. He continued this practice until his death in 1953.
These brave souls worked in the railroad yards, hooking cars together, sometimes while the cars were moving. From the earliest days until about the late 1870's or very early 1880's, railroad cars were hooked together with a link that resembled a giant chain link thirteen inches long. One end of the link would be placed into a slot in the iron drawbar of a car, then fastened with a long iron pin thrust through a hole in the drawbar. The same operation was now repeated on the car being connected to the first car. To make things worse, not all drawbars were the same height above the tracks. To accomodate this fact, some bent links, known as gooseneek links, were kept on hand to link drawbars of differring heights. Many switchmen were killed trying to link together two cars of differring heights, when the bumper of one car would slide over the bumber of another car while the switchman was in between the cars trying to link them together. After automatic couplers were invented, the switchman's main job was having the siding and switching tracks in the correct position.
The telegraph oeprator's job was to keep the trains on schedule, notifying the train crews of any problems or unexpected trains that may be ahead of them. They also would send warning messages to other depots up and down the line, warning of such things as run-away trains or Indians on the war path. One story is told by Railroad Historian Cy Warman of a station agent/telegraph operator stationed at a whistle stop in Nebraska known as Wood River. The only people that lived at or near the depot were the station agent, a settler named Bankers, his wife, their baby daughter, and a school teacher named Emma. The depot was little more than a shack that was built with double walls and four inches of sand in between to act as insulation. Inside was the agent's bunk, his telegraph key, a pot-bellied stove and an iron safe. One day, a friendly Pawnee Indian stopped by and warned that a Sioux war party was in the area. The Bankers' and the school teacher knew they weren't safe in their cabins, so they hid in a livestock car that was on a siding. They asked the agent to join them, but he refused, saying he had to stay at the telgraph key. He hammered out a warning to Ogallala, 165 miles west. The war party attacked after dark, burning the settlers' cabins and attacking the depot. The agent took refuge behind the iron safe and fought from there. One warrior did climb into the cattle car, but Mr. Bankers clubbed him with a rifle butt. When the battle seemed all but lost, a relief train running without lights arrived with Army officers and Pawnee scouts and routed the Sioux. All of the settlers lived, but the station agent had taken a Sioux bullet that shattered his leg. The happy ending to the story is the fact that later on, the conductor of the relief train married Emma the school teacher!
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