THE hill which our train encounters nearly at the beginning of the journey is the Pons Asinorum of the division. The style in which it is ascended shows what kind of an engine pulls the train, and it tests in a searching manner the ability of the engineer. Our engine has got over the summit successfully; and the succeeding descent, is accomplished with comfort to the engine, and security to the train. And so the rest of the trip goes on. The train speeds merrily along through green, rolling prairies, away past leafy woodlands and flowery meadows: it cuts a wide swath through long cornfields, startles into wakefulness the denizens of sleek farmhouses, and raises a rill of excitement as it bounds through quiet villages. But every change of scene, every varied state of road-bed, —level track, ascending or descending grade, — is prepared for in advance by our engine-men. Their engine is found in proper time for each occasion, as it requires the exertion of great power, or permits the conservation of the machine's energy. Over long stretches of undulatory track the train speeds; each man attending to his work so closely that the index of the steam-gauge is almost stationary, and the water does not vary an inch in the glass. This is accomplished by regular firing and uniform boiler-feeding, two operations which must go together to produce creditable results.

There are few stops to be made, and these are mostly at water-stations. Here the fireman is ready to take in water with the least possible delay; and, while be is doing so, the engineer hurries around the engine, feeling every box and bearing, and dropping a fresh supply of oil where necessary. And, while going thus around, he glances searchingly over the engine, his eye seeking to detect absent nuts, or missing bolts or pins: any thing wrong may now be observed and remedied.

At the coaling-stations the fireman finds time to take out the ash-pan, and the engineer bestows upon the engine and tender a leisurely inspection besides oiling around.

Next to studying the idiosyncrasies of his engine our model engineer prides himself on his intimate acquaintance with the details of the time-table. The practice becoming so common on our best-regulated railroads, of examining candidates for promotion to, the position of engineer on their knowledge of the time table, has a very salutary effect upon aspiring firemen, and induces them to acquire familiarity with the rules governing train-service, which they never forget.

Our engineer is well posted on all the rules relating to the movement of trains; his mind's eye can glance over the division, and note meeting or passing points; and-the relative rights of each train stand, blazoned forth in bold relief before his mental vision. This knowledge regulates his conduct while nearing stations; for, although every stopping-point is approached cautiously, those places where trains may be expected to be found, are run into with vigilant carefulness, the train being under perfect control. Depending blindly upon conductors and brakemen to keep safe control of the train at dangerous points is opening the gate of trouble. An engineer is jointly responsible with the conductor for the safety of his train, and he should make certain that every precaution is taken to get over the road without accident.

Running past stations where trains are standing sidetracked, requires to be done with special care, particularly in the case of passenger trains; for, at such points, there is danger of persons getting injured by stepping inadvertently past a car or a building, in front of a moving train. This peril is guarded against by reducing the speed as far as practicable, after whistling to warn all concerned, by ringing the engine-bell, and keeping a sharp lookout from the cab.

Rules framed by the officers of our railways for the guidance of employees are always safe to follow as far as they go, and neglect of their behests will soon entail disaster. But circumstances sometimes arise in train-service to which no rule applies, and the men in charge must follow the dictates of their judgment. This happens often, especially on new roads; and the men who prove themselves capable of wrestling successfully with unusual occurrences, of overcoming difficulties suddenly encountered, are nature's own railroaders. It is this practice of acting judiciously and promptly, without the aid of codified directions, which gives to American railroad men their striking individuality, known to the men of no other nation following the same calling. European railway servants carry ponderous books of rules and regulations in their pockets, and these rules are expected to furnish guidance for every contingency; so, when an engine-driver or guard gets into an unusual dilemma, be turns over the pages of his rule-book for counsel and direction. The American engineer or conductor under similar circumstances takes the safe side, and goes ahead.

For many years to come, the great majority of our railroads will be single tracks, as they now are. The operating of single-track roads is only done safely by the exercise of unsleeping vigilance on the part of all concerned in the movement of trains. Delays sometimes occur through mistaken excess of caution, as in the case of an engineer in Iowa, who mistook the lantern of a benighted farmer for the headlight of an approaching train, and backed to the nearest telegraph station; or that of a conductor in Michigan, who sidetracked his train to let the evening star pass. Such mistakes make pleasantry among train-men, but all acknowledge that it is better to err on the safe side than to run recklessly into danger.

On this subject the remarks of Kirkman are strongly applicable. Writing on the "intelligent discrimination exercised by train men," he says, "It is observable in the practical application of the system under which trains are operated, that the employees connected with the train service do not always attach the significance to specific signals or rules that would naturally be supposed. Especially is this so in reference to use of signals. Their acquaintance with the every-day working of trains teaches them that allowance must always be made for the ignorance, stupidity, or thoughtlessness of employees; and they strive constantly to protect themselves, and the passengers and property intrusted to their care, from the fatal effects that would oftentimes follow a blind obedience to the orders given them. The engineer of an irregular train that is running under special telegraphic instructions at the rate of sixty miles an hour, can not depend implicitly upon the accuracy of the reports he receives in reference to the location and intention of other trains. His orders are to proceed. He has been trained to obey. Outwardly he is unconcerned, but inwardly be is filled with apprehension; and, as he proceeds on his course, he scrutinizes the track with an intensity and a sagacity that never wearies."

"The anxiety upon the part of the engineer is not occasioned by fear for his personal safety, though that doubtless has its influence; but it is the knowledge born of observation and experience, that blind adherence to orders, no matter what the circumstances, or from whom emanating, may not only cost him his life, but may involve the lives of many others, — the lives of people believing in him, and trusting in him, and as unconscious of danger as they are helpless to avoid it."

Next in importance to knowing well how to manage the engine, and intimate familiarity with the time-table and its rules, comes acquaintance with the road. In the light of noonday, when all nature seems at peace, when every object can be seen distinctly, the work of running over a division is as easy as child's play. But when thick darkness covers the earth, when the fitful gleam of the headlight shines on a mass of rain so dense that it seems like a water-wall rising from the pilot, or when blinding clouds of snow obliterate every bush and bank, it is important that the engineer should know every object of the wayside. A person unaccustomed to the business, who rides on a locomotive tearing through the darkness on a stormy night, sees nothing around but a black chaos made fitfully awful, by the glare from the fire-box door. But even in the wildest tempest, when elemental strife drowns the noise of the engine, the experienced engineer attends to his duties calmly and collectedly. A cutting or embankment, a culvert or crossing, a tree or bush, is sufficient to mark the location; and every mile gives landmarks trifling to the uninitiated, but to the trained eye significant as a lighted signal. One indicates the place to shut off steam for a station, another tells that the train is approaching a stiff-pull grade; and the engine-men act on the knowledge imparted. And so the round of the work goes. Working and watching keep the train speeding on its journey. Nothing is left to chance or luck, every movement, every variation of speed, is the effect of an unseen control. As a stately ship glides on its voyage obedient as a thing of life to the turn of the Steersman's wheel; so the king of inland transportation, the locomotive, engine, the monarch of speed, the ideal of power in motion, pursues its way, annihilating space, binding nations into a harmonious unit, and all the time submissive to the lightest touch of the engineer's hand.

To get a freight train promptly over the road day after day, or night after night, an engineer must know the road intimately, not only marking the places where steam must be shut off for stations or grades, but every sag and rise must be engraved on his memory. Then he will be prepared to take advantage of slight descents to assist in getting him over short pulls, where, otherwise, he would lose speed; and the same knowledge will avail him to avoid breaking the train in two while passing over the short depressions in the track's alignment, called sags in the West.

With an engine properly fired, there is but little special preparation needed for closing up the trip without waste of fuel. The fire is regulated so that a head of steam will be retained sufficient to take the engine into the round-house after the fire-box is cleaned out. In drawing the fire, the blower should be used as sparingly as possible; for its blast rushes a volume of cold air through the flues, which is apt to start leaks. Many engineers find flues, or stay-bolts, which were dry at the end of one trip, leaking when the engine is taken out for the next run. In nine cases out of ten, the cause has been too much blower. So soon as the ash-pan is cleaned out, the dampers should be closed so that the fire-box and flues may cool dawn gradually.

Contents Page | Table of Contents

Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery