Today’s Mangled Yet Truly Morbid Fact!
On locomotives, while the conductor may have been officially in charge, it was the engineer who actually made the train go, an arrangement that often led to intense rivalry between the two men. According to one former railroader, the unwritten law of railroading was that the conductor’s authority ceased at the back end of the tender – that is, at the rear end of the engine and the permanently coupled car that carried its coal and water. In the cab of the locomotive it was the swaggering hotshot known as the engineer who was boss. This “engine runner” (also called a “hoghead” or “hogger” or even “throttle jockey”) was the object of the most intense popular fascination – it’s been said that even Sigmund Freud dreamed of becoming a railroad engineer.
Assisting the engineer – and stationed on the left side of the locomotive cab, as opposed to the engine runner’s right-side post – was the train’s fireman. Also known as the “tallow pot” (since it was his responsibility to grease the engine’s valves), he was the man charged with keeping the locomotive well stoked with coal – a job that tended to leave its performer “so black that his best friends would not know him when washed up.” On a particularly fast or difficult run, at least on engines without mechanical stokers, the fireman could spend virtually his entire long shift “shoveling real estate,” or loading coal from the tender into the firebox. It was overall a thankless, exhausting, and poorly paid job, its only compensation being that it served as an apprenticeship for the far more desirable position of engineer.
The real yeomen of the train service were the brakemen, of which there were usually two or more per train, and the switchmen, essentially brakemen who worked in the confines of a single rail yard. Until the widespread adoption of safety appliances such as air brakes and automatic couplers in the 1880s and ’90s, the brakeman’s job was notoriously dangerous. Early “brakies” had to crawl onto the roofs of moving trains, in all kinds of weather and in any kind of terrain, to apply and release each car’s individual hand brake; when assembling trains in a rail yard, they had to stand between converging cars and deftly slip a metal pin into the primitive link-and-pin couplers. Mistakes were frequent and their consequences often dire. “What’re brakemen for anyway,” a mangled veteran once complained to an early railroad chronicler. “Nothin’ but fodder for cars ‘n’ engines to eat up.” This was not an exaggeration; it was a rare brakeman who still had all ten of his fingers.
Icy train roofs and winding rails? No worries!
Mind those fingers!
Even with the introduction of ever-safer equipment and practices, steam railroading remained an occupation with on-the-job casualty rates that would be unthinkable today – not just for brakemen but for nearly everyone on the payroll. Some of the busier rail yards in the American system, at least in the 1870s, were virtual slaughterhouses, seeing three to five men killed per week. (According to one yard switchman, his sister kept a clean bedsheet reserved at all times, “for the express purpose of wrapping up my mangled remains.”) Even as late as 1907, one out of every eight trainmen suffered serious injury every year. In a difficult mountain area like the Cascade Division, the odds of avoiding casualty were even slimmer. Railroading was, in sum, “a miserable living gained by the hardest kind of work, with almost a certainty of being crippled, or meeting death by some horrible means.” The fact that there was usually no shortage of applicants for most railroad jobs is, under the circumstances, remarkable – a tribute to the industry’s lingering prestige.
Culled from: The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche
Wretched Recommendations: Avalanche Edition!
The last couple of facts (and several in the future) were culled from my latest read: The White Cascade. Here’s my review of it, if you care.
The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche
by Gary Krist
The White Cascade takes us back to a different America: an America before the automobile, where railroad companies held incredible power as the primary transit and shipping vessels in our vast country. The locomotive, more than any other invention, opened up the United States, allowing for relatively easy cross-country moves to otherwise extremely remote locations along the West Coast. And the Great Northern Railway was the company that opened up the Pacific Northwest by running a track directly over the imposing Cascade Mountains.
The Great Northern was the creation of entrepreneur James J. Hill and was the only major American railroad system that was created entirely from private funds rather than government land grants. And the man who was superintendent of the Great Northern’s Cascade Division in 1910 was James H. O’Neill. He was a born railroader that had been working for the Great Northern since he was a 13-year-old water boy. He was directly responsible for the fate of all trains that traveled through the hazardous Cascades.
In February, 1910 two trains left Spokane on their way to Seattle via the Cascade route. Great Northern had a fleet of rotary snow plows – immense trains that could easy clear away most of the snow drifts along the tracks – and a wealth of experience in fighting the winter weather that would otherwise cripple the line. There was little concern when the trains left Spokane in the midst of a typical February snowstorm. However, along the way the storm gained strength until it piled on 11 feet of snow in one day. The rotary snowplows became overwhelmed and stuck at various points along the track and, without them, the trains had to stop near a the little railroad town of Wellington, Washington.
While the passengers were stuck, O’Neill was kept up every night trying to get the snowplows moving again. He sent troops of men in to dig out the plows but as soon as one would get dug out, an avalanche would bury another portion of the track and they’d have to start all over again clearing debris and snow.
The passengers sat for a day, then two days, then three days, then four. By the fourth day, the minor annoyances of boredom and missed engagements began to be superseded by fear as they heard avalanches in the mountains around them. The passengers suggested that the trains be moved from their vulnerable position along the tracks below bare, fire-ravaged slopes to a tunnel a few hundred yards away. However, the engineer explained that they would be unable to heat the cars in the tunnels due to the certainty of asphyxiation. Despite the pleas of the most fearful of the passengers, the trains would stay put.
On the sixth night, March 1, 1910, the snowstorm changed to a violent, warmer thunderstorm. In the darkness of the early morning, amid violent thunder, lightning, and rain, the snowfield above the train collapsed sending an enormous wall of snow down the hill. The avalanche engulfed the trains and sent them tumbling into the canyons below. Ninety-six passengers and crew would die in what became known as the Wellington Train Disaster.
Krist does an excellent job of retelling the various aspects of the story, from the lives of O’Neill, Hill, and many of the doomed passengers, to the difficulties of train travel through the Cascades, to the legal battles that dogged Great Northern after the disaster. When all is said and done, you’re left sympathizing with beleaguered O’Neill and yet feeling like perhaps there was something more that could have been done to protect the passengers. The legal decisions were just as varied, with some holding the railway responsible, and others considering it an “act of God” that was handled as adeptly as possible.
Today, the town of Wellington and the wreckage of the trains are long gone, but a disused railway tunnel and immense cement snow shelters that were built over the rails in the years following the disaster to prevent a repeat still stand as memorials to a train that sat in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Read about more ill-advised adventures at The Library Eclectica!