LOCOMOTIVE engine running is one of the most modern of trades, consequently its acquirement has not been controlled by the exact methods associated with ancient guild apprenticeships. Nevertheless, graduates to this business do not take charge of the iron horse without the full meed of experience and skill requisite for performing their duties successfully. The man who runs a locomotive engine on our crowded railroads has so much valuable property, directly and indirectly, under his care, so much of life and limb depending upon his skill and ability, that railroad companies are not likely to intrust the position to those with a suspicion of incompetency resting upon them.

In the matter of speed alone, there is much to learn before a man can safely run a locomotive. During daylight a novice will generally be half out in estimating speed; and his judgment is merely wild guess-work, regulated more by the condition of the track than by the velocity his train is reaching. On a smooth piece of track, he thinks he is making twenty-five miles an hour, when forty miles is about the correct speed: then he strikes a rough portion of the road-bed, and concludes he is tearing along at thirty miles an hour, when he is scarcely reaching twenty miles; since the first lurchy spot made him shut off twenty per cent of the steam. At night the case is much worse, especially when the weather proves unfavorable. On a wild, stormy night, the accumulated experience of years on the footboard, which trains a man to judge of speed by sound of the revolving-wheels, and to locate his position between stations from a tree, a shrub, a protruding bank, or any other trifling object that would pass unnoticed by a less cultivated eye, is all needed to aid an engineer in working along with unvaried speed without jolt or tumult. On such a night, a man strange to the business can not work a locomotive, and exercise proper control over its movements. He may place the reverse lever-latch in a certain notch, and keep the steam on; he can regulate the pump after a fashion, and watch that the water shall not get too low in the boiler; he can shut off in good season while approaching stations, and blunder into each depot by repeatedly applying steam; but he exerts no control over the train, knows nothing of what the engine is doing, and is constantly liable to break the train in two. A diagram of his speed would fluctuate as irregularly as the profile lines of a bluffy country. This is where a machinist’s skill does not apply to locomotive-running until it is supplemented by an intimate knowledge of speed, of facility at handling a train, and keeping the couplings intact, and of insight into the best methods of economizing steam. These are essentials which every man should possess before he is put in charge of a locomotive on the road. The great fund of practical knowledge which stamps the first-class engineer, is amassed by general labor during years of vigilant observation on the footboard, amidst many changes of fair and foul weather.

As passing through the occupation of fireman was the only way men could obtain practical knowledge of engine-running before taking charge, railroad officials all over the world gradually fell into the way of regarding that as the proper channel for men to traverse before reaching the right-hand side of the locomotive.

As the pay for firemen rules moderately good, even when compared with other skilled labor; and as the higher position of engineer looms like a beacon not far ahead, there is always a liberal choice of good men to begin work as firemen. Most railroad companies recognize the importance of exercising judgment and discretion in selecting the men who are to run as their future engineers. Sobriety, industry, and intelligence are essential attributes in a fireman who is going to prove a success in his calling. Lack in any one of these qualities will quickly prove fatal to a fireman’s prospects of advancement Sobriety is of the first importance, because a man who is not strictly temperate should not be tolerated for a moment about a locomotive, since he is a source of danger to himself and others; industry is needed to lighten the burden of a fireman’s duties, for oftentimes they are arduous beyond the I conception of strangers; and wanting in the third quality, intelligence, a man can never be a good man in the wide sense of the word, since one deficient in mental tact never rises higher than a human machine. An intelligent fireman may be ignorant of the scientific nomenclature relating to combustion, but he will perfectly familiar with all the practical phenomena connected with the economical generation of steam. Such a man does not imagine that he has reached the limit of locomotive knowledge when he understands how to keep an engine hot, and can shine up the jacket. Every trip reveals something new about his art, every day opens his vision to strange facts about the wonderful machine he is learning to manage. And so, week by week, he goes on his way, attending cheerfully to his duties, and accumulating the knowledge that will eventually make him a first-class locomotive engineer.

A youth entirely unacquainted with all the operations which a fireman is called upon to perform, find the first trip a terribly arduous ordeal, even with some previous experience of railroad work. When his first trip introduces him to the locomotive and to railroad life at the same time, the day is certain to be a record of personal tribulation. To ride for ten or twelve hours on an engine for the first time, standing on one’s feet and subject to the shaking motion, is intensely tiresome, even if a man has no work to do. But when he has to ride during that period, and in addition has to shovel six or eight tons of coal, most of which has to be handled twice, the job proves no sinecure. Then, the posture of his body while doing work is new; he is expected and required to pitch coal upon certain exact spots, through a small door, while the engine is swinging about so that he can scarcely keep his feet; his hands get blistered with the shovel, and his eyes grow dazzled from the resplendent light of the fire. Then come the additional side duties of taking water, shaking the grates, cleaning the ash-pan, or even the fire, where bad coal is used, filling oil-cans, and trimming lamps, to say nothing of polishing and keeping things clean and tidy. By the time all these duties are attended to, the young fireman does not find a great deal of leisure to admire the passing scenery.

A great many idle young fellows, ignorant of railroad affairs, imagine that a fireman’s principal work consists in ringing the bell, and showing himself off conspicuously in coming into stations. They look upon the business as being of the heroic kind, and strive to get taken on as firemen. If a youth of this kind happens to succeed, and starts out on a run of one hundred and fifty miles with every car a heavy engine will pull stuck on behind, his visions of having reached something easy are quickly dispelled.

Like nearly every other occupation, that of fireman has its drawbacks to counterbalance its advantages; and the drawbacks weigh heaviest during the first ten days. The man who enters the business under the delusion that he can lead a life of semi-idleness must change his views, or be will prove a failure. The man who becomes a fireman with a spirit ready and willing to overcome all difficulties, with a cheerful determination to do his duty with all his might, is certain of success; and to such a man the work becomes easy after a few weeks’ practice.

Practice, combined with intelligent observation, gradually makes a man familiar with the best styles of firing, as adapted to all varieties of engines; and gets to understand intimately all the qualities of coal to be met with, good, bad, and indifferent. As experience widens, his fire management is regulated accord with the kind of coal on hand, the steam properties of the engine, the weight of the train, the character of the road and of the weather. Firing, with all the details connected with it, is the central figure of his work, the object of pre-eminent concern; but a good man does not allow this to prevent him from attending regularly and exactly to his remaining routing duties.

There is a familiar adage among railroad men, that good fireman is certain to make a good engineer; and it rarely fails to come out true. To hear some fireman of three months’ standing talk, a stranger might conclude that they knew more about engine running than the oldest engineer in the district. These are not the good firemen. Good firemen learn their own business with the humility born of earnestness and they do no undertake to instruct others in matters beyond their own knowledge. It is the man who goes into the heart of a subject, who understands how much there is to learn, and is therefore modest in parading his own acquirements, that succeeds.

When a fireman has mastered his duties sufficiently to keep them going smoothly, he begins to find time for watching the operations of the engineer. He notes how the boiler is fed; and, upon his knowledge of the engineer’s practice in this respect, much of his firing is regulated. The different methods of using the steam by engineers, so that trains can be taken over the road with the least expenditure of coal, are engraven upon the memory of the observant fireman. Many of the acquirements which commend a good fireman for promotion are learned by imperceptible degrees, — the knowledge of speed, for instance, which enables a man to tell how fast a train is running on all kinds of track, and under all conditions of weather. There would be no use in one strange to train service going out for a few runs to learn speed. He might learn nearly all other requisites of engine running before he was able to judge within ten miles of how fast the train was going under adverse circumstances. The same may be said of the sound which indicates how an engine is working. It requires an experienced ear to detect the false note which indicates that something is wrong. Amidst the mingled sounds produced by an engine and train hammering over a steel track, the novice hears nothing but a medley of confused noises, strange and meaningless as are the harmonies of an opera to an untutored savage. But the trained ear of an engineer can distinguish a strange sound amidst all the tumult of thundering exhaust, screaming steam, and clashing steel, as readily as an accomplished musician can a false note in a many-voiced chorus. Upon this ability to detect growing defects which pave the way to disaster, depends much of an engineer’s chances of success in his calling. This kind of skill is not obtained few weeks’ industry: it is the gradual accumulation months and years of patient labor.

As his acquaintance with the handling and ordinary working of the locomotive extends, the aspiring man learns all about the packing of glands, and they should be kept so as to run to the best advantage: he displays an active interest in every thing relating to lubrication, from the packing of a box-cellar to the regulating of a rod-cup. When the engineer is round keying up rods, or doing other necessary work about his engine, the ambitious fireman should give a helping hand, and thereby become familiar with the operations that are likely to be of service when he is required draw upon his own resources for doing the same work.

Of late years the art of locomotive construction been so highly developed, the amount of strain and shocks to which each working-part is subjected has been so well calculated and provided against, that breakages are really very rare on roads where the motive-power is kept in first-class condition. Consequently, firemen gain comparatively small insight on the road, into the best and quickest methods of disconnecting engines, or of fixing up mishaps promptly, so that a train, may not be delayed longer than is absolutely necessary. A fireman must get this information beyond the daily routine of his experience. He must search for the knowledge among those competent to give it. Persistent inquiry among the men posted on these matters; observation amidst machine-shop and round-house operations; and careful study of locomotive construction, so that a clear insight into the physiology of the machine may be obtained, — will prepare one to meet accidents, armed with the knowledge which vanquishes all difficulties. Reflecting on probable or possible mishaps, and calculating what is best to be done under all contingencies that can be conceived, prepare to act promptly when a breakdown occurs.

In the method of promotion of firemen, considerable diversity of practice is followed by the different railroads. On certain roads, with well-established business and little fluctuation of traffic, firemen begin work on switch engines, and are promoted by seniority, or by selection through the various grades of freight trains, thence to passenger service, from whence they emerge as incipient engineers. A more common practice, and one almost invariably followed in the West, is for firemen to begin as extra men, in place of firemen who are sick or lying off. From firing extra, they get advanced, if found competent and deserving, to regular engines. Then, step by step, they go ahead to the best paying runs, till their turn for being "set up" comes round. Passenger engines are not fired by any but experienced men, but the oldest firemen do not always claim passenger-runs. For learning the business of engine-running, freight service is considered most valuable; and ambitious firemen prefer the hard work of a freight engine on this account.

When a fireman has obtained the experience that recommends him for promotion, on nearly all well-regulated roads he is subjected to some form of examination before being put in charge of an engine. In some cases this examination is quite thorough. The tendency to require firemen to pass such an ordeal is extending, and its beneficial effect upon the men is unquestioned. The usual form of examination is, for officers connected with the locomotive department to question the candidate for promotion on matters relating to the management of the locomotive, and how he would proceed in the event of certain mishaps befalling the engine. Parties belonging to the traffic department propound questions relating to road-rules, train-rights understanding of time-card, and so on.

A common practice among progressive railroad companies is to subject their firemen to an examination, with questions and answers similar to those given Chapter XXVII of this book. The questions and answers are given to show to the candidate for promotion the scope of knowledge he is expected to possess. The prevailing practice in carrying on the examination is to vary the questions enough to find out that the fireman has not merely committed the words of the answer to memory without understanding the subject. A careful study of this book will give a candidate for promotion good sound knowledge of all the questions that will be asked, and will enable him to prove to the examiners that his acquaintance with the working of the locomotive is sufficient for dealing with all difficulties likely to arise.

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